Last week I criticized American Horror Story: Asylum for leaving no horror movie trope unturned. I was wrong. No one was possessed by the devil in the premiere. Ryan Murphy and his team took care of that this week in “Tricks and Treats,” the second episode of the season.
Zachary Quinto made his debut as Dr. Oliver Thredson, the psychiatrist assigned to evaluate alleged serial killer Kit Walker. Dr. Thredson is rightly horrified by the conditions of the Briarcliff Asylum and tries to talk to Sister Jude. “It’s a mad house, doctor. What did you expect?” she tells him. He particularly criticizes Sister Jude for using electroshock therapy to cure homosexuality. With a wink-wink and a nudge-nudge to the questionable practices that still exist in 2012, he states that “behavior modification is the current standard.”
The righteous Dr. Thredson barges in on Sister Jude’s consultation with the parents of a troubled boy. Dr. Thredson is determined to provide the distraught couple with the appropriate care for their son. But no amount of medical treatment is going to help him because he’s possessed by the devil. The self-satisfied look on Sister Jude’s face when Dr. Thredson realizes he’s out of his depth was great. The exorcism scene was very familiar—all it really needed was Linda Blair spinning her head.
Dr. Thredson also serves the important purpose of being the voice for the audience. Someone treating the patients there has to think what’s going on is awful. He’s also a character we can trust—so far. Given how crazy this show is, I suspect Dr. Thredson won’t stay normal and sane for long.
Sister Jude continues to be a fascinating contradiction. She has no problem caning inmates and using electroshock therapy to ensure that reporter Lana Winters loses her memory. But she obviously feels compassion for the possessed boy. And there is a look of guilt that flashes across her face before Lana’s electroshock therapy begins. Sister Jude is also the victim of blatant sexism. She’s kicked out when the exorcism begins because it’s no place for a woman. As the devil tells her, she’s “the smartest person in the room with no real power.”
The episode provided viewers with Sister Jude’s backstory. She was a woman who loved to party until one night she drove home drunk and struck a little girl. We are led to believe she joined the convent to save herself and squelch her inappropriate urges. Not a lot was done to make Jessica Lange look younger for those scenes, but viewers are probably to assume this was years ago since Sister Jude has risen up the ranks of the Catholic Church.
While Sister Jude is a more fully developed villain with reasons for her cruelty, Dr. Arthur Arden is simply evil and, therefore, less interesting. We learn that he likes to hire prostitutes and make them dress up like nuns. He also probably kills them, since Dr. Arden is my current pick for who is the real Bloody Face. I would say Dr. Arden is almost too obvious at this point, but there’s no such thing as too obvious on American Horror Story.
Viewers also learned more about Shelley, the nymphomaniac played by Chloe Sevingy. Shelley’s husband threw her in Briarcliff when he found her in bed with two other men. “Men like sex and no one calls them whores,” she tells Dr. Arden just in case viewers weren’t picking up on the double standards that pervaded society. But we’ve watched Mad Men; we know how it was.
Lana’s escape plan is thwarted when Grace tries to bring Kit along and that is Lana’s “line in the sand.” Even after Kit tried to help her, Lana doesn’t want to be the one responsible for letting a serial killer on the loose. I found it a little hard to believe Lana wouldn’t do everything possible to get out of that place, especially after the electroshock therapy. But it serves the story to keep Lana locked up.
With its discordant music and disjointed storytelling, American Horror Story: Asylum is still trying too hard to be dark, dank and disturbing. Everything is over-the-top. A smidge of subtlety would go a long way.