Thoughts on “American Horror Story: Asylum”

“Asylum” is the second season of “American Horror Story”, and it seems to combine the issues of the first season with the issues that will become much worse in the next couple of seasons.

The first issue is that instead of being a tight, focused story it combines a number of different plots into one loosely related plot and so loses the focus.  We have a serial killer in modern times, which is what starts the season (a newlywed couple are exploring the abandoned asylum and meet the killer).  Then we also have a number of plots set back in the time when the asylum was active, where most of the time is spent.  We have the original serial killer plot.  We have a UFO abduction plot.  We have a demonic possession plot.  We have a Nazi scientist creating horrors plot.  We have the horrors of the asylum being driven by the psychotic head nun plot.  And we have the reporter trying to figure all this out and getting trapped inside the asylum plot.  There’s just way too many plots going on here for something that’s only going to run for thirteen episodes.  The serial killer angle with the reporter, the guy accused of it, and the UFO abduction that the serial killings mask would work as a main plot, while the power struggle between the head nun, the demon and the doctor would have worked as an interesting B-plot that could have brought a break from the main plot but also tied into it.  The modern killings could have been cut completely as all they did was set up for a plot point in the ending that actually would have followed as well if not better just from the original plot itself, and showing murders in the modern era didn’t add anything to that.  Instead, it’s all a mix of convoluted ideas that often only seem to be there to do cool things (the demon plot really seems like that, as it has no real impact on anything in the show).

The other issue is that it seems to be focusing in Jessica Lange’s head nun character, who is sadistic and cruel and so isn’t sympathetic in any way.  This is despite the fact that the reporter and the nun that ends up being possessed are far more sympathetic and often seem to be characters that would work better as focus characters.  The reporter has good reasons to interact with everyone and is only there against her will, while it would have worked really well to have the nun being corrupted slowly instead of just turning into a completely evil demon.  But, no, instead the season focuses on the head nun who is ambitious and at least morally ambiguous, if not sadistic and evil.  And as noted the worst part about doing that is that the other characters and plots lose time that they needed to develop properly.  We don’t care that much about the demon-possessed nun, or the reporter, or the accused man and his disappeared wife and the woman who he falls in love with because we don’t get the chance to get to know them well enough, and often what we do know isn’t pleasant anyway.  This makes the more emotional scenes later fall flat, because we really don’t care enough about the characters or their predicament.

This also carries over to the ending, as while it’s told by the reporter, it focuses on making sure the head nun gets a good ending.  The reporter sets out to try to rescue her from the asylum before it closes, only to find out that the accused man already freed her and took her into his home.  This is despite the fact that his wife, after returning from being abducted by aliens, ended up in there after killing the woman he met in the asylum (they were living together in a polyamorous relationship, with their two children, who survived).  So he wants to save her, but not his wife whom he loved and went through hell for.  Then, she lives with them but has … issues, yet he comments that while she could be nasty at times the children loved her as they saw through it.  This is someone that early on he had to angrily yell at to not hit his kids (and I’m thinking that she wasn’t going to just give them a spanking).  Then she gets a nice death scene where she gets to give some final inspirational words and we’re supposed to feel emotional about it.  Except that she was a sadistic woman and we’re given no real reason to think that she’s reformed or redeemed in any way.  And she gets a better send off than the man does — he disappears in a flash of light after getting too old to do much — and a longer resolution to her arc than the seemingly more central serial killer son did.  The show didn’t even really resolve the UFO plot or why the kids were so special, despite harping it up throughout the series.

She’s also involved in one of the most obvious examples of where the writers took up time to do something cool but that wasn’t really relevant.  There’s one scene where the head nun is now a patient and a jukebox has been brought in to replace the record that she constantly repeated all the time (which, to be honest, I kinda missed when it was smashed and went away).  Anyway, we get a musical number to “The Name Game” starring the head nun, which turns out to all be in her head.  Unlike in “Agent Carter”, the scene is fun and not a total waste, but that’s only because it isn’t really related to anything in the season at all.  I would have been more forgiving of it if it hadn’t been for all the other things that were more cool than meaningful, like the two-parter with someone who is supposedly Anne Frank that only reveals what we already knew about the doctor and that could have been revealed without that, especially given its meaningless ending.  They have thirteen episodes; they really needed to get on with things.

There are also some Social Justice elements as well.  At the risk of being branded anti-gay, I reacted to the revelation early on in the season that the reporter was a lesbian with rolled eyes and a “Of course she is”.  As in the first season, this wasn’t really relevant and nothing was done with it.  This could be another example of “normalization”, except that normalization means that you don’t make a big deal out of it and they did, using the time to make comments about discrimination against gay people.  Still, I probably would have forgiven it since it ultimately does do some things — explains why she’s locked up and the relationship to her lover when the lover is killed by the serial killer — and so is somewhat relevant.  The problem is that they also introduced, just before that, an interracial relationship and again explicitly called out the issues with those sorts of relationships, and of course that won’t be relevant to the story either.  Since that happened in the same episode if I recall correctly, it’s clear that they wanted to draw attention to that — thus ensuring that it can’t be normalization — but didn’t want to do anything with it either.  That it could have been done with a friends relationship or with other means only highlights how badly they mucked that up.

Because they have too many plotlines and focus on unsympathetic characters — especially the head nun — this isn’t a season that appealed to me.  It’s unlikely that I’d watch it again.

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One Response to “Thoughts on “American Horror Story: Asylum””

  1. Thoughts on “American Horror Story: Roanoke” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] left by Jessica Lange and Lady Gaga of being effectively the lead (she was also arguably the lead in “Asylum” and “Freakshow”, but was overshadowed by Jessica Lange).  Here, she plays the actress […]

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