Friday, October 19, 2012

American Horror Story Season 2, Episode 1: Welcome to Briarcliff

A new season of American Horror Story has begun and it’s a complete revamp, nothing from the old series applies, with a whole new setting, a whole new cast and a whole new concept.

And this is introduced by Leo and Teresa, newly weds. She’s a horror buff, so on their honeymoon, they’re doing a tour of the most haunted locations in America and having sex in all of them. That’s one way to celebrate. Which brings them to the ruins of Briarcliff. Teresa’s research says it used to be the largest tuberculosis ward on east coast in which 46,000 people died – and they shuttled the bodies out in and underground tunnel called the death chute, nice. After that it was bought by the Catholic church and turned into sanatorium for the criminally insane. They walk through the halls and find it extremely spooky with extra creepiness because of the discarded clothing and graffiti – including a reference to “Bloody Face” a brutal serial killer and the most notorious resident of the asylum.

They’re quickly distracted by a bed with restraints, which attracts the horny couple. Leo ties Teresa down and they begin to roleplay and have sex – but are interrupted by a noise. She wants to go investigate and bribes him with repeated offers of sex to go check it out. They reach a large metal door that’s closed – but it has a hatch on it. Following more inducements from Teresa, Leo agrees to stick his arm inside – and promptly gets it ripped off (silly boy)

From there we zap back to 1964, where Kit is working in a petrol station and just closing up for the night. After a moment, where everyone gasps at how cheap gas was back then, Kit gets a visit from his friends who want to borrow his boss’s gun. They want it to threaten a Black person (yes the word used was the N-word) they accuse him of being with one of their sisters. There follows a series of not-very-subtle racist allusions (does he have a maid, some comments about chocolate) that suggest Kit is in an interracial relationship. Kit ignores them and refuses to join them.

He goes home to Alma, his wife, a Black woman. He puts on his wedding ring that he took off for work – they had to leave the state, to Provincetown to get married and he has to keep it secret. He talks about wishing he could tell the world, that they broke no laws – but she says it’s not safe and they have to hide – the world is wrong and the world will change one day. They have sex before dinner and are an extremely affection couple.

Then lights appear in garden – fearing his friends are there to harass him, Kit grabs a shotgun and runs outside, telling Alma to stay inside. But the light is in the sky – he tries shooting it but it does nothing. He runs back into the house where Alma screams for help. He is overwhelmed by the light and the noise that drives him to the floor. It goes briefly quiet before everything in the house – including him – is pulled up to the ceiling – followed by a brief flash of light and a green, alien hand reaching for him. Alien abduction? Really American Horror Story? That’s not jumping the shark, that’s vaulting the damn whale.

Off to Briarcliff, still in 1964, to follow Lana, a journalist, going to the asylum to do a news report on their bakery (yeah right). She’s greeted by Sister Mary Eunice of the Wet Lettuce and lead through the asylum, where the poor people incarcerated are presented as scary and repulsive – and not just the treatment of them – sort it out AHS, this kind of portrayal of the mentally ill should be done away with. Sister Eunice takes her to see the ruler of the asylum – Sister Jude who is busy shaving a woman’s hair.

With the Wet Lettuce and the shaved woman being removed from the room, it’s time for Sister Jude to share her vision of the world with Lana the journalist. Sally, the woman who she was shaving, is a nymphomaniac and Jude is trying to shame her. Lana is troubled by this and by Jude, who dismisses psychiatry, saying that “mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin,” alllll righty then, there’s Sister Jude explained pretty close. She runs the asylum for Monsignor Howard according to his three principles – Productivity, Prayer and Purification.

Having the asylum's credentials well and truly smashed into pieces, it’s time for Sister Wet Lettuce to burst in and advance the story – the “Bad Man” is here. That would be Bloody Face, the notorious serial killer who decapitated 3 women while wearing a mask of human flesh, who has been sent to the asylum while the courts decide if he is fit to stand trial. Jude and Lana butt heads when it becomes clear that Lana couldn’t give a damn about the bakery and its maple bread and is really there to get the inside scoop on Bloody Face.

Bloody Face is escorted to the front door in restraints – it’s Kit. And he goes through the less than pleasant admissions procedure, which contains the harsh “hygiene” these institutions inflicted on new arrivals. He wakes in a bed with Sister Jude looming over him, who lets him know she’s not happy with holding him for the court and she intends make him repent to God instead. He doesn’t believe in God after the horrors he’s seen, but she isn’t buying his tales of little green men. Then, because absolutely everyone who ever meets Kit has to do so, she makes a racist comment about his dead wife (one of the murder victims) and Kit spits on her. In response, she has him caned.

After this, Kit gets to go to the common room with the other inmates, where we find the next item of utter cruelty the asylum forces on them – listening to “Dominique” played over and over again. Talk about breaking spirits. In the common room, Sally makes a pass at Kit, until he pushes her away and we see more of the inmates presented as freaky or disturbing – enough now American Horror Story, a season of this will get very old, very fast. Kit walks over to the record player but another inmate, Grace, intervenes. Claiming sanity, she warns him that if he breaks the rules – like stopping the damned music, he’ll be beaten and any of the inmates will rat him out for a treat. It’s then that another inmate, Spivey, realises that we haven’t had a crude racist reference to Kit’s dead wife in like, 5 minutes, so quickly rushes in to add his. Kit and Spivey fight, broken off when Jude and the orderlies come in and one of the orderlies knocks Kit unconscious.

He’s in solitary confinement, remembering his wife, but Grace brings him food and a cigarette as a random act of kindness. We learn she is accused of having chopped up her family but, like him, she denies her guilt and her insanity. She also says if he isn’t insane that’s bad for him – because he’ll be executed.

Later, we see Sister Mary Wet Lettuce crying because one of the inmates is gone – a medical emergency required “Willie” to be taken to Dr. Arden. Jude gets the information out of the sodden mess of tears and goes to confront Dr. Arden for a battle of wills that looks like it’s going to be series long and epic. He shows her his irradiated plants, which are apparently fancy and they begin a clash of civilizations – science vs religion and both representing the worst excesses of each (quite an interesting theme really, I like how it’s presented). We learn that 4 patients have disappeared under Dr. Arden’s control, all ones with no-one to care for them, no-one to ask questions or grieve. He says they died, their cause of death is on the death certificate and they were cremated. She, not being a fool, doesn’t believe him – it also looks like she cares in her own twisted fashion.

Let’s swing back in with Lana who is at home, inflicting her much joked-about horrible cooking on her partner, Wendy. They are a couple, a loving and caring couple at that – actual lesbian representation! I don’t know whether to celebrate or worry about what’s coming. Lana complains that her editor wants her to write a cooking column rather than write actual, real news. She’s determined to expose the Briarcliff asylum, get herself a Pulitzer and prove herself. Wendy is willing to support her every step of the way, if she wants to pursue this. They start to kiss, but Wendy protests the blinds are open and hurries to close them. She’s a teacher and she cannot risk anyone finding out she’s a lesbian or she will be ruined.

Back to Sister Jude cooking coq au vin – and the revelation that she wears red underwear and perfume under her habit. She’s cooking for Monsignor Howard and clearly isn’t so much carryingtorch for him, so much as hauling a bonfire. At dinner, he flirts and compliments like a master with lots of oh-so-inappropriate hints about decadence and enjoying life. While she is crushing hard on him, she still pushes about Dr. Arden and the priest gives her a gentle reprimand (the doctor has been approved by the church who are a better judge than her) and gives a big speech about progress, what science has achieved and the possibility of doing anything if mankind just puts their mind to it. She protests since saving souls is the only achievement they could ever want. He counters with his wish to be Cardinal – and perhaps even Pope one day – all with her by his side, his strong right hand. She then has a fantasy of taking off her habit and crawling onto the Monsignor – which then shifts to show the Monsignor telling her that he needs her to co-operate with Dr. Arden. It’s craftily done because I’m not sure how much of the whole “cardinal, pope, you my right hand” was her fantasy as well.

Now to a scene with Sister Wet Lettuce taking buckets of… meat out into the grounds, intercut with her having a conversation with Dr. Arden about “they” getting hungrier and needing meat – and how she has to trust him. Like a good Lettuce, she leaves the buckets behind as things snarl and growl in the bushes. As she hurries back to Briarcliff, she runs into the snooping Lana who wants to talk. Sister Lettuce doesn’t want to spend a second out there with the snarling beasts and drags Lana up the Death Chute tunnel and barricades the way behind her (with a mattress, but hey, she tried).

For some reason, we have an unnecessary flash back to the future with Leo bleeding to death without an arm and Teresa running around looking for a way out to find a phone to call for help – but all the exits are blocked and she ends up running down the Death Chute

Back to the past and Lana is blackmailing Sister Wet Lettuce with the threat of telling Sister Jude about her sneaking out at night. She wants to see Bloody Face and demands to be allowed to sneak around. Sister Wet Lettuce reluctantly takes her through the asylum to the men’s ward – where Spivey throws feces at her. Ick ick and yet more, ick. She leaves Lana alone to do her own scouting while she cleans up. Lana runs into Shelly entertaining one of the orderlies and is told that Kit is in solitary as punishment.

Kit, however, is not in solitary as Dr. Arden has drugged him and carted him off saying “you don’t belong here when there’s so much to learn”. Which is not ominous at all. He takes Kit to the lab where he talks about how he runs the place not Jude, how scientists were once persecuted by barbarians like her and how this is the age of science etc etc, I’m so enlightened, I now want to cut open your skull without anaesthetic – also, how do you like my collection of brains? The not-even-slightly-good doctor fits Kit with weird baubles around his head and starts examining him while Kit has visions of the aliens doing the same thing – until the doctor finds a lump in Kit’s neck. In Kit’s visions we see the aliens cut him there. The doctor slices into the lump and pulls out a microchip – in 1964. Which then grows spider legs and scrambles away… oooooookay.

Lana, meanwhile, keeps on nosing around until she finds a closed door – the door that, in the future, will eat Leo’s arm. Opening the hatch to peak inside, she’s grabbed by a huge, monstrous arm that smacks her head against the door.

Cut to Sister Wet Lettuce in Jude’s office blubbering about the many many bad decisions she’s made. Sister Jude is an expert at wielding the verbal knife and reducing Wet Lettuce to a puddle – telling Wet Lettuce how all the other nuns called her stupid and how Jude was such a fool to believe there was more to Wet Lettuce than they thought. A complete wreck, Wet Lettuce grabs one of Sister Jude’s canes and begs to be punished, hitting her head on the desk, calling herself stupid. Sister Jude tells her to get out and further adds that she will beat Wet lettuce bloody if she ever calls herself stupid again. Yeah, she’s mastered the art of messing with someone’s head.

Speaking of – Lana wakes up restrained to a bed with a metal ring around her head. Sister Jude is by her bed and says she can’t move because she has a long recovery ahead. Lana protests that they can’t keep her there – she has people who will look for her. We cut to Jude going to see Wendy where she tells Wendy she isn’t family, that she has no legal right to visit Lana and we learn that Lana’s parents don’t talk to her. Jude talks about protecting children and how Wendy, as a school teacher, has a duty to keep them safe from people like Lana – inverts, homosexuals. She presents Wendy with a document to sign, exposing Lana and, with the help of a friendly judge, having her committed to Briarcliff. Wendy resists – but Jude threatens to out her, to tell the PTA, to expose her as a lesbian teacher – the scandal will ruin her and Lana will end up locked up anyway. Crying and sobbing, Wendy signs the document.

Which Jude shows to Lana in her bed. Lana cries and yells at Jude as she leaves.

Jude has been given some of Dr. Arden’s keys, which were stolen by Sister Wet Lettuce and is determined to find out what he’s doing. She goes to the arm-eating cell, opens it – and finds Dr. Arden inside, scrubbing it clean. The walls are marred by many many scratches, like something clawing to get out. She says something has been living in there, he protests that the room was locked and empty and he’s just opening it for extra storage space.

We close in the future with Teresa running as Leo bleeds to death – at the end of the tunnel she runs into Bloody Face – a man with a knife and a skin mask.

I have to admit, I was expecting to cringe through this show. The last season, after all, had so many utter Hot Mess moments where it positively revelled in prejudice and bigotry that I felt I needed some kind of shielding around the screen either to shield me from the horror or to shield the screen from what I threw at it.

And this episode? Yes, it made me cringe – but for a very different reason. It is a show set in 1964 and most of the marginalised issues they show cover the overtly bigoted attitudes and actions of that time (not that these attitudes or issues are erased – not by a long shot). The mentally ill are chained and controlled  like animals, mental illness was (and is) considered an excuse for sin by many. The “treatment” of the mentally ill for a long time was that of control and containment rather than cure. Interracial relationships were banned by law, faced (and face) immense prejudice and violence. Being gay was illegal in all but one state at the time and wasn’t universally legalised until 2003 and teachers today are still legally fired for being gay, let alone back then. Was it stark? Yes. Was what was portrayed deeply bigoted? Yes. Was it hard to watch? But these things happened and pretending they didn’t is just erasure.

Ironically, they also do a better job of challenging the bigotry than season 1, set in the modern world, did. In season 1, a slur would be used and brushed off. In this episode, when someone makes a racist comment about Kit’s wife, he spits at them or fights them. When they attack his love, we’ve seen how loving and caring that relationship was. When Sister Jude blackmails Wendy into signing the paper, you see the pain and the cruelty of it and you see what kind of relationship they had. The people’s actions in trying to hide from a judgemental world (even lines like “one day it’ll be different”) and discussions of the evil ways people will act to them point to an overt acknowledgement in the show of prejudice and how wrong it is.

That’s not to say it didn’t fail. It failed to present the mentally ill inmates of the Asylum in a humanising way – the only people who seem to be people, or people we can identify with, are those who disavow their insanity. It was also excessive in the sheer number of times Kit and Alma’s interracial relationship was attacked – it seemed everyone needed to get their words in when the point was already long established.

But ultimately, my cringing in the first season was due to the casual usage of, acceptance of and perpetuating of prejudice. This episode my cringing – and moments when I had to pause and take a breath – were due to stark depictions of an evil reality that wasn’t sugar coated and was, in some ways at least, presented as wrong. Is it hard to watch? Yes, very – and it should be.

So… based on this, I think it’s going to be an uncomfortable show to watch – but for very different reasons. But I’d also like to see some marginalised people who aren’t victims and some more POC.