Monday, December 10, 2012

American Horror Story: Unholy Night (2.8)

There's a reason why so many esteemed actors gravitate towards this show, and it's probably because it's one of the few places in which grandiose, theatrical acting is heavily pursued. Unholy Night sees Ian McShane guest starring as a deranged Santa Clause, and what saves the story from becoming just another of those direct-to-video holiday horror schlock-fests is that very same sense of theatricality. McShane chews the scenery here, snarling and wildly overplaying his character, but in the same sort of way that Jessica Lange did last year with Constance. It's very broad and comedic, but stinging with intelligence and occasional levity. I remember wondering a lot last season why actors like Lange and Frances Conroy were on a show where sleazy Persians had their penises chewed off, but now I sort of get it. There's that, but for an actor there's also so much additional opportunity here.

While this isn't officially a two-parter, Unholy Night really felt like the first segment of a two-hour episode, each storyline building to a cliffhanger ending of sorts. But there were still moments of striking intensity this week, as much as the half-done quality to a lot of it probably won't make this episode stick in your mind once the season wraps up. I should probably quit praising Lily Rabe because I'm sure it's gotten old already, but she continues to be fantastic this season. Her fluctuating tête-à-tête with Dr. Arden has been one of the more sexually dysfunctional dynamics in Asylum, even more so following Mary Eunice's possession. But here the show really exploited the fact that both parties are impossible to totally read.

Rabe is making her character so manic and frazzled that you never entirely know whether she's totally in control of matters or merely making things up as she goes along. It's a beautifully assured performance, Mary Eunice just as believable when she's almost hypnotized by a pair of ruby earrings or putting the finishing touches on an elaborate Christmas tree as she is scared or victimized by powerful forces beyond her control. James Cromwell is the same. Am I just really stupid for actually believing Arden's intentions for much of this episode? In spite of everything we've seen him do and his whole history? Because he really won me over, making me think that he actually wants to help Sister Jude and exorcise the demon inside of Mary Eunice. But, nope. Dude is really just the worst person ever.

Sister Jude continues to travel down this interesting road, but I don't know how to feel about the fact that she seems to have gotten even more religious following her hit-and-run discovery last week. She claims that she's now on a mission from God, and has to save Mary Eunice and once again seize control of Briarcliff to prove her worth as a key member of God's army. It's all nuts, naturally, but I guess I was kind of hoping part of Jude's season-long victory would involve her breaking free of the church. That could still happen, of course, but in some ways she's just as lost as she was a couple of weeks ago, merely supplementing one co-dependent relationship for another.

Everything else this week was fun, if a little fractured considering most of it will be followed up next episode. I loved the flashback to Ian McShane's holiday rampage years prior, along with the strong character work given to security dude Frank (so long, buddy). Kit and Lana's partnership returns to the track we all expected things to go down back when the season first began, but the interim hysterics have at least made me more than eager for them to get out alive. Both characters have gone through so much that it's hard to see them experience even more misery. And then you remember that Lana is probably totes pregnant and you just feel depressed all over again.

The only issues created by Unholy Night are superficial ones, more that everything is building to next week and less about what's happening here, but the Christmas atmosphere and abject misery being dumped on everyone helped create another intense episode that seemed even more tonally unbalanced than normal but never exactly suffered because of it. Is it weird that it actually got me real festive? It was like the holiday season officially began as soon as Sister Mary Eunice threw on Here Comes Santa Claus... B+


- I said it last week, but they need to start tying the alien element tighter to the rest of the show. We're only getting these jarring flashes of stuff and everything's still a little too detached to totally work. So Grace's body has been taken, which is cool and all, but we're at the point where we need something a little more tangible, right?

- Of all the cast, the Monsignor is proving hardest to categorize. The way he got so giddy over Sister Mary Eunice's hilarious false teeth/pill bottle Christmas tree decorations made him seem deranged, which he... isn't? It's not like we really know him all that well, to be fair.

- Was it just me or were those Boston accents really bad in the teaser sequence? I mean... badder than usual. *Cough*

- I got more of a kick out of Sister Jude calling it the "National Broadcasting Company" than I probably should have. Hee.

Guest stars
Ian McShane (Leigh Emerson); Fredric Lehne (Frank McCann); Britne Oldford (Alma Walker); Barbara Tarbuck (Mother Claudia); Chris McGarry (Mr. Lancaster); Lara Harris (Rhonda Lancaster); Jennifer Holland (Nurse Blackwell); Tehya Scarth (Susie)
Writer James Wong Director Michael Lehmann

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