Episode Title: "Welcome to Briarcliff"
Writer: Tim Minear
Director: Bradley Buecker
I never realized this before, maybe because I never watched “Nip/Tuck,” but the creators of “Glee” are some pretty f*cked up people. That’s the lesson I learned from “American Horror Story: Asylum” this week. The second season of their popular series, which apparently has nothing to do with the original season, is a dense, layered and thoroughly twisted hour of television that demonstrates a clear understanding of both anxiety horror and genre television necessities.
The story goes all over the place, incorporating aliens, undying serial killers, mad scientists, Catholic guilt and persecution of the mentally infirm, and maybe cannibals, come to think of it. There’s racism, homophobia, two separate offers of heterosexual anal sex, masks made out of human skin, canings, bare butts and Chloe Sevigny in a Skrillex haircut. “American Horror Story: Asylum” runs the gamut of the horror genre in a single episode, singling out terrors and titillation in equal measure. Horror remains one of the purest emotional expressions of any storytelling medium. It exists to penetrate the subconscious and, in the process, heighten our fears and arouse our darkest desires. I missed the first season of the series, but within the space of a single episode, the new season – aided by ominous locations, sinister characters, unsettling lighting and borderline schizoid editing – manages to capture quiet chills, outlandish thrills and genuine, even impressive discomfort in a dazzling display of measured psychotronia.
Where I fear “American Horror Story: Asylum” may falter lies in one of the premiere’s greatest strengths: establishing through lines for future episodes. Too many pilot episodes (a category under which this arguably qualifies, since they have to reestablish characters, story and tone all over again) spend all their time introducing the minutiae of the characters and their world, tacking on a standalone narrative arc whose purpose is just to set a baseline for the rest of the series and then get out of the way. “Welcome to Briarcliff” is such a daringly rich episode, introducing dozens of ongoing storylines and mysteries, that it’s probable that the rest of the series won’t be able to maintain this pace or, equally bad, capitalize on the groundwork being laid thus far. But I am, however, sufficiently intrigued to stick it out until the conclusion to see if they can pull it off.
The first episode, written by the consistently impressive Tim Minear (of “The Chicago Code” and the underappreciated “The Inside”), begins with a framing device about two young newlyweds on a honeymoon tour of the most haunted locations in America. Their plans to bone each other in every single one are put on hold when a trip to Briarcliff, a run down mental institution, leads to the husband’s arm getting ripped off. The episode flashes back to the events that transpired at the asylum in 1964, on the day a serial killer known as “Bloody Face” was admitted, and much (but not all) of the horror began.
Kit Walker, played by Evan Peters from Season One, is a gas station attendant hiding a mixed-race marriage at a time when interracial tensions were at a peak. But a bright flash of light, a sudden loss of gravity and a briefly-glimpsed alien entity intrude on their idyllic homelife, and shortly thereafter he is admitted to Briarcliff to determine if he is mentally fit to stand trial for a series of a brutal flayings. One of the victims was his own wife. Kit’s mystery, or a “Did he or didn’t he?” variety, appears to be an ongoing concern. Does the asylum drive him mad enough to accept the role of Bloody Face, or were these visions hallucinatory in origin? We’re leaning towards the former by the end of the episode, when a mysterious robot spider is removed from his neck by a mad scientist played by Dr. Arthur Arden.
Arden, played by James Cromwell, has been given free reign at Briarcliff, a Catholic institution run by Sister Jude, played by Jessica Lange from Season One (again, as a different character). Their antagonistic relationship seems to form the crux of “American Horror Story: Asylum’s” thematic underpinnings: the battle between science and religion. Rather than support one side or the other, the series clearly declares that both belief systems (for lack of a better word, perhaps) are the source of horror when left unchecked. Dr. Arden appears to be performing experiments on inmates who won’t be missed and feeding what appears to be human meat to creatures living in the woods surrounding the institution.
Sister Jude appears to care for her inmates, but believes only in the notion that mental illness stems from a predisposition to sin. Her judgment, punishments and hypocritical lust for Monsignor Timothy Howard, played by Joseph Fiennes, make her an equally powerful threat to the wellbeing of her patients. Dr. Arden and Sister Jude’s conflict is personified in the form of Sister Mary Eunice, played by Lily Rabe, whose will is weak enough to supplicate herself to both masters of Briarcliff, begging to be beaten when she feels she has failed. I suspect her story could become the thematic focal point of the series, but we shall see what they have in store for us.
The remains of the story for the first episode focus on reporter Lana Winters, played by “American Gothic’s” Sarah Paulson, who intends to expose the corruption at Briarcliff but who, in the process, winds up forcefully institutionalized for being a lesbian. Despite the gore, mindf*ckery and phantasmagorical imagery at play in the episode, the most terrifying moment comes at the hands of Lana’s lover, played by Clea Duvall, whom Sister Jude coerces into signing the commitment papers in order to preserve her own well-being, at the threat of a scandal. The moments of tenderness in “American Horror Story: Asylum” are betrayed, disturbingly so, by the social mores of the time, and the effect is genuinely unsettling. And the addition of a second, in this instance clearly unfairly persecuted protagonist within the walls of Briarcliff promises more discomfort to come. Thank goodness. Or rather, badness.
“American Horror Story: Asylum” is one of the most impressive opening episodes I’ve come across in a long time, even among series that turned out, in the long run, to be some of the best on television. While I have no idea how it stands up to the previous season, I can say with confidence that the promises made in Season Two, even if only half of them come to satisfying fruition, are likely to make for a damned impressive television experience. I’m reserving a standing ovation for everyone involved… for now.