The first season of American Horror Story was arguably one of the most striking serials of 2011, courtesy of its daring brand of horror and an anthology format that meant the following chapter would have a completely different narrative, setting and characters.
While this may prove frustrating to those who enjoy series running arcs, the first episode of “Asylum” is stylistically and thematically recognizable as ‘AHS’. “Welcome To Briarcliff” doesn’t waste any time in setting up the new storyline and we get introduced to a LOT of characters played by familiar (and some new) faces. This rapid pace makes the episode feel a little bit chaotic at times, but it provides momentum.
There are some eye-catching performances, most notably from Jessica Lange (who eats into her scenes) and James Cromwell. Fitting, as they play the dueling antagonists through which the overarching themes of faith vs science will be primarily unravelled. The central theme tackles sanity, and we do get some interesting set up, though one wonders whether throwing aliens into the equation might be over-stuffing the crazy goose?
Leo and Teresa, or “The Lovers”, weren’t exactly original but they served as an effective entry point into the story. The intertwining 1960s and present day narrative aided the relevancy. It also gives us the sense that while the asylum apparently closes down at some point, the ‘fun and games’ are still going on. I’ll be interested to see what role the Lovers play in the series going forward, assuming Bloody Face hasn’t killed them on the spot.
As mentioned, there are a lot of characters introduced, many of whom made an impression on me, though there are one or two who seem like side-shows. Still, let’s not write Shelly off just yet. Race and homosexuality are used to instigate Kit and Lana’s stories, though there wasn’t much time to contextualize them as characters before they were carted into the asylum. Lana’s story was better handled in that regard, as it seemed like we got to know her better.
The twist with her getting committed into the institution wasn’t surprising but it was made poignant by the fact that her partner basically sold her out, and her solitary tear tugged at the heartstrings. It’s quite interesting that Lana’s interest in Bloody Face (aka Apparently Kit) led to her incarceration, so I’m curious to see how much face-time they get together further down the line, while I’m looking forward to more encounters between Lana and Sister Jude.
As the episode progressed I became more intrigued by the season-long theme of sanity and where that exploration might take us. I’m interested in the fact that we have two central antagonists in Sister Jude and Dr. Arthur Arden representing two sides of the extreme coin from which the central theme will be illuminated.
We also got hints, most notably through Jude, that those running the asylum might not be the most sound of mind themselves, which adds another dash of intrigue to proceedings while further opening the narrators book on the ‘reliability’, or otherwise, of the characters. Indeed, who’s perspective is the most convincing? Both Jude and Arthur have conviction in their beliefs but they are both extreme in those views and may be motivated by other things.
Admittedly, the show has yet to gain my confidence that it has the ability to navigate many delicate themes in a way that is entertaining without being provocative for the sake of being provocative, but I’m willing to give it a chance. Potentially there’s interesting story to mine and while its needs to be entertaining and horrifying, I also look for quality of ongoing story and characters that impact me intellectually and emotionally.
Time will tell if it all comes together with meaning and substance, but after one episode I’m happy enough to return for another injection without being dragged in kicking and screaming.
NOTES OF HORROR
- The visuals facilitated the storytelling for the most part, though some of the camera angles actually took away from the sense of dread (Leo’s arm being pulled off certainly didn’t have the tension I was expecting).
- Kit getting lifted up to the ceiling reminded me of the Rubber Man poster from season 1.
- Lizzie Brocheré delivered a quiet performance as Grace but I found her character to be one of the most interesting. Is she guilty of her supposed crime (how many of them are?) and can Kit trust her?
- Despite her hardened exterior, Sister Jude seems to have a soft spot for Sister Mary Eunice and a VERY soft spot for the Monsignor.
- Aliens? Really? Let’s see them tie that in coherently.
- Who or what was in the room/attacked Lana?
- What is out in the woods?
- The Walking Dead‘s prison vs AHS’ asylum? Round 1 goes to the asylum.
7.5/10 Seriable Stars