I spent a lot of time last season comparing American Horror Story to Lost, because the show’s fascination with stringing out a constant stream of backstory and mythology struck me as that earlier series’ most logical successor. It might not all make sense, but the sheer amount of secrets and stuff the show kept throwing at the audience was a lot of fun just to try and keep up with. Now, ultimately, American Horror Story proved itself uniquely uninterested in coming up with elaborate mysteries; most of the big mysteries viewers thought existed last season were ones we were coming up with in our heads. The most obvious answer usually turned out to be the correct one, and all of the backstory and history and mythology on the show turned out to be just a continual look at the various things that fascinate Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk.
Honestly, this isn’t a bad thing. If there’s a person on Earth whose brain I wouldn’t mind hanging out in for a few hours, it’s probably Ryan Murphy’s. I’d almost certainly find several things that downright horrified me, and I’d probably be disappointed by how much of it was taken up by, like, grocery shopping lists, but I suspect Murphy has a great love for eclecticism, for random facts and stories that are interesting, regardless of whether they fit comfortably into one of his narratives or not. He’s the sort of guy who reads a weird blog post at 4 in the morning and has to work it into his next episode, because everyone in America must know that Chester Arthur was known as “the Gentleman Boss.” (And, incidentally, making Chester Arthur the villain of season three? That one’s on me, Ryan. You can totally have it. The man was known for his fancy suits!) There’s so much stuff going on in there that it’s fun to just hang out and be assaulted by things that come up out of nowhere.
Like, let’s say, the Holocaust! Sure! Whatever! Let’s try to work one of the great evils of human history into a story about Catholics running an asylum in the ’60s! I can see where this would start to feel like too much, where it would seem like that never-ending assault of new story points, but when Franka Potente shouted that she was Anne Frank, whatever. I was just glad Sarah Paulson wasn’t trying to escape from Briarcliff for the third week in a row.
Tonight’s episode is so entertaining largely because it abandons story entirely. If you were going to ask me to give a “plot summary” of this episode, I couldn’t do it. It’s mostly concerned with a constant stream of information and weirdness, rather than trying to fit it into some sort of coherent narrative. If there’s a throughline, it probably has something to do with Anne’s angry accusations that Dr. Arden is a Nazi war criminal whose real name is Hans Gruber (because of course he is). That, or it has to do with Dr. Thredson attempting to cure Lana’s homosexuality via aversion therapy. Yet both of these things are so flimsy as to not really be stories at all. As always, their major purpose is to contribute to the growing tapestry of batshittery that is whatever’s going on this season.
And let me be clear here: When the show is focused on weird shit and exposing secrets, as opposed to trying to endlessly repeat itself on various points (like Sister Jude’s tragic past or how the wrongfully imprisoned patients are going to escape), it’s so much better than when it’s trying to tell a story. I can’t think of another show on TV where this is the case. Usually, abandoning story entirely is the worst possible thing, but I suspect that the collective brain of this series’ writers’ room is so eclectic and all-over-the-place that it’s almost more fun to hang out and see what it comes up with than hope it’ll settle down and tell a coherent story. And, yes, this is all more settled down and in a stronger groove than season one was, and it feels like everything is better-thought-out than it was last year (and all of the usual arguments I’ve been making), but this is still a show where the episode ended with Shelly being revealed to be the latest horror created by Arden’s experiments, and it’s still a show that dropped in Anne Frank—the real Anne Frank, perhaps!—out of nowhere because, hey, why not? American Horror Story doesn’t just play by different rules from other shows on TV; it looks at the rules it’s established, crumples them up, eats them, then belches with a supremely self-satisfied expression on its face.
So tonight was devoted to exposing the secret secrets at the heart of Briarcliff, as we learn that Grace is in the place for having killed her stepmother and father with an ax, both because her father molested her as a child on a story level and because somebody in the writers’ room read something about Lizzie Borden on another level. I was fairly satisfied with this reveal, because it keeps Grace sympathetic, while also allowing for the fact that at least some of the characters we’re following around have to be people who’ve done things that would be labeled as criminally insane. Having Grace be a murderer who’s not sorry about what she’s done makes her that much more of an interesting character, and it enlivens her relationship with Kit, which finally turns sexual tonight. (I say “finally” as if this were the 14th episode and not the fourth!)
I was also impressed with the handling of the “aversion therapy” storyline. I’m not going to call it “subtle,” but that was where I wanted to go at first. No, I think this storyline does a good job of depicting treatments for homosexuals in a bygone era without having too heavy of a hand. A heavy hand is a frequent failing of a Murphy/Falchuk production, but here, they trust their audience to understand that what’s being done to Lana—being drugged so she’ll have nauseous reactions to the sight of half-naked women—is horrifying without underlining how horrifying it is. There’s no oversell, and the moment when the slides flip over to the image of Lana’s girlfriend, who betrayed her, and Lana stares for a long moment before asking to be made nauseous at the sight of the woman she once loved. The episode lets Paulson sell all of this, and it’s the right choice. It even makes the bit where a naked guy comes in and she’s unable to force herself to be attracted to him feel that much less over-the-top.
All of this is helped by the fact that Lana’s just a solid character, one who’s won over the audience’s sympathies without trying too hard. I haven’t been a huge fan of Paulson in other things, but this show is using her occasional brittleness and opacity very well. Lana’s someone who has to keep pieces of herself sequestered, lest her secrets be exposed in public or lest she let her human emotion interfere with her reporting. She’s got a firm goal that keeps her moving in that she wants to write her big exposé, but the longer she stays in Briarcliff, the more the place seems to seep into her. More and more, this season is the story of Lana, and the more that’s the case, the better the show is.
Grade: A- for ass. (And also genuine quality.)
- So that “Dr. Arden isn’t all that bad and is just another facet of the season’s examination of what we consider sexual immorality” theory was pretty terrible, huh? Now that he’s a Nazi war criminal and all? I feel like Dick Morris right now, you guys.
- Man-ass alert: Copious amounts of man-ass. I hope you all enjoyed.
- Kit tries to come to terms with what he did, but the more he tries to remember killing his wife, the less he can. Plus, it seems he’s been reinfected by the alien thingamabug, but the show mostly just drops this plot point as soon as it establishes it.
- Joseph Fiennes and James Cromwell are in league together. I knew it. (I did not actually know this.)
- The Anne Frank plotline—which involves her surviving Auschwitz, where she got to know the younger Hans Gruber (played by a very convincing young James Cromwell stand-in), then moving to the U.S. when she married a young G.I. and ending up in Briarcliff after killing someone for making an anti-Semitic slur—is so goddamned goofy I don’t know what to make of it just yet. But don’t worry! We’ll get more next week!
- “You purposely tried to make a murder baby.” I hope, hope, hope I heard this line right. My screener was a little fuzzy at that point, but if that’s what Jessica Lange was saying, it’s an American Horror Story line for the ages.
- “Try to relate the pleasure you’re feeling to his tumescence!” Good advice for all of us, Dr. Thredson. Good advice.