It takes a bit, but “I Am Anne Frank, Part 2” hits a weird, operatic height somewhere in its last third, a height American Horror Story never hit before and a height I’ll be very surprised to see it hit again. Even last season’s excellent “Smoldering Children” doesn’t pull off this trick to this level of satisfaction. A really good episode of this show is like a track by the artist Girl Talk, whose sound collages assemble bits and pieces of other songs into new ones that are at once their own thing and recognizable as component parts. The fun of one of his mashups is the way that, say, a UGK verse will have its vocals interposed over the top of the organ riff from “Gimme Some Lovin’.” It’s something that could—and does!—fall apart, but when you’re in the middle of one of Girl Talk’s best moments, there’s nothing like it. It’s like your musical past and present rushing together into a giant wall. It needs to last forever; it’s over in five seconds.
Or, let’s turn this to television for a bit. One of the things that has always made The X-Files one of my favorite shows of all time is the way that it very, very slowly unravels almost everything that makes for classic horror. Starting from the idea of aliens abducting the innocent and performing awful experiments on them, the show moved on to other beasts and monsters, then took its time delving into the horrors of history, particularly in the mid-20th century. Broadly speaking, it was a series about how the rush to win the Cold War led the United States to pursue all sorts of awful things that would have shocked its populace had they not been hushed up for decades. The series took actual history, then turned the key one degree further.
Well, honestly, American Horror Story has pretty much done all of that in five episodes of television this season.
This is a work of grand madness, and I can’t help but love it on that level. I have no idea where the show goes from here—it probably needs to hit a reset button at some point, no?—and I’m always prepared for this show to head flying off on its own trajectory, a Hindenburg waiting to happen, but the last third of this episode might have been the most fun I’ve had watching television this year. And by “fun,” I mean that I was constantly agog at the show’s willingness to “go there,” to toss its characters into awful, horrifying situations, and then mostly play them straight. This is an episode that crosscuts between Sister Jude putting on her finest fashions to seduce a man in a bar and Dr. Arden giving “Anne Frank” a lobotomy that will return her to the faithful wife her husband wants. (Oh, yes: Her real name is Charlotte, and her husband is very much among us, claiming that she lost touch with reality and started claiming to be Anne after giving birth to their child.)
And that wasn’t the craziest bullshit this episode had to offer.
Grace was abducted by aliens and ran into Alma. Dr. Thredson framed Kit for Bloody Face’s murders, and of course he did, because he’s Bloody Face. For his part, Thredson lured Lana to his home, at which point, he opened his patented Sweeney Todd Floor Trap Door to send her rocketing down into his workshop o’ horrors, which looked a lot like the back room of a grocery store. This was where Lana confronted the frozen corpse of her former lover, and Clea DuVall realized that she thought her career trajectory had rebuilt itself after Argo, but she was mistaken. Dr. Arden was revealed to the audience—and the audience alone—to, indeed, be a Nazi. Shelley’s horrific, mutated body was discovered by schoolchildren, then hauled itself around like something out of Tod Browning’s Freaks. And Tio from Breaking Bad was the monsignor.
Phew. And I’m all but certain I forgot something momentous.
What’s amazing to me is the confidence with which the episode reels off these revelations, simply setting them up and knocking them down, as if this were always its plan. I’ll confess that while I was pretty sure Thredson was Bloody Face, I thought the season would take much longer to reveal this fact, and that it would be more blindingly obvious when he was revealed. Instead, the episode lays its cards on the table and lets the story proceed from here. The lesson AHS seems to have learned from last season is that mystery isn’t necessarily a worthy end in and of itself. As soon as it introduces a mystery, it introduces a variety of answers. And generally within a couple of weeks, it’s told us which of those answers is correct. There are plenty of drawbacks to the Ryan Murphy school of ADD storytelling. This is not one of them.
Look. Mystery in and of itself can be a lot of fun. I was a Lost fan, too. But too many of the shows that have followed in that series’ footsteps have turned mystery into the main course instead of a side ingredient that can enliven some of the dishes. What made Lost work was that all of the mysteries heightened the show’s characters and setting, with the elaborate mythology providing a greater sense of the Island and the people on it. Too many shows since then have thought that the mythology was the whole reason for the show’s success and have come up with elaborate backstories that simply didn’t matter. What American Horror Story understands in this season is that if you’re going to be a relentlessly plot-driven show, then the plot had better keep moving forward. Every episode of Asylum gobbles up huge amounts of plot (with the possible exception of the repetitive third episode), and that’s what makes it so fun to watch.
All of this brings us circling back to the idea that horror can be a way to exhume the past, to dig more deeply into the awful things we’ve done to each other in the name of science or God or whatever you’ve got. By placing the atrocities of the Holocaust or the ways that housewives were encouraged to follow certain, proscribed behaviors in this funhouse mirror, it becomes safer to consider the awful realities of what actually happened. This is, of course, pretty much Horror Studies 101, but American Horror Story restores the unsettling sense of dread these events should conjure up by speeding up the process. I mean, I don’t want to get too high-falutin’ about this. This is still an episode of television where Sarah Paulson eats a mint out of the top of a skull. But the confidence and the ease and the, yes, horror with which “I Am Anne Frank” has told its story is really something to behold. Wouldn’t it be something if we were all just watching this to see it fall apart, and then it turned out to actually be kind of good?
Grade: A for American Horror Story
- I can’t decide whether Grace’s trip aboard the alien spaceship—during which she was apparently impregnated, if I’m reading my alien abduction tropes correctly—or Shelley’s lurch up the stairs was the twist of lime in this elaborate horror Gin Rickey. I’m going to say it was the former, because there was that excellent shot of the alien reflected in Grace’s eyeball, and I still think the mutants feel incredibly grafted on.
- The direction in this episode, from longtime Ryan Murphy collaborator Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, was just exquisite. There were several moments where I was quite taken with the shots. In particular, I’m thinking of that long, unbroken take between the monsignor and Sister Jude, during which the camera roves about his room, picking up little details and hints that Sister Jude would miss, and the quick cuts as the patients take their medicine. Thredson and Lana’s escape was also expertly choreographed and shot. The direction keeps things moving along, in a very entertaining way.
- It seems that Arden’s actual name is “Hans Gruper,” which makes him one letter off the Die Hard villain. Not really sure what to think of that, much less a last name like “Gruper.”
- It’s always a pleasure to see Mark Margolis turn up, and even if he’s only in the one scene here, I have to assume we’ll get plenty more from him in the weeks to come.
- At least we won’t be finding out every week if Lana’s going to escape. On the other hand, now she’s going to be even further confined to one set. This would normally be sending off danger signals for me, but I just don’t care. I don’t care, I tells ya!