FX’s American Horror Story
Season 2, Episode 1: “Welcome to Briarcliff”
Directed by Bradley Buecker (The New Normal, Glee)
Written by Tim Minear
* For a review of the next episode, “Tricks and Treats” – click here
The beginning of Season 2 is a lot of fun because, as opposed to Season 1 where we’d get decades old flashbacks from 1968, 1922, and so on, the main action of Asylum is taking place in 1964. However, we get to jump forward, as well as back a bit, and the framing narrative of the season itself takes place in current day. This seems a bit confusing what I’ve said, but as the episodes wear on you’ll really get a feel of what’s happening. In fact, the present day framing device isn’t exactly very clear until a few episodes in. But once it starts to become clear, the wide and reaching sprawl of Season 2 becomes apparent and it makes the episodes all the better for it.
Beginning in present day, we see Leo and Teresa Morrison (Adam Levine/Jenna Dewan Tatum) on their horror honeymoon – they plan on visiting the twelve most haunted places in America, plus they want to have sex in all the buildings because y’know, they’re wild. Only when they arrive at the infamous Briarcliff Asylum there is more inside the walls than they’d bargained for, and certainly there is nothing sexy about the madness, the pain, the mayhem and murder that is trapped inside that building.
Things really kick off when Leo sticks his hand into one of the cells with his cellphone, trying to get a night vision look at anything terrifying inside. Then, something comes at him and tears his arm off. Blood everywhere. INCREDIBLE! Turns out Bloody Face may actually be real, not just an old, outdated tale of murder from the haunted houses of America.
This moment kicks off Asylum incredibly well. It offers up enough of that psychosexual horror mashup we’re used to from the series, and so it’s already clear this season should follow suit with all the dark terrors of the first; maybe even more.What I really enjoy about the opener to Season 2 is how the entire aesthetic of the first season holds over. It’s more evident than even most regular tv series’ are with their style. As an anthology, there’s always a risk each season might either fall short or overshadow its predecessor. While certain seasons of American Horror Story are most certainly better than others, I think what helps them all glue together and what allows each of them to still be excellent, regardless of the others before or after, is the fact the cinematography, the editing, the score, it all compounds into a beautifully evident overall style.
So then we switch back to our main narrative of 1964.
First, we meet Kit Walker (Evan Peters). He’s a young, handsome man just getting by in the mid ’60s, working at a gas station and garage somewhere out in the boonies. At home, his wonderful wife Alma (Britne Oldford) waits for her husband. Unfortunately, in that time the Walkers had to remain underground with their relationship because interracial relationships were still frowned upon. We already get a threatening atmosphere from Kit’s friend Billy (Joe Egender) and a group of guys who show up at the station, giving Kit a very unwelcome feeling concerning his wife at home; a reference to chocolate becomes not so much racist as it feels scary.
But it’s not Billy and the boys Kit needs to worry about protecting himself, and his wife Alma, from ultimately. Lights flicker and the power goes off, on, the bedroom radio is on the fritz; things are not right. Then Kit seems to experience some kind of contact with… something. He thinks it’s Billy with some others, but it is far worse.
I thought this scene was awesome. So often the alien abduction angle is attempted in film and television, yet it’s not often things are treated correctly. Kit experiences something Other-ly. We only see it briefly, in a few flashes; sound design and visuals weave together creating an excellent moment. We know it’s aliens, but at the same time there’s none shown onscreen. Perfect.
Next we follow journalist Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) into Briarcliff, as she heads to meet Sister Jude Martin (Jessica Lange) concerning the bakery at the asylum. Along the way we’re introduced to an interesting new character out of Season 2, Pepper (Naomi Grossman) – the nun, Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), who accompanies Lana through her visit says that Pepper drowned her sister’s baby and sliced its ears off. Chilling, because Pepper seems so innocent; strange looking yet truly child-like and innocent looking.
Lana meets with Jude for a brief time, however, up shows the apparent newly caught Bloody Face – he is being admitted to the asylum until the lawmakers decide if he is fit to stand trial. This is the whole reason Lana Winters showed up in the beginning, under false pretences about the asylum’s bakery.
What’s most surprising is when we’re introduced to who the alleged Bloody Face killer is: Kit Walker. He’s lead in, chained from head to toe, then treated to the 1960s psychiatric hospital admittance – delousing powder, a shower by way of fire hose, then a good dose of intravenous drugs via syringe. Plus, after a bad meeting with Sister Jude, he’s even given a bit of capital punishment in the form of Jude’s favourite method – caning across the bar ass.
Already now with Kit especially, we’re treated to a look at how Briarcliff operates, and the sort of cruelty all around we’re bound to experience as Asylum wears on.
There are a ton of characters again this season. Probably even more than the first. What I like is that there are plenty characters, but the most important ones are singled out for us and we’re given a big view of them here in “Welcome to Briarcliff”. Of course, more come into play later. This is just a wonderful introduction to so many of the characters, as well as the sort of thematic elements we’re going to see come up over and over.
Kit briefly meets a woman named Grace Bertrand (Lizzie Brocheré), also an inmate at the asylum, who takes a liking to him. She helps him a little, from exposing him to the way the hospital works, to giving him a cigarette while he’s wrongly thrown into solitary confinement. This is one relationship, while brief here in the opening episode, that will expand in later episodes and eventually become a big part of the latter half of Season 2.
The character whom I find most interesting in Asylum is the ominous Dr. Arthur Arden (fantastically played by James Cromwell). First off, there’s a palpable tension between Arden and Sister Jude. I love how this second season has brought together Jessica Lange and James Crowmwell. Not enough older actors are given such incredible material as American Horror Story to explore through character; here, we get two downright iconic actors, in my opinion, chewing on luscious scenery and intense character scene after scene.
Immediately in this episode, Arden and Jude are set as complete opposites. There’s something sinister about Arden off the bat, as his scene with Jude is intercut with creepy shots of a bowl of meat being gnawed on and thrown empty into the corner of a room. It’s dark stuff and I think lets us in on his evil backstory right away without hesitation. Also, while we come to discover Jude is a little less than holy herself in more ways than one, Arden comes off quickly to us as being a foreboding presence; not only physically, as Cromwell himself is massive, but in the whole way he acts, speaks, sounds.
Now we’re already seeing how unholy Sister Jude is underneath that black habit. Preparing for her dinner with the younger Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes), we can see Jude put on a blood red sex of lingerie, rubbing oil on her skin before getting dressed. She cooks dinner for the Monsignor, and even as they talk you can tell Sister Jude feels something – more – for the man. This little insight into Jude automatically makes her a conflicted character, as much as anyone else in Asylum. At first, Monsignor Howard seems on the up and up himself; we’ll see how true that holds as we move on through the season.
Great dreamy sequence here. Sister Jude imagines herself unbuttoning the habit, revealing her lingerie and sitting in the Monsignor’s lap, embracing him. Then she snaps back to their dinner and all is normal. Once more, like Season 1, that psychosexual feeling worms its way through the characters, the dialogue, the scenes.
Furthermore, Dr. Arden has his hooks in poor, fragile little Sister Mary Eunice. The bad doctor has her bringing buckets out into the woods, obviously to feed something; we don’t know what as of yet, though.
In the forest, Sister Mary is confronted by Lana Winters who is looking for a way inside the asylum. She wants an inside scoop. Scared and worried Jude may find out she was out there, Sister Mary brings Lana inside. This sets into motion something unstoppable and terrifying.
At the same time, Dr. Arden comes for Kit in his cell, injecting him in the neck with something and proclaiming: “You don‘t belong in here.” If I were Kit, I’d be awful worried. There’s nothing good about the feeling Arden produces as soon as he’s onscreen.
Kit’s story of “little green men“, as Jude calls it, comes back into play. Arden doesn’t know it right away, but he’s becoming drawn into a web of extraterrestrial technology. He believes it’s government work at first. Slowly it all will be revealed.
Worst of all, though, is the situation of Lana Winters. She’s found a way into the asylum, but in a time long before any professionalism found its way into the psychiatric world – especially the ones run by the Roman Catholic Church – she also finds herself in a terrible place once getting knocked out, poking about one of the cells. When she wakes up, Sister Jude has Lana strapped into a hospital bed, ready for treatment. Using Lana’s relationship with Wendy Peyser (Clea DuVall) – a lesbian relationship far ahead of the social times unfortunately – Sister Jude is able to have Ms. Winters officially committed, blackmailing Wendy into signing documents or else her homosexuality be revealed to the school where she teaches.
I love how American Horror Story is able to take on LGBTQ issues through a horror landscape. Something I’m a big fan of. It isn’t preachy in any way, it’s a very intriguing view and perspective into the gay issues facing us even today. But especially, with the 1964 main storyline, the whole aspect of having Lana and Wendy as a lesbian couple really goes head-on at how society treated homosexuality even just 50 years ago. Lots more where that came from! It gets better in further episodes, especially once Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto) is introduced to help the patients.
Some awesome little references to other films I want to discuss briefly:
A Clockwork Orange – Kit hooked up to the eye-opening equipment of Dr. Arden with blue & red bulbs attached to a strap across his forehead. Very cool homage to Stanley Kubrick’s horrifying classic.
The Silence of the Lambs – Spivey throws semen in the face of Sister Mary Eunice just as Multiple Miggs did to Clarice Starling in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
Awesome ending to this episode, as we see Teresa (Dewan Tatum) in present day trying to escape Briarcliff and get her husband Leo (Levine) some help. She runs down through the tunnels below, where Dr. Arden spends quite a bit of time this season, and then before the episode cuts she runs into – Bloody Face? It appears so, even decades after his reign of terror.
But we’ll learn much more about that later.
Next episode is titled “Tricks and Treats”, directed by Bradley Buecker again. I like that, helps keep the initial two episodes in a cohesive unit and sort of moulds everything together off the chopping block.
Stay tuned for more horror, sex, and all around savagery!!