Obviously, not every episode of American Horror Story can be one of the two episodes making up the “I Am Anne Frank” saga. If that were the case, strange antennae would begin sprouting from television sets across the country, and Ryan Murphy would gain the ability to enter all of our brains and control them, like the Riddler in Batman Forever. Soon, you’d be dancing away to a Ke$ha cover performed by 5,000 perky teenagers, and in the back of your head, the one place Murphy couldn’t see, you’d say, “Oh, hey, I knew I shouldn’t have watched that American Horror Story thing!” Then you’d smile and clap and do some jazz hands, as your master commandeth!
No, what’s disappointing is that “The Origins Of Monstrosity” is a dull and listless episode. It’s easily the most boring episode this season, and it spends lots of time offering origin stories for characters who either already had them or didn’t particularly need them. Is it necessary to know that Bloody Face became the way he is because he lacked a mother’s love, then came upon the absolute perfect corpse in medical school? I’m not sure it is! There’s a possibility that if this flashback had been artfully threaded throughout the episode it would have worked, but instead, the episode just stops dead in its tracks for a while so that Thredson can explain to us why he’s crazy, like the good Bond villain he is. The twist that he wants Lana to be his mommy—and that she was eventually willing to go along with it to keep her life—wasn’t bad, but there was a lot of tough going to get there, and it wasn’t worth stopping the story’s momentum. This is a show that thrives on momentum, and once it starts turning into the psychologist’s explanation from Psycho, I start looking for other stuff to do.
Perhaps improbably, Bloody Face’s origin story wasn’t the only one explored here. We also got a good deal of time with Dr. Arden, learning just why he’s creating his mutant population—he thinks that if he can do so, America will have a natural leg up when the Soviets start nuking us—and why the church seems to tolerate it. We got confirmation all over again that he really was the Nazi war criminal “Anne” accused him of being. It was a big episode for Arden knowledge, but most of it was answering questions I didn’t realize were questions or handling stuff the audience already knew. If there’s one thing this show should know by now, it’s that James Cromwell cannot survive on overripe monologues alone. He needs some horrendously silly back-and-forth with the other characters to really sink his teeth into. We didn’t get much of that here, and I’ll count that as a missed opportunity.
The episode also offered backstories for Sister Mary Eunice, as we learned that she was incredibly ashamed when she went to a pool party and was tricked into swimming nude, which prompted her to become a nun or whatever, but now that she’s possessed by the devil, she doesn’t care as much as she once did. Blah. We also hung out with a little girl who’s apparently eeeeeeevil, because somebody on the writing staff saw The Bad Seed and realized a murderous child hasn’t been incorporated into the show just yet. As it turns out, she most likely murdered her friend, Joanie (the demon seems pretty clear on this point), and now she’s confined to Briarcliff, where I’m sure she’ll be doing spooky things to come. Honestly, evil kid might be a bridge too far for me, in terms of the show piling an endless array of horror tropes on top of each other. I’m fine with aliens and mutants, thanks.
Here’s the problem: Talking about American Horror Story at its best usually involves the show having several crazy developments that are hard to take seriously, but that are pure joy to take on the camp level they’re intended. I mean, sure, we could sit here and parse out just what it means that Sister Jude has a new job in Pittsburgh, thanks to the church, but we all know Jessica Lange isn’t going down until she’s exorcised at least one demon and cooked at least one delicious Bundt cake. Or we could talk about Kit’s too-brief call to Thredson, or Lana’s decision to play the role of his mother, or whatever you want. But not a single one of these things really feels like the sort of bizarre majesty that this show had been conjuring on a weekly basis before this point. There’s always a bit of an “Emperor’s New Clothes” phenomenon to American Horror Story, where the show removes its robe with each episode, only to reveal that it’s either wearing nothing or 100 strategically placed weasels, hanging from its skin by their little razor-sharp teeth. Tonight was too sane, logical, and safe. It definitely skewed toward the former side of that continuum.
Look: Part of this might just be that the show is coming off an incredible high, and it was never going to match that. I get that. I do. It needed to ramp things down just a bit so it could build them back up again. But “Monstrosity” was so mundane and easy that it almost became predictable. And that’s dangerous for this show. The horror mash-up that makes up the show’s central device can be fun when deployed artfully, but this episode more or less just kept tossing straight-up rip-offs at us, shrugging at every turn. “Here’s an evil kid! And here’s the ‘dark’ explanation for Arden’s secrets! Enjoy! Or not!” the show seems to be saying. If this episode had arrived in a few weeks, it would have been disappointing; arriving immediately after the highpoint of the entire series, it mostly just made me roll my eyes. Plus, the episode killed off Mark Margolis! What were they thinking? (And if he’s somehow alive next week, I’m going to call serious bullshit.)
Asylum would really like to delve into the depths of the human psyche, and in some cases, it’s done so surprisingly well. But in this episode, it mostly just punts the ball down the field. Making Bloody Face’s issues all stem from mother issues was far too easy, and it reduced a potentially fascinating villain to a collection of psychological tics. At its best this season, American Horror Story has entertained, enthralled, and unnerved me. “Origins Of Monstrosity” didn’t do any of those things, so it returns me to a place where I doubted this show had it in it to become genuinely good. Here’s hoping “Monstrosity” is just a weird, pre-Thanksgiving lull.
Grade: C for Clean cut skin
- We returned to the present day again to discover that Bloody Face—who’s remarkably spry for an old dude—had strung up lots and lots of his victims. It took the police a while, but they soon figured out that Jenna Dewan-Tatum had been hauled back to Bloody Face’s lair. Here’s a more important question: Why should we care about any of this? (And was that the dulcet voice of Dylan McDermott I heard on the other end of the phone? Or am I hallucinating things again? He does sound remarkably like Zachary Quinto.)
- Kit. Poor, stupid Kit. Thinking you can somehow sweet talk Thredson into letting you out. No, it’s going to take you much more than that. You’re in prison now, friend!
- Happy Thanksgiving, everybody! I’d hoped to do something special again, like with last year’s “Rubber Man” review, but then this was just thoroughly disappointing in every way. Maybe next week! Or the Christmas episode! Oooh, yeah. The Christmas episode!