AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM “Welcome to Briarcliff” Episode Recap
Oh boy it’s FINALLY here! Last year’s American Horror Storywas one of the biggest surprises on television, and it was even more of a surprise to discover that the show itself would be handled as a mini-series, with Season 2 being an entirely new world and set of characters. I thought this was a bold choice, and was very excited to see it take form.
Thus far, I would say that American Horror Story: Asylum is off to an interesting, if not altogether fully developed, start. The show opens in the modern day with two newlyweds Teresa (Jena Dewan Tatum) and Leo (Adam Levine), who are on some sort of bizarre honeymoon where they are trying to have sex in all of the most haunted places in America. A cheap way to pique the viewer’s interest perhaps, but it also establishes some of the history of the Briarcliff Asylum where the season will take place. We learn about the Death Chute used to dispatch of the asylum’s deceased, the legendary “Bloody Face” who was the most insane person ever admitted to the asylum, and the adage that once committed to Briarcliff…you never leave. While the couple fools around in the creepy place, at one point Leo reaches his hand through a hole in one of the asylum’s walls, and promptly GETS HIS ARM RIPPED OFF!
And just like that we’re off to a new intro sequence, chock full of both imagery of insane mental patients and also heavy with religious symbols. American Horror Story: Asylum(shortened to “AHS” from here on out) seems very interested in exploring how religion and science clash in a place intending to heal the sick, with those forces represented by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) and Dr. Arden (James Cromwell), respectively.
After the intro, we jump back in time to 1964, where most of the show will take place. I’m very excited to see how AHS will handle a period story, and immediately the show does a great job putting us in the mood of the time. We meet Kit Walker (Evan Peters) working as a gas station attendant while listening to The Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby.” Evan Peters formerly played Tate on last season of AHS, and at first it is disconcerting to see the on-the-edge Tate playing the new Kit character, who is much more of a naive “good” character, more a victim than anyone else. But the character grew on me throughout the episode to probably be my favorite at the moment; I think a huge part of the show will focus on Kit struggling to retain his humanity while Sister Jude and Dr. Arden squabble over his soul.
Kit is established as a likable guy pretty quickly. We see him stand up to his greaser friends who want to use his gun to scare a black man (this isthe 1960s). Upon returning home we meet his wife Alma (Britne Oldford), a black woman. They are keeping their marriage a secret for fear of how the community might react, which already helps develop some sympathy for the pair. After making love and enjoying clandestine domestic bliss, the silence is suddenly broken by an ALIEN ABDUCTION sequence (?!). Already, this points to the new season of AHS basing its fears around science and technology-based horror, rather than the ghostly hauntings of Season One. We’ll be terrified by aliens, mad scientists, and freaks of nature instead, though I’m sure there will be a fair share of exorcism and religious terrors to come our way as the season progresses.
After Kit’s abduction, we are immediately shown Briarcliff itself in its heyday through the eyes of reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), seemingly there to do a story about the asylum’s bakery. Immediately I was struck with how much biggera show this season is than the last. Season One was a relatively low-budget affair that focused on one family in a spooky house, whereas Season Two has a huge cast of characters and a much greater scope of a building for where the horrors will take place. We are introduced to many characters very quickly: Shelley the nymphomaniac (Chloe Sevigny), the timid Sister Mary (Lily Rabe), and of course Sister Jude who seems to run the place. Jessica Lange again looks to deliver a fine performance, being one of the stand-outs of the previous season. Already she is the most quotable with her strong religious beliefs (for better or for worse) stating to reporter Lana, “mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin.”
As it turns out, Lana has arrived on the day that the notorious murderer Bloody Face himself is being admitted to the asylum, meaning the name did not originate at Briarcliff but from the media following a host of grisly murders. When Bloody Face finally shows up we are discovered to find it is in fact a terrified and bewildered Kit!
Immediately Kit has a difficult time fitting in. After being beaten, he repeatedly claims that he did not kill anyone, citing his abduction and saying, “They weren’t human, they were monsters.” Sister Jude lashes back, “All monsters are human. You’re a monster.” Kit is then forced to fraternize with the other patents. He avoids the advancements of nympho Shelley, and meets the enigmatic Grace (Lizzie Brochere), another inmate who claims she is innocent and comes off as both spooky and kind. Kit unfortunately is drawn into a fight with the other inmates, which leads to him being severely beaten again. There is definitely a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nestvibe to this season, with Sister Jude fulfilling a Nurse Ratched type role. AHS was never one to shy away from paying homage to the films that inspire it.
After a quiet scene between Grace and Kit, we are finally introduced to Dr. Arden, whose devotion to science and progress directly clashes with Sister Jude’s principles. Sister Jude suspects Dr. Arden of killing patients for his experiments (and she’s almost certainly correct), but she has no way to prove it.
Back at home, we see Lana Winters after her day at the asylum. As it turns out she was trying to get an exclusive interview with Bloody Face himself in order to further her reporting career, which she feels is at a standstill. We meet her “other half” Wendy Paisa (Clea Duvall), a third grade school teacher. Turns out Lana and Wendy are a lesbian couple, but forced to keep their relationship hidden due to this being the 1960s. It’s similar to Kit’s hidden relationship with his wife at the beginning of the episode, and I wonder if a friendship between “Bloody Face” and her might develop later on because of their shared secrets. Either way it’s interesting to see the show making a strong statement for same-sex couples.
Meanwhile at the asylum, Sister Jude prepares a sumptuous dinner for Father Howard (Joseph Fiennes), and we see Sister Jude’s inner turmoil about her strong sexual feelings for him. Yet when Father Howard offers Sister Jude a glass of wine, she sticks to her strict principles and refuses. While Sister Jude deals with the day-to-day patients at the asylum, it appears as if Father Howard is actually the one who runs the place on a “business” level. Sister Jude complains to Father Howard about Dr. Arden, but Howard states that Arden is a world-renowned doctor who helped cure tuberculosis, and they should be happy to have such a dedicated scientist at their ward.
Things start getting a bit more mysterious at this point and the pace of the episode quickens. Lana returns to the asylum to try and sneak an interview with Bloody Face/Kit, only to find Sister Mary “feeding” some monster in the woods. Meanwhile Dr. Arden comes for Kit in order to perform experiments on him. Suddenly we jump back to the modern day again, where poor armless Leo is bleeding all over the floor while Teresa runs to get help.
We then jump back to Briarcliff, where Sister Mary has allowed Lana into the asylum because she doesn’t want to get caught with her secret in the woods (one of Dr. Arden’s experiments, perhaps?). Lana creeps around trying to find Kit’s cell, but of course Kit is actually being experimented upon by Arden somewhere else in the asylum. After a sly Silence of the Lambsreference of the grossest kind (I won’t describe it here!), Lana is almost caught by a guard. However the guard was busy having sex with Shelley, and since neither want to get caught Lana gets off scott-free yet again. Yet when Sister Jude comes stalking the hallways to check on everyone Lana is forced to take refuge in an empty cell (it may even have been Kit’s empty cell since he is elsewhere at the time, but I’m not sure).
Meanwhile Arden continues to torture poor Kit, in a sequence reminding me a bit of A Clockwork Orange. Kit starts having flashbacks of his abduction, and things get really strange when Arden pulls out a small chip from Kit’s neck, which grows legs like a bug and scurries away. If there was any doubt before, this is definitely evidence to show Kit’s abduction was not all in his head.
At the same time Lana continues to search for Kit after learning he has been placed in the restricted section of the ward. Just as I was thinking this episode was getting a little thick on the drama and low on the horror-scares, Lana looks into one of the restricted cells and is grabbed by something big and scary that knocks her unconscious. Another of Arden’s creations?
We then cut to Sister Jude scolding Sister Mary. Obviously Lana has been caught. Sister Jude then goes to a bound Lana with a plan to admit her into the asylum as an inmate herself to “cure” her of her homosexuality. This sequence is intercut with Sister Jude speaking with Wendy at her home, threatening to reveal Wendy and Lana as a couple and jeopardize Wendy’s career as a schoolteacher. Wendy is forced to sign a document as a “citizen of the community” (not a family member or wife…hint hint!) committing Lana to the asylum. I admire the show for creating an interesting argument for same-sex couples’ right to marriage, but I also thought it was all a bit forced; I didn’t really see why Sister Jude felt she had to commit Lana to the asylum. Lana did little to affront her, and she would be reprimanded enough in the outside world for trespassing. My first guess was that whatever grabbed Lana in the cell was something those running the asylum did not want her to know about. However Lana did not really get a good look at what grabbed her, and it seems Sister Jude probably doesn’t even know about the thing anyway, since she immediately checks the room afterward only to find Dr. Arden cleaning it with a scrub brush as if all part of the normal routine. Regardless, Lana wanted an exclusive look at the inside workings of Briarcliff, and now she is certainly going to get it.
We then flash back to the future (ha!) to the newlywed couple. As Teresa runs through the asylum to look for help, she finds the doors have been locked on her. Turning around, she comes face to face with a horrific creature (the “real” Bloody Face?), and presumably is killed. Once committed to Briarcliff, you never come out. Aaaand…roll credits!
My first impressions of this season is that it is very, very busy. Season One fared best when it was focusing on the family, and the best episodes tended to be about a singular character. This season seems to have a lot of scattered threads, and it will interesting to see if it manages to come together. Admittedly Season One took a few episodes to find its footing as well, so I’m hoping that is also the case with Season Two. Also Season One definitely seemed to be a show that started out frightening, and got more introspective as it went on. This first episode of Asylum started out with a lot of character work, and only some planting of horrific elements that seem to promise to grow stronger later on. I’m always one to appreciate drama, but I do hope they ratchet up the scares down the line. We also have yet to get a glimpse of Zachary Quinto’s character even though he is billed high in the intro credits, so it will be interesting to see how he affects things. Regardless the first episode of Asylum promises to be an interesting ride and that, at least, is consistent with the first season.
See you next week!