[Review] American Horror Story: Asylum

FLYING OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST

American Horror Story: Asylum is a standalone miniseries following the patients, doctors and nuns at the Briarcliff Mental Institution beginning in 1964 and following the characters through to the present-day.

What’s unique about this series for an American show is that it’s an anthology series.  Each season is a self-contained season with its own characters, settings and storyline.  The only thing that remains the same is the genre of the show and a few of the first season’s cast members return for this season.  I’ve heard mixed reviews in regards to the first season but since I haven’t seen it I won’t compare.  There was just no room in my schedule to add this show last year but I’m hoping that I’ll find a spare moment to go back and watch for myself.

The story takes place both in the past and the present day at the Briarcliff Mental Institution.  In the 60’s, run by the Catholic Diocese, the wardens are Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) with her second-in-command Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) and the institution’s founder, Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes).

Kit Walker (Evan Peters) is committed to the institution when he’s accused of being Bloody Face, the infamous serial killer who takes the skin of women he’s killed.  Eager to get the scoop on Bloody Face, Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) arrives at the institution but inadvertently gets committed herself because of her sexuality.

Psychiatrist Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto) offers to evaluate Walker’s sanity for the trial while Sadistic Scientist Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell) performs secret experiments on the patients there.

The Kit Walker-alien storyline, for me, felt weird and a bit out of place.  I get that the storyline goes along with this season’s theme about sanity but I can’t say that it got a great deal of reaction out of me.  It wasn’t a storyline that stayed consistent in that it made a huge impact on the season’s story.  It does add to the strangeness Kit Walker experienced and gives him an alibi but that was resolved so early on.  Later, it felt like a throwaway storyline that was inserted to fill the gaps.

On the other hand, the story felt more thought out with the other characters.  Sister Jude was a favorite as you can see her progression and her character was constantly evolving.  From the story about her out-of-control, alcohol fueled youth which leads to the hit-and-run of a young girl,to her guilty conscience propelling her into a life as a sober nun.

She had put her hope in (as well as being attracted to) Monsignor Howard.  They both claimed they were doing it in the name of God but ended up being a ruthless authoritarian figure at the asylum.  When she finally comes to her senses, she seeks absolution by trying to rid Briarcliff of evil only to end up being committed in order to keep her quiet.  I never hated Sister Jude as I saw her as a passionate person with a narrow focus on the world.  Throughout the season her focus changes once she realizes that she was misguided.

And now to the most watercooler talked about “couple” and I use the term “couple” very loosely.  Zachary Quinto has played some notable bad guys over the years.  I don’t blame him for wanting to not play some bad guys for now.  I’m not even sure how I’m going to watch the next Star Trek movie as Dr. Thredson is one sick S.O.B.

Certainly it was his story with Lana that kept me up nights, disturbed.  Zachary Quinto lulls you into this place of comfort and pulls the rug from underneath you.  However, there was one incident where I felt the story was deliberately stalling in order to prolong the story’s shelf life.  Lana gets the upperhand on Thredson in the “Dark Cousin” but I was highly upset that she didn’t complete her task.  Why show it if you’re not going to go through with it?  What happens to this pairing and the implications it has on the present day is really what ties the whole season together.

There are so many subplots and characters that I’ll just give some highlights and my thoughts on them.  Adam Levine being casted in the show, albeit in a very small role, was not a bad job done for his first real acting gig.  Frances Conroy was by far my most favorite guest star.  From her dual roles as the Angel of Death to the gangster inmate at Briarcliff, she struck people with fear and comfort all at the same time.

I also really liked how Sister Mary Eunice and Dr. Arden’s story tied in with the whole season’s plot.  Their story does go on for a bit but I was very satisfied with the conclusion.  I was indifferent to Arden’s experiments but I took that to be the thing that defined his identity rather than being a crucial plot point.

The acting here is great and the storytelling fluidly balances the present with the past well.  Actually the whole asylum setting is the thing that frightens me.  Partly because it’s part of our urban legend culture due to our country’s history when it comes to treating mental illness and so that’s what drew me to watch this season.  This season may have messed with the sanity of the characters but the show was also able to reach out and mess with my sanity a little bit.

Rating

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