Recently, after reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I’ve finally gotten myself to finish Season 2 of American Horror Story. Compared to the first season (fan-dubbed “Murder House”), Asylum sure packs a punch. If you’re looking for a good, scary thriller, Asylum is the very definition of dark. Ryan Murphy arrives with fresh characters played by a familiar (yet utterly fantastic) cast, with a new storyline and setting, and what results is the best season of American’s favorite horror show.
Asylum contains an assortment of themes: religion in society, religion vs. science, Nature vs Nurture, oppression in society, and corrupt ambition. The setting is at an asylum, Briarcliff, in Massachusetts, run by nuns of the Church. The main plotline is the continuous hunt for the murderous, sociopathic killer Bloody Face, so named because he wears a bloody mask of a previously murdered human’s face over his own. Our hero, sapphic writer Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), is committed to the asylum (coincidentally, after attempting to infiltrate it to get a story on “Bloody Face’s” commitment) by her own girlfriend, as her sexuality at that time was not accepted in society, and was viewed as a sin.
There, she meets fellow innocent inmate Kit Walker (Evan Peters), committed because he is wrongfully believed to be Bloody Face. He also has his own share of societal problems: he is married to a black woman, who disappeared mysteriously (in reality, kidnapped by aliens) and caused the police to suspect Kit as the serial killer. Both are just tired of being ostracized by society and want to go home to pursue their individual dreams: Lana aspires to become a well-known writer, and Kit wants to have a normal life with a loving family.
The ward is run by Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes) and Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), who can be read, in the beginning, as the parallel of Nurse Ratched from ‘Cuckoo’s Nest. Both Howard and Sister Jude share in a wild ambition: Howard wishes to become Pope, with Jude at his side (unknown to the Monsignor, Jude harbors sexual attractions for him, a subtle symbol of the humanity hidden within her).
Strict with a no-nonsense attitude, Sister Jude canes patients and locks them up in unsanitary, prison-like rooms whenever the ward is out-of-order, overlooking the fact that her punishments are very inhumane. Monsignor Howard respects her and her authority, and foolishly allows for her to continue her tyrannic rule over Briarcliff. Jude and the ward’s doctor-slash-mad-scientist, Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), are locked in a bitter rivalry, one that represents the feud between religion and science; Dr. Arden in reality, however, is not much better than Sister Jude, as he enjoys performing scientific “experiments” upon the helpless patients.
Later, the Devil arrives at Briarcliff in the form of Jed Potter. After an exorcism that kills the boy, the Devil jumps into a Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), a young nun, seizing her purity and innocence. Sister Jude, along with the rest of Briarcliff, eventually begins to crumble under the Devil’s hand.
Meanwhile, psychiatrist Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto) is called to examine Kit Walker (still perceived as Bloody Face). Though he claims to be only trying to help Kit to deal with his “insanity,” he has his own motives: he is the real Bloody Face, and is trying to get Kit to record a false confession to frame him for the murders he committed himself. He also takes Lana Winters under his wing, promising to get her out once he has the tape, and to also help “cure” her of her sexuality by means of conversion therapy.
However, he sees a potential in Lana as his next mother, and takes her back to his apartment so she can stay to take care of him. He reveals to her, after she finds out his true identity, that his motive was to find a perfect mother to replace the one he never had– all his previous candidates, however, were inadequate, and thus he was “forced” to skin and kill them. Thredson believes that Lana is “the one.”
After a bitter struggle, Lana escapes Thredson’s place but is eventually returned to Briarcliff. Sister Mary Eunice-slash-the-Devil is now the new head of Briarcliff hires Thredson as a permanent psychiatrist of the ward to add salt to Lana’s new wound. Knowing that Lana, as well as her ally Kit, knew about his secret he sets out to find and destroy the evidence they recorded and to kill them both. The Devil informs Lana that she has fallen pregnant with Thredson’s baby, a result of the shared time in the apartment.
The Devil also preys on Sister Jude, eventually usurping her authority of the ward and having her committed as a permanent patient herself. From her fall back towards humanity, Sister Jude is stripped of her title and becomes Judy Martin once again. As a patient, she begins to see the horrors of Briarcliff, and the insanity of society itself. She begins to sympathize with Lana and Kit, admiring their strength and preservation against the pain dealt upon them by the ward (which she once administered herself).
Lana is finally released from Briarcliff after Supreme Mother Claudia of the Church visits and realizes her innocence. From there she proceeds to reveal Oliver Thredson (whom she shoots before the police actually catch him) to the world, and writes about her time in the mental institution, effectively shutting it down. Kit Walker’s wife returns, though she is committed to Briarcliff after killing his second lover, former fellow inmate Grace Bertrand (Lizzie Brocheré) after an argument about the aliens. Though Lana tries to get Judy out of Briarcliff, she is informed that Judy has died.
Kit Walker, however, finds out that Judy is in fact not dead– she has been living under a different name, her previous identity forcefully wiped out by a death certificate. He takes her home, and allows her to become a nanny to his children. Lana reunites with Kit after Judy’s death and they reflect upon their different lives– Kit is now married a third time, and his kids are successful in their adulthood, while Lana is a famous reporter, caught up in the life of a respected celebrity. Through hardship and struggle, they have both achieved their dreams.
However, Lana has a secret: her son by Thredson has survived, despite her attempts to abort him. Unknowingly, she has repeated Thredson’s history with her own child, abandoning him and leaving him craving for a mother-figure in his life. Consequently, Johnny (Dylan McDermott) follows in his father’s footsteps as the current Bloody Face, to finish what Thredson didn’t: killing Lana. In an emotional encounter between mother and son, Lana apologizes for her actions and kills Johnny herself.
Murphy reveals how people struggle to fit into the box that is society’s norms, and what happens to those that refuse, or can’t. It is seen in Briarcliff, a microcosm for society, that forceful purification of people demoralizes the community as a whole; in attempting to cure the patients, the Church itself has become sinful for its barbaric practices. If there wasn’t so much selfishness and hate in the world, then it would be a much more peaceful, pure place. Unfortunately, sins are what differentiates humans from God. We are reminded, however, that what counts as a sin is strictly up to debate.
My favorite characters by far are Lana Winters and Sister Jude. Both grow and develop fantastically. However, I did hate both of them at first– both were rude and snappy towards others, but as I watched, I realized that it was a very human response; both were going through a lot of pain and misery, hiding their identities from a judgmental society that ostracized them. Despite them being enemies in the beginning, the two women have a lot in common. I highly admire Lana’s strength, which she retains even as it seems as if the entire world is against her. Sister Jude, too, is a wonderful character, and finally becomes sane after turning insane; it just goes to show how conformity to society can blind people.
Although I can only call the plotline of Asylum mediocre, with dead ends and random bits inserted here and there, its character development and themes are what make this season the best of American Horror Story. For only thirteen episodes, Asylum sure contains an impressive amount of content. I thoroughly enjoyed watching this season. With a fantastic writer and a fantastic cast, Asylum is a must-watch for all those who like horror, thriller, and complexity in a TV show.