Episode Title: “Tricks and Treats”
Written by: James Wong
Directed by: Bradley Buecker
Previously on “American Horror Story: Asylum”:
The problem with a premiere as sprawling and intriguing as “Welcome to Briarcliff” is that you start to get ideas that aren’t shared by the show runners. The creators clearly have a specific story in mind for this season, and yet they set up so many separate elements in the first episode alone that the possibilities swimming around in my brain actually seem more engaging than what I’ve actually received in “Tricks and Treats.” It’s still an interesting episode, and the persecution anxiety remains alarmingly high for a television series of any stripe, but this sort of familiar Exorcist knock-off seems too conventional for a series with the potential to be something more, and practically even unique.
To recap: Nosy reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) and accused serial killer Kit Walker (Evan Peters), whose innocence is increasingly obvious this week, have both been committed to Briarcliff Mental Institution, where the dangerously sanctimonious Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) is in a constant battle with the mad scientist Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell) for control of the inmates and the soul of the young Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), whom Dr. Arden attempts to turn to the dark side in this second episode with – what else? – an apple. It’s a candy apple, but the metaphor remains hopelessly blunt.
Also hopelessly blunt is the episode’s main storyline, in which a family attempts to commit their son for speaking in tongues and mutilating their livestock. Rather than segue into an impromptu production of Equus, Sister Jude enlists an exorcist to rid the young man of what she considers to be his very literal demons. This does not go over well with new cast member Zachary Quinto, playing Dr. Oliver Thredson, a psychologist responsible for declaring Kit Walker mentally fit (or unfit) for trial. His objections to the patients’ treatment at Briarcliff – like Lana’s electroshock treatment, ostensibly to cure her of homosexuality but in reality an attempt to erase her memories of the institution’s corruption – seem to be silenced over the course of the episode, as the new inmate turns out to actually be possessed by a demon.
The exorcism sequences are well-acted, used to illustrate some intriguing backstories to our principle cast (such as Sister Jude’s promiscuous past and her culpability in a hit-and-run accident), and extremely familiar to fans of the horror genre. The demon’s voice evokes Brad Dourif’s performance in The Exorcist III, and every other aspect of the exorcism sequence – an enormous part of the episode – will strike fans of the original Exorcist or even The Devil Inside as familiar to the point of quaintness. The conclusion of this storyline, with Sister Mary Eunice infected by the demon, appears to set up a new storyline for the rest of the series and potentially ruin the fascinating duel for her soul between Sister Jude and Dr. Arden, so strikingly established in the first episode.
See what I mean about getting the wrong ideas from the first episode? That’s not what they had in mind at all, but it actually seems more interesting than what they came up with instead.
The rest of “Tricks and Treats” is far more interesting than the exorcism shenanigans tying it all together. Lana’s girlfriend, played by Clea Duvall, immediately regrets her decision to institutionalize her lover, but before she can renege her testimony she meets a bloody end at the hands of Bloody Face, clearly not Kit Walker (unless there’s a big, unexpected revelation coming). Lana’s sense of betrayal, utterly justified, can never reach closure now even if she does escape Briarcliff, which she attempts over the course of this week’s episode, ultimately betraying her own collaborator, Grace (Lizzie Brocheré), to prevent Walker from escaping along with them. The inherent tragedy of that sequence is one of the highlights of the episode, and potentially the series as a whole.
The rest of the episode is mostly dedicated to Dr. Arden, who rejects both the advances of nymphomaniac Chloë Sevigny and her perfectly understandable sob story (her cheating husband institutionalized her for having a three-way in retaliation) by writing her off as a “whore.” But Dr. Arden is not above sexuality. He hires a prostitute to come over for a nice dinner, responds horribly when she doesn’t act like a proper lady, and has her dress up like Sister Mary Eunice before she discovers a series of homemade bondage pictures that appear to be of murder victims. She escapes, possibly for future plot-point purposes (or perhaps not, since as a prostitute in the 1960s she may not wish to involve the authorities), and establishing Dr. Arden as a possible, but unlikely if you ask me, alternate theory for Bloody Face’s identity.
“Tricks and Treats” is a pretty good episode of television, a little disappointing after the sprawling and fascinating season opener but engaging and creepy anyway. I seriously hope that “American Horror Story: Asylum” doesn’t devolve into a “subconscious monster of the week” type of series, since there are so many strange and intriguing storylines already at play that they don’t need formulaic one-off monster movie riffs to keep them involving. At least the story keeps moving along at a brisk pace, at least the anxiety and paranoia remain overwhelming, at least it’s still pretty danged good.
Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/FX