Ryan Murphy’s unnecessarily grandiose visions of a wholly interconnected American Horror Story universe have come to pass: The new season, American Horror Story: Apocalypse, will bring together the first and third seasons of the show for a new story that ties together those respective storylines. Like many people, you may have watched those installments, only to eventually decide that Murphy was just repeating himself ad nauseam, and stopped tuning in. Or perhaps you’ve been a fan of all his entertainingly weird stories and have hung in there long enough to see it get good again. (And bad again. And good again. Hakuna matata.) Either way, it’s been quite awhile since we last heard from any of those characters, so The A.V. Club has prepared a simple refresher course, to bring you back up to speed and prepare you for whatever insanity Apocalypse may have to offer.
Trying to discern the long-term narrative of a season of American Horror Story from its early installments is normally an exercise in futility. It usually starts as one thing, only to end somewhere completely different, often with everybody dead, and probably in a gratuitous bloodbath. (Last season’s election-themed Cult was a rare case of the series doing more or less what the first episode implied it would.) Apocalypse, based on its trailer, takes its subtitle quite literally: Humankind enters the nuclear apocalypse. It looks like the big one drops, wiping out most human life outside the walls of certain radiation-safe compounds. (Or at least one.) The characters offer up some talk about trying to restart society based on their own rules, and there’s the predictable mélange of wild imagery, sex, violence, and Kathy Bates saying, “Hail Satan.” So far, so nutso.
But it doesn’t take long before characters and sets from the first and third seasons start popping up. It appears much of the action will take place in the primary location from season three, Coven (how fitting that Sarah Paulson’s matriarch refers to the residence as “Outpost Three”), and—at least in the trailer—we get repeated looks at the Rubber Man from season one, Murder House. So while there’s plenty of gas-mask mayhem outside the compound, and new characters aplenty, there’s a lot to catch up on, if American Horror Story wants to derive any emotional value whatsoever from putting old characters and stories back into play. Here are the key plots and characters from those earlier seasons that may (or may not, god only knows with this show) be key to understanding the dynamics of Apocalypse.
A complete recap of the events of Murder House sounds ludicrous, like someone just cut and pasted random subplots from every single horror movie from the 1970s into a single narrative. So here’s the barebones summary: The Harmon family, Ben (Dylan McDermott), Vivien (Connie Britton), and Violet (Taissa Farmiga), move into an L.A. house that turns out to be a notorious haunted mansion, famed for a number of high-profile murders. Vivien is raped by the Rubber Man, a spirit she believed to be her husband in a latex suit but who was actually Tate Langdon (Evan Peters), the ghost of a dead school shooter. Vivien dies giving birth to two children—one stillborn, the other obliquely prophesied by a psychic (Sarah Paulson) to be the Antichrist who will bring about the end of the world. The family, all dead by the end of the season (save for the possible Antichrist child, who ends up being cared for by Jessica Lange’s creepy neighbor Constance), is doomed to eternal afterlife in the Murder House, where it serves to warn other unsuspecting people away from taking up residence in the deadly domicile.
We’ve already confirmed Britton’s and McDermott’s return to the series as the undead Harmons, along with Peters’ Tate, and the plot is supposedly centered around that Antichrist baby, all grown up and now played by The Assassination Of Gianni Versace actor Cody Fern. Additionally, Ryan Murphy even managed to lure Lange out of AHS retirement to reprise her role as Constance. (It’s worth noting that Constance mentions her relation to “the DeLongpres of Virginia,” given it’s also the last name of a former witch Supreme from Coven, Mimi DeLongpre.) There’s roughly 800 other aspects to that inaugural season, from the intriguing (an age-shifting maid played by Frances Conroy) to the ridiculous (the ghosts celebrate Christmas dinner), but presumably most of them won’t make the cut into Apocalypse.
There’s one who will, however: Paulson’s medium, Billie Dean Howard, has already reappeared in subsequent season Hotel, where she confronted the malevolent spirits residing in the Hotel Cortez as the host of a Lifetime reality series in which she communes with the dead. The actor has confirmed that she’ll be back as Howard for Apocalypse, along with her third-season character and a new one named Venerable. Not only is Howard back, but it’s increasingly looking like she’s the glue holding all of American Horror Story’s ostensibly interlocking seasons together. Here’s a video making explicit many of the connections between Howard’s season-one conversation and later installments:
There are additional connections to seasons in which she doesn’t appear, such as her claim she’s kept safe by “mystic white light”—referenced by a different psychic in Roanoke and Lily Rabe’s Misty Day in Coven. And since we’re referring to that third season...
While in some ways American Horror Story: Coven was the most stylish of all the seasons (arguably given a run for its money by Hotel), it was also a total mess, narratively. As we put it in our review of the finale, the season “didn’t have any fucking clue what it wanted to be. It lurched drunkenly from idea to idea, never settling on one long enough to build anything of worth... the weird use of magic meant that basically nothing had any meaning and that the dramatic stakes ended up being largely irrelevant.” So bringing it back for another go-around is an odd choice, at least on first glance. But there was a bunch of interesting stuff going on; it’s simply that none of it ended up being executed all that well, save for the usual terrific performances and eye-popping directorial flair.
Coven told the story of an academy for witches in New Orleans, run by Sarah Paulson’s Cordelia Foxx. It was a shadow of its former self, with only four students—former child star Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), human voodoo doll Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), clairvoyant Nan (Jamie Brewer), and newcomer Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga)—in residence under Foxx’s tutelage. When Cordelia’s mother, Fiona (Jessica Lange), the Supreme leader of the witches, returns looking for a way to become immortal and prevent a new Supreme from rising to take her place, she turns to longtime nemesis and voodoo practitioner Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) to help her, only to be rebuffed. In sort-of retaliation, Fiona brings back the long-buried woman who killed many of Marie’s friends and loved ones, racist Southern plantation owner Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), and presses her into service as a maid. After much mucking about and fights both external and internal (against a Minotaur, witch hunters, each other), the season ends with Fiona dying and Cordelia revealed as the new Supreme, though both Nan and Madison were seemingly killed (and resurrected, and killed again—remember the whole “zero narrative stakes” thing?) along the way. In the final minutes, we see the school is now flush with new students, as Queenie and Zoe help Cordelia to welcome a new generation of witches to the academy.
It’s not yet clear the degree to which Coven will play into the narrative of Apocalypse. Trailers make clear that Miss Robichaux’s Academy is now serving as “Outpost 3,” the safe haven from the supposed nuclear apocalypse that has laid waste to the outside world, and Cordelia still appears to be in charge, unless this is Paulson’s new character Venerable wearing a severe braid updo. Queenie was killed in an episode of Hotel, and there’s no explanation as to how dead Madison will return, though given how easy resurrection was that season, maybe someone will just snap their fingers and voilà. One theory suggests Cordelia and her witches may be the only thing standing in the way of the Antichrist’s apocalypse; others reason that perhaps the witches have made a literal deal with the devil. Either way, get ready for what will undoubtedly be a strong contender for the most bonkers season of American Horror Story yet. At least, until Ryan Murphy gets the budget to send his repertory players into outer space to fight an alien or whatever.