American Horror Story: Madness Ends

Posted on January 24, 2013

Our thoughts on this episode – and the second season as a whole – are fractured and contradictory, we’re warning you now. But then, isn’t that to be expected when discussing such a fractured and occasionally contradictory show?

Here’s the thing: this finale episode managed the odd trick of not really giving us what we wanted or expected (closure on the mysteries of Briarcliff, from the devil to the aliens) and instead gave us something else; something we may have needed more than wanted: emotional closure. This season of the show was characterized by some very dark moments and scenes, bordering on torture porn. And sure, last season got dark plenty of times, but the basic feel of the show back then was anchored in a sort of campfest, Grand Guignol style. Ironically, last season, which was set in the present day, felt like an ode to classic horror films of the ’60s and ’70s, while this season, which was set in the ’60s and ’70s, was stylized like a modern horror story, all torture and art direction; jump cuts and crazy camera moves. When it was all over, and our disappointment (more on that in a bit) subsided, we realized that it was, in a way, kinder to the audience to give them this; a rambling, sometimes slow and languorous walk to the end of the line with each of the remaining characters, having watched them all go through hell. We said last week that it was a rare thing to see what happens to characters after the horror of a horror story has been vanquished, but they took that even further with this episode, following every remaining character (but one, of course) to their grave. When it comes to closure, it doesn’t get any more comprehensive than that.

Or does it? Because questions, perhaps unsurprisingly, remain. We think we speak for a rather large portion of the audience when we say, in re: the aliens, “What the FUCK? THAT’S IT?” No explanation for them, really. No resolution. We suppose, if we take the generous route, that they could plausibly be seen as stand-ins for angels, in opposition to so very many devils populating the story. But we’re not sure the show is capable of that kind of symbolism. More likely, they just wanted to add that extra pinch of insanity to the soup and figured aliens made a good counterpart to zombies, demons, and Nazis. Still, it’s asking a lot of an audience to accept that. “See? ALIENS! Psych! No you don’t!” Sure, it’s nice that they played into Kit’s ending, but that left Kit as the least explored and explained of the main characters. It’s safe to say we know Lana and Judy intimately by now, but Kit is just a nice guy with a thick accent and some groovy clothes. Oh, and aliens treat him like the Messiah, for some reason. Also, his eerie kids are … well, nothing but a couple of overachievers, really. Kit’s story was all setup, with no payoff.

And yet, we found ourselves near tears watching the drama play out in Kit’s house. Judy Martin came to her end in a manner most unlikely, given her history: with dignity and a heart full of love. It was a lovely grace moment; an absolution and a comfortable bed for a tortured woman so she finally could let it all go and be relieved of her pain, her battle with Satan having almost completely destroyed her. Almost. Another stunning performance by Miss Jessica.

But this season of AHS wasn’t Judy Martin’s story so much as it was Lana Winters’, and it was telling that she was the only character left standing (literally) when the credits rolled. What we got with Lana was an engrossing depiction of post-traumatic stress and how catastrophic events and torture can echo decades down the line for a person. After Briarcliff, Lana became a sort of lesbian Barbara Walters; highly successful, famous, and respected. But she was also hard, manipulative, and dishonest. Ironically, those last three qualities saved her life. After all, it takes a pretty hard woman to manipulate her son into handing her a gun by lying to him about her feelings. Her last action was a “FUCK YEAH” of a moment, but it was also indicative of how damaged Lana is, half a century after rape, torture, aversion therapy and an attempted coathanger abortion. Being a survivor is admirable, but it changes you in ways you might not like. And of all people, it was Sister Jude back in 1964 who understood this Nietzschian concept the best. Because what is “If you look in the face of evil, evil’s going to look right back at you,” but a folksier way of saying, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you?” Jude knew this, even before all the madness started: You bring your agenda and your ambition into a place like this and you’re going to pay a heavy price for it. Twelve hours later, and we’re still marveling over that final scene, as well as Sarah Paulson’s Emmy-worthy performance.

But did it feel like a horror story to you, at the end? When you expand way past the borders of a story, deciding to follow almost every character to their death, years after the main events happened, haven’t you just abandoned genre completely? If a romantic comedy spent its last half hour following the characters into old age and death, wouldn’t it stop being a romantic comedy? If Die Hard’s third act showed Bruce Willis shuffling off into old age and irrelevancy, wouldn’t it stop feeling like an action movie? Because you can pretty much guarantee wringing a few sniffles out of your audience and having your better actors give a great performance if you just hand out death scenes to everyone. Was it a cheat for Murphy to take it this far or was it a bold, genre-bending kind of a move? We are sure of two things:

  1. This was a much more ambitious season than the first one. It may have had some issues throughout, but that’s nothing new. In the end, we find ourselves impressed with the boldness of the effort and give the team high marks on hitting their goal. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a lot more thought-provoking and engrossing than the very good first season.
  2. Lana Winters’ wardrobe is FUCKING FABULOUS. Did you see her serving up Jacqueline Susann realness in that playground? We died.

 

[Stills: tomandlorenzo.com]

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