American Horror Story’s second season premiered last week in perfect synchronization with the Halloween season. The FX series did not fail to perplex and scare in its original run, but with a new cast of both characters and genre tropes to explore, the series had its work cut out for it in the recent debut. Gone are the classic haunted home and broken family angst, and in its place the same actors and writers must create a world that is equally believable and equally traumatic to behold.
Though the first episode of Asylum fails to live up to the fast-paced horrors of the original, it retains many of its previous charms: shifts in time, blurred lines between fantasy and reality, and characters that are at once sympathetic and wholly despicable. Ryan Murphy, who brought the monstrosity that is Glee upon the entertainment world, maintains some level of success in AHS’ social commentary, an aspect that is vital to any storyline focusing on the horrors of historical mental health treatment.
The new storyline begins with a trope similar to the first – two parallel couples in different time periods experience terrible fates that are in some manner connected. The modern newlyweds (featuring Adam Levine of Maroon 5 fame) arrive at the abandoned Briarcliff Sanatorium to continue their, ahem, sexual honeymoon tour of America’s most haunted houses. In the 1960s, a separate pair of newlyweds make house—here we find actor Evan Peters, Tate in season one, and now under the alias Kit Walker—and attempt to escape persecution for marrying outside of their respected races. In the present, a ghost tears off Adam Levine’s arm and, in the past, what seems to be a UFO abducts Kit.
These writers aren’t pulling any punches.
Following the opening credits (which are, disappointingly, not nearly as creepy as the first season’s), we find, via reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson, previously medium Billie Dean) that Briarcliff Sanatorium is soon to house notorious serial killer “Bloody Face.” The head honcho of the asylum, Sister Jude (Jessica Lange, formerly Constance Langdon) attempts to dissuade said reporter, and reveals herself to be pious, cruel, and cruelly pious. Bloody Face arrives and makes up for his dorky name by surprising us with his identity – sweet, innocent, obviously-not-abducted-by-aliens-and-probably-schizophrenic, Kit.
Kit, as a newcomer to Briarcliff, introduces us to its horrors, which include physical punishment, religion, and the same creepy French song repeating itself endlessly. Among the crowd of crazies, he meets a kind, “sane” French girl, who—I’m calling it—probably isn’t real. The arrival of Dr. Arden (James Cromwell), head doctor of the asylum, establishes three of the main conflicts of the series: Sister Jude’s suspicion of the deaths under his care, the struggle between science and faith, and 1960s gender roles. Dr. Arden steals Kit away in the night to perform experimental lobotomy on him, but Sister Jude is not fooled (“You may think my mind is closed, Doctor, but my eyes are wide open.”), and neither is reporter Lana Winters.
Lana is revealed to have both an insatiable curiosity about Briarcliff’s secrets and a loving relationship with a woman. When Sister Jude captures her snooping around the grounds of the Asylum, the religious matriarch is easily able to exploit her lesbian relationship in order to have her committed. Meanwhile, only a scene previous, Sister Jude loses herself in a sexual fantasy about the head of the asylum, Monsignor Timothy Howard, proving that she is not quite the Ice Queen that she appears – and that Jessica Lange has totally still got it. Wow.
The episode ends with a ward of patients who have varying levels of mental illness, but who share in their status of less-than-human due merely to their situation. Kit, despite supposedly wearing human skin as a mask while murdering innocents, is presented as a pretty good kid who, if he were to live in modern times, might actually get the treatment he needs to prevent him from going off the deep end. Lana is committed for her choice of partners, as is the “nymphomaniac” figure she shows sympathy for throughout the episode. In the opening sequence, Kit and his wife are persecuted for their interracial marriage, and Adam Levine is punished for having sex in a haunted house. A prominent feature of Asylum seems to be an ongoing metaphor on who and how we choose to love.
Asylum therefore begs the question that all good asylum stories should – what does sanity even mean? Who here are the sane ones? Who here is in charge? And where the hell is Zachary Quinto?
Emily Nordling requires Zachary Quinto in every television franchise.