Thursday, November 8, 2012

American Horror Story: I Am Anne Frank Part 1 (2.4)

American Horror Story is beyond ordinary television. Not so much in terms of writing, but very much in terms of the sheer amount of ideas on offer and how we at home respond to them. On any other show, throwing so many elements into the pot would come off as overstuffed, especially when almost every episode jumps between all of these disorienting storylines at the same time. But watching this show is an experience in itself, since you're unable to just sit down and try and pick holes in it, instead you allow it to just wash over you. We're so used to this kind of storytelling now that it doesn't matter if random, batshit elements are occurring simultaneously -- it's the narrative equilibrium at its core, and it's like no other show around. Probably ever.

I bring this up because American Horror Story has the good fortune of airing a couple of days after 666 Park Avenue, another series with a fractured sensibility, characters separated on their own separate quests, each story drowning in genre spookiness. But while 666 struggles to make all the varying elements a cohesive whole, AHS has quickly settled into an appropriately disorienting groove. Everyone was split off here, but the sheer number of cool ideas in each story, as well as all the personal back-stories we're slowly discovering piece by piece, made it so radically different from any other episode this season... and all for the better.

Because this is American Horror Story, it's not all that surprising when a woman shows up claiming to be Anne Frank, and that Dr. Arden is a Nazi she once encountered in Auschwitz. There were strong parallels between both ideas this week; the Nazis experimenting on individuals they considered 'less than', and the similar pattern being followed at Briarcliff. Only Arden is explicitly experimenting (poor Shelley being turned into a kind of Frankenstein monster at the end here), but most corners of the asylum involve elaborate methods of treatment, figuratively pulling out these people's brains in order to 'fix' them.

Granted some time away from her hit-and-run guilt, I Am Anne Frank Part 1 allowed Sister Jude to return to traditional territory: her eagerness to get rid of Dr. Arden. Sure, she jumps on Anne's accusations primarily because it could take him out of the picture, but I still like to think that there's something good and decent about her as a person. Whether it was the pang of guilt she seemed to express back in Tricks and Treats, or her sexual urges towards the Monsignor, Jessica Lange continues to play this character as a bag of contradictions, faithful to the Lord but also able to see somebody's vulnerability, even in the most extreme of circumstances. Or at least that's what I'm hoping, anyway.

Dr. Thredson was a real enigma here, appearing to be one thing before swiftly becoming something else entirely. I think most of us are aware of the kind of aversion therapy he used with Lana, primarily when it's used to supposedly 'cure' homosexuality, but it didn't make it any less traumatic. I don't know if they actually went that far, particularly bringing in a naked man for the patient to masturbate to (that seems like a typical Ryan Murphy exaggeration -- I may be wrong), but it was naturally horrific. Thredson is tricky, though. When he first appears this week, he seems to be overly liberal in thinking, the kind of person to excuse a serial killer's behavior because of his bad home-life or whatever... but then he ends up doing these awful things to Lana. Only later he apologizes and promises to help get her out by the end of the week.

This is the kind of show that sort of forces you to guess and hypothesize stuff, but is it possible that Thredson is trying to make Lana fall in love with him? That instead of all this overt torture to get her to abandon her sexuality, he's going to try and do it through more insidious, emotional means? If he positions himself as her sole protector, maybe he thinks he could push her far enough to actually want him sexually? Of course this is all ridiculous, but I don't know if the doctors of the era may have thought it could work. Or I may be talking crazy.

Finally, Grace's backstory and the continued insight into Kit's sanity both pushed the question of what makes somebody certifiably insane, and whether being treated like a crazy-person for such a lengthy period of time could actually make you crazy. Kit is at the point where he's wondering if he actually did kill Alma and all those other victims, while Grace is revealed to have been incarcerated for arguably legit reasons, having butchered her father and stepmother years prior. Only you have to wonder if she's actually 'insane', her father having sexually abused her and her stepmother failing to believe her accusations. It's an obvious gray area. Sure, she cracked and horrifically killed people, but it's hard to say she wasn't somewhat entitled to do it after all that she had been through because of them. Oh God, did that read as horribly deranged? See what this show does? It makes you think you're crazy...

And again we return to the idea that this show is above and beyond anything at all regular. So much of American Horror Story shouldn't work, if we look at it through the lens of rules and sensibilities learned from other series out there, but it's hard not to get swept up in its flamboyant schizophrenia. So much of it is nuts, but the thematic resonance on offer lately, primarily the concept of madness and whether anybody really has the right to define it, is universally strong. A


- The Anne Frank idea was incredibly cool, especially her declaration that the Anne Frank 'persona' needed to "stay fifteen" in order for her diary to have any real effect on generations to come. I also liked her opinion of Briarcliff itself, and how the inmates have mostly resigned themselves to dying there. Like she says, at least she and her family had hope when they were placed in the middle of unimaginable horror.

- Sister Jude seems to have traded in one addiction for another. While she gave up the bottle (besides the set-back last week), she's dangerously reliant on the Monsignor and what she believes to be their future together. The Monsignor appears to be a kind man, at least around her, but has never exhibited that kind of co-dependency the way she has. Girl needs to step on up and move on already.

- Not a ton of Sister Mary Eunice this week, but Sister Jude's remark about her was the comedic highlight of the episode: "I don't know what's gotten into you, sister. But it's a decided improvement."

Guest stars
Chloƫ Sevigny (Shelley); Fredric Lehne (Frank McCann); Britne Oldford (Alma Walker); Joe Egender (Billy); Barbara Tarbuck (Mother Claudia); Matthew John Armstrong (Detective Byers); Joel McKinnon Miller (Detective Connors); Franka Potente (Anne Frank)
Writer Jessica Sharzer Director Michael Uppendahl


  1. Thanks for the review. I thought this episode was most likely the best of the season. I'm beginning to feel like I know the characters well and can keep up with all the different flashbacks and nuggets of information this episode gave us. I loved the backstory they gave Anne Frank, and particularily liked her character since she is the first patient to make a solid stand against the sadistic doctor. He deserved that bullet in the leg for sure! I find it interesting that Joseph Fiennes isn't just turning a blind eye to the doctor's atrocities, but is in fact in on it. Sister Jude seems to be the only member of the staff left with any sort of (warped) decency. I can see her character being redeemed by the end of the season and am rooting for her.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Miguel!

    Agreed that this was a real turnaround for most of the cast, Grace and Lana in particular becoming deeper as characters and far more intriguing.

    I didn't mention Joseph Fiennes' involvement with Dr. Arden, but only because it's not entirely confirmed just yet how far it goes. They obviously have a secret friendship of sorts, but it's a little early to assume that the Monsignor knows all about Arden's Frankenstein activities. Still a shady dude, though. Heh. And still calling him as Bloody Face.

    Thanks again.