‘American Horror Story: Asylum’ triumphs over missteps
“American Horror Story,” FX’s latest hit, has garnered a unique, passionate audience since its 2011 inception. While initially thought to be derivative of previous horror milestones, the series has catapulted from contender to fan favorite with jolting depictions of rattling stories. While the first saga, now dubbed “Murder House” in light of the anthology designation, brought palpable, “Shining”-esque fare to the table, it was “Asylum,” the second and most recent installment, that displayed evidence of maturity.
In its infancy, “American Horror Story” reflected the naked, sometimes bumbling ambition of creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. The series dealt with predictable elements — corpses, ghosts, ultraviolence — and the plot was largely centered on one family plagued with deep-seeded issues. But with “Asylum” came spiraling stories and a characters with exceptional depth and hearty backstories, all against a backdrop of alien abduction, demonic possession and a hint of anti-religious schtick that enticed and rattled viewers for a twelve-week period.
Despite its scattered beginnings, it was the season’s religious underpinnings that propelled its popularity. There is something deliciously sinful — pardon the pun — about a possessed nun (played expertly by Lily Rabe) who encourages the evils of Thredson (Zachary Quinto) and Arden (James Cromwell) within a holy artifice. Tiny details, notably the attention given to sacrilege and religious hypocrisy, demonstrate literary maturity and render Murphy and Falchuk a collective to be reckoned with.
For all its assets, “Asylum” also had its drawbacks. The opener, “Welcome to Briarcliff,” introduced alien abduction as the series’ first supernatural event, which was outright corny to those preferring the bloodlust of “Murder House.” Even Kit Walker’s partial nudity (courtesy of handsome AHS veteran Evan Peters) and Dr. Arden’s Nazi-affiliated past couldn’t distract from mundane episodes like “The Origins of Monstrosity,” during which the twists were predictable and hard to enjoy.
Perhaps the biggest flaw is found in “Spilt Milk,” the eleventh and third-to-last episode. While it could never be classified as “boring,” this particular installment reverts back to the rushed fashion with which the first season of “American Horror Story” was written. Several deaths, though gallant exits for those involved, are crammed into one 46-minute slot, making the plot too busy and rendering the series’ remainder futile for those caring at all for the fates of three primary villains. Sure, there are a handful of continued story arcs, but even these are handled with abruptness, disappointing any viewer who hoped the writers had mastered the art of pace.
This was a problem that also permeated the finale, which was filled to the brim with disappointments. The irrelevant and ultimately unsatisfying alien-abduction arc was concluded with Kit Walker, who, in middle age, had been diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer. His disappearance, in addition to Sister Jude’s death of natural causes, only served a cop-out that wasted any potential writing talent. Even more predictable was the fate of Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), who came to face-to-face with her demon of a son — a debacle that ended with a simple, point-blank murder and a brief, blurry revisit to Briarcliff. For someone who had such high hopes for the season after its midsection propelled its mystery, “Asylum’s” conclusion lacked its expected luster and served as an easy end for the series and all the characters involved.
Nonetheless, the spotlight elements of “Asylum” — the diversity of character, the fluctuating timeline, the disturbing images — culminated into a tour de force of a television series. While the beginning and conclusion were plagued with inconsistencies and pace flaws, the second season of “American Horror Story” ended up being a resonant work of art. Fans will forever be plagued with foreboding concepts derived from this series and upon knowing this, the creators will almost certainly nod their heads in satisfaction and accomplishment.