Well! That was… hmm…
Actually, let’s open with the grade.
Grade: A/F for Absolutely Fascinating or Atrocious Flop
Scripted by Ryan Murphy and directed by Craig Zisk, “Continuum” essentially proves my old theory that the very worst grade is not so very far separated from the very best—like how you’ll hear some old political wags say that if you travel far enough to the right, you’ll end up back on the left and so on. Straight lines are rarely straight lines. Often enough, they’re circles that loop back around, and it’s perhaps fitting that an episode named “Continuum” would embrace all that’s wondrous and all that’s awful about this season of American Horror Story, occasionally within the same scene or line of dialogue. This is a horribly messy piece of work that somehow gets to the heart of madness, and it’s occasionally a starkly beautiful piece about survivor’s guilt. It’s also an episode of television where Ryan Murphy attempts to do his riff on Big Love, only one of the participants worships aliens. So… you know.
After last week’s weird experiments with moving the story forward and with pacing, this week abandons the usual AHS template altogether for something a bit more structurally daring. The episode splits roughly into three long “segments” (and I have no idea how FX bifurcated these for broadcast, because it would seem jarring to me to place ads anywhere but between the three segments). Each segment deals with a different survivor who’s made it this far into the season, showing how they’re coping with the events of what happened to them at Briarcliff. Kit is doing his best to keep a good face on things, but the unstable family setup he’s created is doomed to break apart. Jude has been renamed Betty and has descended into madness (which is quite effectively conveyed). Lana has just started lying, making up stuff to sell more books. (Okay, there’s a very small segment with Bloody Face, Jr., about which more in a bit.)
All of this reminds me of one of those bullshit “proofs” for Christ’s divinity that I heard often as a young lad growing up in a fundamentalist church. The idea goes that Christ was either telling the truth, he was a liar, or he was a madman. It then proceeds to say that no one would have followed him if he were a liar or madman (ignoring all historical evidence to the contrary), so he must have been telling the truth. And, really, that’s the way that believers in any sort of paranormal phenomenon, religion, or supernatural occurrence try to build their arguments. If somebody says they saw a ghost, or that the Loch Ness Monster stole their baby, or that the government was behind Sept. 11, well, it has to be one of the three, right? Is there some other sort of middle ground? A bunch of crazy shit went down at Briarfcliff. Sister Jude has descended into craziness. Lana has just started lying to keep herself sane. And Kit’s trying to tell the truth and still being punished for it.
The three segments each take place about a year apart (I think). They begin in domestic bliss and end up with the aftermath, with a son who vows to take vengeance on his mother for being such a shitty parent. Structurally, they’re fairly daring, starting out with some lovely images of a small home where three people are trying to make an unlikely domestic situation work, then descending further and further into horror. I don’t know that the episode needed the opening shot of Kit covered in blood, since this is that kind of show, and we already know where it’s going to go, but the episode’s structural trickery is often deft. In particular, I liked the way that a seemingly disjointed, disconnected story about Sister Jude realizing the death angel was her new roommate slowly unraveled itself to show that everything she was experiencing was the result of her own hallucinations. By firmly fixing the audience in Jude’s point of view for seemingly innocuous things—like the angel’s arrival as a street tough played by Frances Conroy (in what initially seems like one of the weirdest casting choices ever) to Pepper hanging out around the edges of the conversation—then strips away all of that so thoroughly that the audience is left with nothing to do but sympathize.
Look: I don’t really think this show works as horror. It rarely rises above the level of shock, schlock scares, but the sequence with Jude was as haunting and horrific as anything the show has ever done. For once, the series genuinely got under my skin and unsettled me in a way the show never has. I liked the way it used what we knew of the show to be true—like the way that Dr. Crump now sat in what had been Sister Jude’s office—against us, and I especially liked how it used editing to trick us. Sister Jude talks to the Monsignor at the top of the segment about how he’s going to get her out of there, and she’s thrilled to hear it. Seemingly a few days later, she’s called in to talk to Dr. Crump, who informs her the Monsignor has been gone for years. Who’s to say how much time elapsed in those cuts? Where the use of odd editing rhythms was a bit strained last week, the Sister Jude segment skillfully uses such tricks to keep the audience as in the dark as she is. By the time she’s grasping at whatever remains of her sanity, viewers are right there with her.
Sadly, the other two segments don’t really match up to the power of the Sister Jude one, though they definitely keep up with the American Horror Story tradition of overloading on the weirdness. I ended up sort of liking the tale of Kit, Alma, and Grace trying to have a happy little family in spite of myself, because it once again got at the way that a particular experience—in this case, Grace’s time among the aliens—can come to overwhelm the rest of your life, until those who love you find themselves grudgingly wishing it could just be over already. (Since this is American Horror Story, Alma takes an axe to Grace’s back.) Deep underneath its crazy surface, this season has featured several surprisingly poignant looks at mental illness, using visual grammar and symbolism to suggest how mental illness can overwhelm a life—my favorite remains Sister Jude knowing the Death Angel quite well. Here, we’re taken into the middle of Grace’s mania, until every drawing of an alien becomes a terror in and of itself.
The Lana segment, though, doesn’t really work. It’s trying to suggest, similarly, how her life keeps returning to Briarcliff, even though she’s not there (since she’s a television character trapped in an endless, sadistic loop). Her book about her time with Thredson has become a massive success, but she’s lost focus on her initial mission, and she’s never written the story that shut down Briarcliff that she originally intended to write. (Indeed, she plans her follow-up to Maniac to be a book about Lee Emerson’s general rampage across the Eastern Seaboard, which, God-willing, will be season three.) There are attempts at things here that will be as unsettling as Kit and Jude’s sequences, but they’re so self-evidently tricks—like Thredson standing up to ask questions at the book-signing—that it’s hard to get too worked up about them. And the less said about that final sequence with Bloody Face, Jr., despite it offering rampant opportunity for Dylan McDermott scenery chewing, the better. It was vile and cruel, and trying to hinge the questions of the finale on this little-seen character and his arc ends up feeling like a cheap way to try to get us to come back next week.
And yet there’s the fact that all of this piles on top of each other, that Murphy’s structural audacity isn’t quite enough to overcome the fact that, well, this is an episode of television that takes the idea of alien abduction quite seriously, even though the season proper hasn’t done as much with that idea as it might have. The Sister Jude segment works so very well because its centered on Briarcliff and the way it eats people away from the inside, which has been at the center of much of the season’s best work. The other stuff—the aliens, the mutants, the serial killers, the imprisonments—has been a bunch of weird little choices around the edges. But now that the characters are actually free of Briarcliff and trying to make their way out there in the world, that other stuff comes more to bear, and it becomes obvious just how much weaker it is than the season’s core. I’m leaning toward this episode being my second favorite of the season, but it comes so close to tipping over into outright awfulness that I can’t give it an unqualified recommendation. Let’s just say that it’s great, except when it’s atrocious, and that sometimes changes within a second or two.
- Line-readings for the ages: Any time Jessica Lange gets her mouth around the words “Dr. Crump,” it is a veritable feast.
- Evan Peters’ Massachusetts accent hasn’t seemed as broad to me in prior episodes as it was here. Also, what’s up with the whole march he was organizing? Was it a march for polygamists? Does he live in the world created after the end of Big Love?
- I kind of hope the season finale is just about the used bookstore owner watching as her livelihood is shut down beneath her, and then she turns to the camera and says, “The death of the middle class is the true American Horror Story,” and we cut to black, and next season is just about some guy trying to keep his camera shop open in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan.