Friday, January 25, 2013

American Horror Story: Madness Ends (2.13)

American Horror Story: Asylum was the Madonna and the Whore of TV shows. It wanted to tell unsettling, unimaginably awful stories based on true fact -- the lobotomies, the disturbed therapies, and so forth; and it wanted to feature outlandish tales of hooker lactation, Frankenstein monsters and murder babies. This has not been a steady journey. But Madness Ends is the first episode of late to actually bring forth a satisfactory conclusion. Meshing together both extremes of the show's identity to frequently powerful returns, this is a finale that winds up the most cohesive episode in months, bringing to a close what quickly became a messy second season.

When you think of both seasons of American Horror Story and the places in which each sparkled and alternatively crumbled, it's easiest to spot what each year didn't have instead of what it did. While the first season's narrative thrust seemed to stagnate as time went on, it at least had a semblance of humanity at its heart -- the Harmon family consistently absorbing in their functioning blandness. They were a family that everybody could recognize in one way or another, even when they were screaming at each other, or instigating major infidelities. Asylum had a far more engaging throughline, but gradually lacked that inner warmth. It arguably came in flits, specifically when characters such as Jude and Lana were at their most vulnerable, but the year ultimately settled into a cold groove; misery was the real star this season, at least more consistently than any singular protagonist.

But what Madness Ends does so well is surprisingly resurrect the season's heart. Having already tossed aside many of the year's major players, we're left this week with just three: ambitious literary success Lana Winters, now a waxy Barbara Walters clone with Skinemax legend Joan Severance as her lady love; perpetually hopeful Kit Walker, plucky and determined in spite of the bloody murder that has followed him over the recent years; and poor Jude Martin, still stowed away somewhere in Briarcliff. Typically for this season, all three stories seen here come complete with areas that don't entirely work, but the overwhelming warmth of each one essentially saves Asylum from eating itself whole.

Jude's final bow is a brilliant depiction of how mental illness was once treated by society and the ways it can be smoothed over and taken care of when surrounded by love and affection. Taken out of Briarcliff by Kit, Jude spends her last years as a kind of surrogate grandmother to Kit's two children -- teaching them to dance, inspiring their futures and instilling strong values. It's such a tender collection of scenes, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon capturing it all through beautiful photography and subtle edits; Jude coming unhinged again, before being saved, and later passing herself over to the Angel of Death.

It's also a story that finally seems to handle the alien arc effectively. The all-show-and-no-tell vibe of every other episode this year pretty much sunk much of its potential power as a storyline, but Tim Minear's script is able to make its evasiveness as much an endearing question mark as it is frustrating. Instead of writing in shock gasps of enormous grey prosthetics and wacky UFO technology, he instead casts the extra-terrestrial visitors as guardian angels of sorts, the kind that will always be mysterious and strange, but also forever present and keeping a watchful eye over those they've come into contact with. Do we need to know how Jude's madness was cured by that walk in the woods? It probably would have been nice, but it's also sort of beautiful and evocative regardless. Considering how lacking this story became, it's a remarkable turnaround in perspective.

The Bloody Face angle isn't as successful, but at least hits you in the throat with its emotional resonance as far as Lana is concerned. Like the aliens, the season sometimes felt overburdened when trying to tie in the 'parental abandonment' themes of the Johnny Morgan arc to everything else on display, meaning his final act of sorta-vengeance probably didn't ring as true as it probably could have done. Dermot Mulroney's performances, too, were a major part of it feeling lacking. By turning everything up to eleven, most of the character's humanity flatlined.

But, again, Tim Minear turns things around just in time for the final credits to roll. What has so far been Johnny Morgan's story here becomes very much a story for Lana. The various flashback sequences help build the persona of a woman who just wanted to make a difference in the world. Journeying back into Briarcliff, in scenes shot like a Grey Gardens pastiche, she exposes the conditions the mentally ill have been expected to handle, while her frantic confrontation with the Monsignor implies even greater determination to make things right. She also wants to reconnect with her son, or at least make amends for giving him away.

At the same time, though, she's also trapped by her child, even before that becomes a literal statement. Knowing he's out there is enough of a prison in itself, a constant reminder of the horror she experienced within the walls of the asylum. So that final act, full of tears and pledges of maternal love, marks a wonderful victory for Lana as a character. Whether she's matured perfectly as a person or not, she's able to close a chapter on her past with that one last gunshot. And that's a happy ending, right? Or at least an American Horror Story variation on a happy ending.

I admit that part of me was eager for Asylum to wrap up. Not for some of the reasons that fans have been talking about for a while, that these last thirteen episodes were just too relentlessly bleak, but more in that I think the show got tired and strained in the end. While this was a successful finale, it sometimes felt towards the back-end of the year like the writers had allowed various stories to crumble off instead of ensuring they build them to one last bang. The Christmas hiatus didn't help, neither did the curt dismissal of characters that never felt like they had entirely served their potential (Arden and Shelly are two major examples).

But it's also important to state that American Horror Story remains one of the most unusual, and frequently most rewarding, series on the air. This was a messy, problematic season, but also one that featured incredible acting work (Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe and James Cromwell were major stand-outs), gut-wrenching emotional drama and breathtaking cinematography (I don't think I've ever discussed directors more than I have talked up Alfonso Gomez-Rejon in these reviews). Like so many of Ryan Murphy's series, it's easy for great nuggets of inspiration to get buried and forgotten about under the sheer weight of the ideas and themes at work. But when a great writer can make all of that stuff just come together and align itself properly, it's like magic. Nutty, escapist and haunting magic. Strong enough, at least, to make you forget about the bad stuff. A


- Poor Joseph Fiennes. He was probably the greatest victim of this season's directionless quality. So much ambiguity (was he a lackey? A Nazi? Secretly gay? The devil himself?), all for naught. He got an effective ending here, as did everybody else, but it didn't make his character any less disappointing.

- Didn't Lana's outfits look crazy awesome this week? Like a vintage clothing store barfed all over her.

- So what next? Witches? I kind of like the idea of a bunch of campy, glamorous Ryan Murphy witches being all cackling and draggy next season. There's obviously potential for awfulness by making things so much lighter, but I think the show needs something like that after a year of so much abject misery.

- The season couldn't end without one last play of Dominique. It just couldn't.

Guest stars
Frances Conroy (Shachath); Camille Chen (April Mayfield); Joan Severance (Marion)
Writer Tim Minear Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon


  1. Wow. Thanks for your reviews. They've really helped me find a bit more understanding, especially as the season drew to a close.
    To me, this was the only way to end. I really liked how they wrapped everything up and everyones ends seemed fitting - although ultimately heartbreaking.
    I cried, actually cried, for Judy but that was also much because she actually gave something back in the end - gave those kids some great, great, values to follow them in life.
    The weakest part this season has been Bloody Face in the present. I have felt no sympathy whatsoever and was just waiting for Lana to shoot him - but that's so much because we didn't get to know him and I can't help but feel so so sorry for this confused little kid who never really knew his parents. Why did he take such a turn for the worse?
    As you said before, a lot of the storylines were dropped/petered/crumbled and that's really the biggest issue here.
    The Demon-story never really went anywhere, neither did the nazi-history or the monsignor/cardinal. Too bad.
    All in all I enjoyed the thrills and shrieks the season gave me and will most probably tune in to season 3 - and to your reviews of course.

  2. I too am wondering where they're gonna go next season (if there is one? I've heard S2 performed much poorer than S1). Since the show is about America's culture with the horror genre, and has covered everything from haunted house stories to UFOs to science vs religion to asylums... I'm thinking maybe a camping/slasher theme? Or who knows, they could go with zombies/vamps/werewolves but even that might be a little too cliche for them given the market at this point.

    Although, part of the fun in AHS is that it takes pretty generic horror ideas and goes so all-out with them that they actually manage to feel fresh and entertaining. I guess that's the secret in storytelling when everything's been done: use the same old idea and go nuts with it.

  3. Henrik Thank you for reading! It's hugely flattering to see anybody engage like that with my stuff, so thanks so much. Your comments here entirely reflect the greatness and the mishandled quality to a lot of the season, particularly what you wrote about Jude's final act of hope, and the lack of emotional follow-through with Bloody Face. I liked his ending here, but it never felt like we actually understood the guy at all.

    Thanks again for your insights lately, Henrik.

    Anonymous This season wasn't as big a hit as the first, but a third season has been picked up for sure, with most of the same cast coming back in some capacity (Lange, Paulson, Rabe, Peters, Farmiga). Nice ideas about next season, though. I remember they said a while back that they were never going to do a vampire year, which is absolutely the right way to go. Surely we've hit vamp fatigue at this point, heh. I actually like the slasher vibe, especially if it were set in the 1980's or something.

    And brilliant last paragraph, too. I'm jealous I didn't come up with that myself haha!

    Thanks for reading.

  4. Hey maxpower, just wondering if you will be reviewing season 3 of AHS? After watching the season 3 premiere I couldn't help but feel that something was missing until I realised it was your reviews! I hope you do take it up! Your reviews are a part of my viewing experience.


  5. Thinking back on the season, most characters at some point were both victims and predators (or at least perceived to be by the viewer/other characters) - from Pepper to Lana to Kit and of course Sister Jude. Arden doesn't 100% fit, but his affection for Sister Mary Eunice showed his vulnerability and his shooting by Anne Frank was at least a momentary lapse into victimhood.