Sunday, November 18, 2012

American Horror Story: I Am Anne Frank Part 2 (2.5)

American Horror Story's first season sometimes awkwardly meshed together spooky campiness with emotional drama, the show struggling to fully embrace the themes of family and infidelity that seemed to only surface when the writers remembered that they were there. Instead, we got a lot of aggressive horror; blood and intestines all over the place, and character-driven drama sometimes left on the back-burner. All of that is something that has seemingly been acknowledged this season, Asylum intent on tying both sensibilities together in a far more cohesive structure. The horror is still elaborate and chilling (Part 2 is arguably the nastiest, scariest episode in show history), but the characterization is bringing the season to a whole separate level of wonder. It's become a series where fully developed characters are experiencing horrible things, instead of a show about horrible things freaking out a shallow ensemble.

So where do you begin with this? I don't know if it's the involvement of Tim Minear, James Wong and a host of writers not regularly found in the Ryan Murphy wheelhouse that's making this show so cohesive, but Asylum has really managed to strike a balance between an array of varying subplots. Compare it to Glee, in which any random episode can feature up to four or five separate stories that appear here and there with little rhythm or context, all of it generally amounting to a tonally-schizophrenic car wreck. Asylum continues to bounce between various stories, but it never feels frustrating as a result. If anything, it's developed a patchwork sensibility that fully conveys a grand universe of horror. It's some achievement.

Part of the success comes from every story being anchored by a singular relationship. Some of the strongest scenes last year involved two characters merely going at it, whether it was Constance being all spooky with Vivien, or Ben and his porny perception of Moira, or Constance's hilarious snipe-fest with bitchy queen Chad. Asylum has capitalized on that, pairing characters off repeatedly. So you have Sister Jude's continued antagonism with Arden, as well as Kit and Grace trying so desperately to be together and escape their incarceration, and now Lana's partnership with Thredson, which here turns into unimaginable terror. Every one of these relationships is being explored in vivid detail, all of them successfully existing in extremes -- whether it's Kit and Grace and their romantic longing, or Jude and Arden's festering hatred. But you care so much, it being hard to not get swept up in their exchanges of dialogue and the turns of events that inspire entirely different perspectives on their scenes.

Jessica Lange had her big Emmy moment this week. Can anybody watch her squirrel monologue and not scream awards-bait? But Lange owns it regardless, Sister Jude experiencing a lengthy crisis of faith. She's a character so devoutly religious, but also resentful of the way God has seemingly abandoned her. He's never listened to her, and he's never allowed her to catch a damn break, but she still has that devotion to him. It's a complex idea, another addiction Sister Jude struggles to handle. In the end she embraces the darkness, abandoning her habit, getting dressed up and hitting a bar, where she has sex and boozes and escapes it all for one night. We feel you, girl.

Then there's Bloody Face. Ugh. On a personal level, I just can't with Ed Gein. That whole thing is so aggressively horrible to me, that as soon as Lana glimpsed the weird nipple lampshade I could have barfed right then and there. And reading post-episode interviews imply that this story is going to be around for a while, which... eep. Lana represents the only real innocent this season that hasn't yet been entirely victimized, since even her aversion therapy last week seemed to be on her terms in one way or another. But here her trust and loyalty is betrayed in a horrifying fashion. Her scene in Thredson's home is a marvelous example of a subtle ratcheting up of tension -- the close-up shots are agonizing, Lana noticing how strange the lamp is, and then glimpsing the mint bowl that seems to be some kind of kneecap or whatever. And then she starts piecing everything together, and Sarah Paulson has that lightbulb moment and adopts the most gloriously "oh, fuck" face you'll ever see.

I guess Zachary Quinto has been perfect casting this year. I don't know if it's just me, but even in light of his work on Heroes, Quinto just radiates this innate goodness, like you'd totally buy what he'd be selling regardless of it lacking in any real weight. And, like Lana, I really did trust his good intentions. But Quinto is a fantastic actor, somebody who can turn on a dime and be entirely legit with it. You buy him as a savior, but you also buy him as a psychopath with a penchant for skin. Uggghhh. I can't with this story, and I'm terrified of where it's headed, but the scenes here are arguably some of the very best examples of AHS horror. Oh, God, the trapdoor! Yeesh.

I should also mention that this week's direction is spectacular. I've never thought American Horror Story was a particularly visual show (I really struggle to find notable images to screencap for these reviews, especially last year), but the recent imagery and particularly Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's direction has been radically different. Whether it's the repeated use of those fish-bowl POV shots, frequently used whenever characters are confronting one another, or the gorgeous visual lyricism of Kit and Grace imagining that they're touching each other through the walls of solitary, this is evocative imagery straight out of the movies. There are ideas here, the Brown family flashbacks looking scratchy and home-movie-ish, like something out of Capturing the Friedmans, while everything in Briarcliff is so dark and depressing that the sudden pops of color, be it the sight of children playing in a school yard or Sister Jude in her automobile, appear even more irresistible.

I Am Anne Frank Part 2 is so far the very pinnacle of American Horror Story. The very best episodes of this show have up till now been great in spite of their wacky campiness, but Part 2 is legitimately great television, textured and intriguing, while simultaneously smart and spellbinding. This show continues to reach new heights. A+


- So what is madness? Anne Frank wasn't Anne Frank, instead an unbalanced housewife named Charlotte Brown, but there were facets to her that proved legit: she knew when evil was around her and correctly linked Dr. Arden with Hans Gruber. But she also needed a lot of help to try and source where her problems lay. Instead, being 1964, she's lobotomized, because it's a quick, ghoulish fix. It's a story that feeds into Asylum's overriding themes, particularly the notion of how we help others and how we classify insanity, but also works as a purely emotional subplot. That poor lady, having her entire being ripped out of her because it's so much easier than actually examining her real issues.

- Grace got abducted by aliens, glimpsed Alma, and seemed to experience some kind of hysterectomy? Of everything this season, I'm most unsure of where this story is headed and whether it'll ever entirely fuse together successfully with the rest of Asylum, but I'm still really digging it. Even if, like everything, it's becoming increasingly more ghoulish as weeks go by.

- So I was wrong about the Monsignor and my suspicion that he was Bloody Face. But it still leaves him a question mark. He didn't appear this week, either, and I wonder if his only purpose is as a side-character to Dr. Arden -- hopefully next episode will examine their partnership, or whatever kind of relationship they seem to have.

Guest stars
Chloë Sevigny (Shelley); Fredric Lehne (Frank McCann); Britne Oldford (Alma Walker); Mark Margolis (Sam Goodman); David Chisum (Jim Brown); Matthew John Armstrong (Detective Byers); Joel McKinnon Miller (Detective Connors); Franka Potente (Anne Frank/Charlotte Brown)
Writer Brad Falchuk Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon


  1. I'm just pissed with what's been going on with Chloë Sevigny's character. She went from one-note horny to spilling her entire backstory in one big info dump to now just being used for 5 second gross-outs each episode. The writers clearly have no respect for the actress or character. It's a joke.

    I continue to not care about Grace because I think she has zero charisma. That sticks out especially on a show like AHS, with the likes of Jessica Lange, James Cromwell, Zachary Quinto, etc. (even Evan Peters immediately sucks attention right to him). And anyway, it's hard to be intrigued by the alien subplot as well because they give us just about nothing to go on. We have no idea what's happening with it or what it's connected to because they've been holding out for their big reveal. Which is pretty much what they do with every plot, really. Look at the Thredson twist. You can guess what's going on and who's who on this show by throwing darts on a wall but very rarely by prediction through subtle foreshadowing.

    Subtle, what am I saying. This is American Horror Story.

  2. Heh. I don't know if this is ever the kind of show to go to for subtlety, but I agree that it could be argued that they've wasted Chloe Sevigny. I was hoping she'd have a little more to play with, especially over these last two episodes, but I guess they were going for shock and awe rather than anything deeper.

    But I haven't got any other problems right now, especially in relation to the alien stuff or Grace as a character. I think she's probably the least interesting of the ensemble, but I'm not actively disliking her or anything.

    Always interesting to hear the views of others, regardless, so thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. It's funny, I never managed to get past the fourth episode of series one, and yet Asylum has absolutely won me over. For some reason I'm not even expecting it to be coherent, so quite happy to go with the crazy flow for once - but the point is that you do care about the characters, and I always find at least five things each episode that are imaginatively squicky or entertainingly insane. And such a great cast..!

    Last episode my favourite line was Jude spitting out the words 'murder baby' and in part 2 it probably had to be Lana's 'So... you make furniture?' I may actually have been squeaking at the TV by the time the trapdoor happened! But hey, you can't ask for more than getting caught up in a show like this (and thoroughly creeped/grossed out. Quite a lot.)

  4. Thanks for finding the site and reading and commenting, heh. Agreed with everything you wrote. I liked season one a lot, but Asylum is just head and shoulders above it in terms of characterization, themes and general entertainment.

    So many great lines, too! Love the "murder baby" bit, and Arden's classic "mossy bank" thing. Hee!

    Thanks, jencat.

  5. Terrific episode and superb review!
    So, you didn't call Bloody Face correctly, but on the other hand you kind of did. I had my suspicions about Thredson from the second episode, but only because you had pointed out that it had to be a minor character. So, it was either the monsignor or Thredson. Therefor, you - kind of - called it.

    By the way - what is Bloody face using to kill his victims? Is it one of those needle-thingies that Arden used to lobotomize Anne/Charlotte?

  6. You're far too complimentary with that, heh. But, yeah, it's usually somebody who doesn't have a ton to do in these kinds of things.

    And I haven't actually looked too closely at the weapon he uses. I just assumed it was a big scary slicey knife thing?