TV Review: 'American Horror Story: Asylum'


If you liked season one of American Horror Story, then you will love American Horror Story: Asylum. If you couldn’t get involved in season one, thought it was too frenetic or too cliched, guess what? It is unlikely that you will feel any different about season two.

Set in 1964 (with the exception of pointless modern-day wrap-arounds), Asylum takes place at Briarcliff Asylum in New York. Originally a state tuberculosis ward, the Catholic church bought it in 1962 and turned it into a sanitarium run by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) who rules with an iron fist. She leaves no room for questionable morals (despite her own sexual fantasies for Monsignor O’Hara) yet is not above trickery to get what she wants. Sister Jude’s religion is at odds with Dr. Arden’s science. Played by James Cromwell, Dr. Arden is a mad scientist who truly believes that he can cure madness - but through bizarre experiments and lots of lobotomies. Lana (Sarah Paulson) is a reporter who is desperate to break away from the household tips beat, so she uses an interview at Briarcliff about their on-site bakery as an excuse to dig around about the asylum’s newest - and most infamous - inmate, serial killer Bloody Face. (A direct rip-off of Leatherface or, more kindly, a character inspired by Ed Gein, Bloody Face killed and decapitated at least three women, and wore their skin as a mask.) Naturally, the halls of the dank, prison-like asylum are filled with the craziest inmates - many of which are almost cartoonish.

Asylum walks a fine line in the portrayal of inmates and the hospital itself. From my limited research of mental institutions of the time, the living conditions in Asylum (more like a prison than a hospital) are not far from the truth; same goes for the types of people who were locked up (from the genuinely crazy to people with physical abnormalities to homosexuals.) Of course, in Asylum, all the patients are presented as monsters. For example, when Lana first appears at the asylum, she is greeted by a microcephalic girl (aka a “pinhead”) who gives her a flower. Though Lana treats her warmly, the sudden appearance of the girl, the stern music cues, and Sister Eunice (Lily Rabe) shooing her away (explaining that she drowned her sister’s baby and cut off its ears) suggest she is someone we should fear. Clearly, the microcephalic girl’s appearance was meant purely for shock value.

While season one was mostly controversy-free, I could see Asylum really riling up religious groups. It is clear that the season will be a confrontation between science and religion; however, based on the first episode, both camps seem to be cast in an unsavory light. Of course, Ms. Lange touching herself while wearing red lingerie and her nun’s wimple probably won’t make her a hero amongst practicing Catholics, either. And I have to say, that while Lange is stellar in this, as she is in everything else she does, I do not see this role as an Emmy lock like I did AHS season one. Her portrayal of Constance last year was subtle and layered, with highs and lows. This year’s Sister Jude seems to have one countenance: stern anger.

I like the idea of this year’s “horror story” being set in a mental institution - personally, I can’t think of any location more terrifying - but like season one, I feel like creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are pretty much throwing every fucked-up thing they can think of into the mix, and seeing what sticks. The show is dark, manic, and, well, there is no better way to describe it: fucked up.

American Horror Story: Asylum airs Wednesday nights on FX beginning October 17th.