Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

American Horror Story: “Dark Cousin”

Illustration for article titled American Horror Story: “Dark Cousin”

There was a moment in the midst of “Dark Cousin,” just another typically wackadoo hour of American Horror Story, that I found almost unaccountably moving, in a very weird way. Sister Jude has been removed from Briarcliff. She’s collapsing into something very like madness. She sits alone at a diner, living off coffee and crackers, taking swigs from a bottle of whiskey. She heads into the restroom and contemplates taking a razor to her arms, ending it all. In fact, we actually see her do this, just the latest death fakeout in an episode that toys with killing seemingly every regular cast member. But, of course, it’s a brief sojourn into her brain, into the part of herself that really does want the release of death, craves it at some level. She emerges from the bathroom, head held as high as she can hold it in her current state, which is not very high.

And, of course, she sees the angel of death seated in her booth. What follows is a surprisingly powerful, well-acted scene between Jessica Lange and Frances Conroy (who plays that angel), a scene in which the angel is certain that Jude was finally ready to let go of all the pain she’s been hauling around lo these many years and embrace her inevitable end. “Never trust a drunk,” Jude spits out, and there’s a beautiful kind of defiance to the moment. In their own, looney tunes way, Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Tim Minear (who gets script credit for the episode) have come up with as perfect a metaphor for suicidal thoughts as I’ve seen. Here’s this angel of death who’s been stalking Jude so long that she already knows her quite well, can carry on a conversation with her. And here’s the steel in Jude’s spine that lets her stand up to this beast. It may be corroding, but damned if she’s going to go without a fight. As someone who’s known far too many people ravaged by depressive thoughts, I found this moment weirdly inspirational, even as it understood Jude’s spine was fleeting. She’d be right back in her drink soon enough.

That’s the best moment of “Dark Cousin,” an episode that’s a little all over the place but at least seems intent on moving forward, instead of confirming stuff we already know (as last episode did). If I have a complaint at this point in the season, it’s that I really have no idea what the story here is supposed to be anymore. That’s okay so long as the show offers up the crazycakes batshittery, but when we’re in the middle of a lull, it can grow a little irritating. In a series like this one, story and plot are the twin engines that make everything keep moving forward. Without them, the many aims of the different characters tug the show in so many different directions that it becomes a wonder it doesn’t fly apart. “Dark Cousin” is better in this regard than the previous episode, but mostly because it doesn’t look back and introduces several new elements to the pile, most notably that death angel.

There’s one choice here that completely doesn’t work for me. The sequence where Lana races from Thredson’s house, having successfully strangled him into unconsciousness with her chains is legitimately thrilling, particularly when he comes to sooner than expected, and she launches a ferocious kick that propels her out of his basement. There’s something animalistic to this, and it’s a moment of near-triumph for a character who’s been subjugated to the very worst tricks in the writers’ arsenal this season, in a way that’s broken her down enough that she’s seeing that angel of death. Naturally enough, Lana races out into the road, and the driver she gets into the car with just happens to be William Mapother, which is, of course, the absolute personification of “out of the frying pan and into the fire.” Things go about as well as you’d expect with Mr. Mapother, there’s a heavy-handed thing about how he hates women, too, and she eventually ends up in Briarcliff after he shoots himself while driving the car for no particular reason.

Look, I get that this is a wild and crazy show where weird shit happens. After all, when Kit breaks back into Briarcliff to rescue Grace, he’s followed by a mutant who’s apparently caught onto his trail via increased sense of smell. (I sort of respect the episode for not bothering to show how this all came to be and just cutting to Kit racing in, mutant hot on his tail like a dog chasing after a trail of sausages in an old cartoon.) And I’m totally fine with this! But launching this plot about Lana’s near escape being foiled by a one-scene character who mostly seems to be there to prove a thematic point, solely to get her back to Briarcliff so the story doesn’t resolve too quickly, is bullshit. I get that one of the big appeals of horror is giving brief bursts of adrenaline, where a character seems to be safe, only to find out they aren’t, but this was really ridiculous.

Fortunately, the rest of the episode was pretty good, even if it seemed to be steadily working to put back together the status quo after the “Anne Frank” two-parter so thoroughly broke it. The episode works as hard as it possibly can to get everybody back to Briarcliff—I think only Thredson and Jude aren’t in it by the end—and that’s a little disappointing on one level, but it’s also sort of thrilling to see the season’s consequences start to lock in. Take, for instance, poor, doomed Grace, who miraculously recovers from that strange hysterectomy Arden’s getting blamed for, only to die when she takes a bullet for Kit. (“Are you ready now?” the angel asks, before leaning down to kiss her and “free” her, in a genuinely chilling final image.) Here’s something that will finally shift that status quo, and even if I assume Lizzie Brochere will continue to pop up as a ghost or demon or something, it’s nice to see the show start to push things to the grim end we all assume is coming.


The series also started to lay out its metaphysical stakes in earnest in this episode, as both Jude and the death angel recognize the demon occupying Sister Mary Eunice. (The moment when the real Mary Eunice makes a brief appearance, crying in anguish for release, is a nice moment for Lily Rabe, who’s having fun with this part.) Ryan Murphy shows work best as grand pastiche most of the time, and this is some awfully grand pastiche, as we appear to be building toward some sort of battle between good and evil, dark and light, demons and angels, mutants and aliens. (Perhaps predictably, it’s the last I’m most excited to see.)

But it was the presence of that death angel that most intrigued me tonight. I liked how we could trace just how broken these people were by those who would break them by seeing if they could see the angel or not, as when Lana saw her in the rearview mirror and at once realized what was about to happen and that she would have this particular omen with her for the rest of her life. It’s rare for American Horror Story to be all that subtle about these things, but if you’re going to have a symbol of depression and death lurking around the edges of your show, why not Frances Conroy with giant black wings? Here’s the terror these people run from, even as they know it will catch them in the end. Here’s the real horror that stays hidden only a while before it strikes.


Grade: B for But who would get into a car with William Mapother anyway?

Stray observations:

  • My favorite line of the night was a very, very simple one: “I don’t believe in guns,” Thredson says, after offering to Lana the choice of being either sliced with a razor or strangled. Of course he doesn’t!
  • I wonder how much the demon inside of Mary Eunice—whom we may as well just start calling Pazuzu—knows about what’s going on with Thredson and some of the series’ other secrets.
  • In a moment I genuinely don’t know what to make of, Jude finds out that the girl she hit with her car all those years ago is still alive and a mother. But… but… the newspaper clippings? Or are we to assume the demon has a printing press lurking somewhere that it’s using to mock up these things? (Also, for you Carnivale fans out there, the girl's mother is played by Debra Christofferson, better known as Lila from that show.)