Note: Don't read on unless you've seen the Episode 13 (the last episode) of FX's "American Horror Story: Asylum," titled "Madness Ends."
"American Horror Story: Asylum" has done a lot of weird, unexpected things.
But what was weirdest about the finale was how moving it was.
Not the stuff with Dylan McDermott; that all took place in a heightened, melodramatic storyline that had a twisted "Peyton Place" vibe -- it was "Mad Men" with clinking cocktail glasses and a dark-haired, angry man who was truly mad in all sorts of ways Don Draper could only dream of.
Sarah Paulson and Zachary Quinto found exactly the right tone to bring to that storyline in their scenes together (they grounded their characters in some kind of emotional reality), and Evan Peters and Paulson exuded a kind of wounded warmth together when Lana went to visit Kit and his family. All three actors were crucial to what "AHS" tried to do this season: Kit's earnestness made the fever-dream world of Briarcliff seem real, and Paulson and Quinto navigated some of the season's campier elements without ever going too broad.
All three were perfectly suited to the strange souffle that was "Asylum," a show that actually requires a light hand, given the variety of tones and stories united under Briarcliff's cursed roof. McDermott just didn't have the kind of deftness the others did; I found his character's rantings and petulance fairly tiresome, as I did last season. Still, Paulson brought her usual intelligence and verve to her scenes with him, which made them bearable, and he appears to have permanently joined the show's repertory company, so I'll brace myself for future appearances from him.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this season was that I couldn't tell you what it was about, exactly, but it all hung together in a strangely pleasing way. The show's creative team staked out an exotic slice of territory with their own particular aesthetic and they populated it with people and events that felt as though they organically belonged there.
Everything we saw -- the interlocking, overlapping events involving aliens, Nazi sadists, nuns, a serial killer, mental patients, etc. -- amounted to a series of explorations. There was a certain amount of linearity to the season and I enjoyed the fact that several stories did accrue weight over time, but there was an impressionistic quality to the show that kept it limber and made it unpredictable. All those explorations had so much force, energy and imagination behind them that they rarely became dull (and my God, Lily Rabe gave a performance of such sustained deliciousness as Sister Mary Eunice that she alone was worth the price of admission).
All in all, "Asylum" was like a box of assorted candies that allowed you to find the one you liked best and spit out the one that didn't really agree with you (and yes, I realize I'm making that analogy about a show in which severed body parts were more common than bags of meth on "Breaking Bad"). You could feast on the ham that Ian McShane served up, contemplate the fact that Kit was stuck in the most bizarre sitcom of all time ("My Two Alien Babies"), enjoy Joseph Fiennes' repressed priest, get into the "Murder She Wrote" elements of Lana's investigations or just allow the whole thing to chaotically spin around you, like Pepper dancing around the day room.
Much of "Asylum" was about the horror that life can bring, and about cruelty and oppression and ugliness. But the centerpiece of the finale was about forgiveness, and that idea and the execution of it -- it was all just so damned lovely.
When Kit's children took Sister Jude's hands and calmed her and led her outside, it was such a moment of grace. What did the alien children do to her? Does it matter? Not really. Like the scene of Jude singing "The Name Game," the moment was compelling and weird and heartbreaking all at once. The tale of Jude and the children was a mystery that was more powerful for staying secret. Aliens, schmaliens: The big reveal at the end of this heady, strange season was that there's a big, sentimental heart beating at the center of "AHS."
There aren't enough words to convey what Jessica Lange brought to this season of "Asylum"; she didn't just bring Sister Jude to life, she gave the entire season a center of gravity and undeniable life force. Lange could go big in her scenes with James Cromwell and subtle and wounded in the last few episodes; there wasn't a note she couldn't play and she made it all look easy. It was like watching a virtuoso at work.
So much of the show was about people who had things ripped away from them -- so often, characters found themselves powerless and without the means to avoid or challenge the cruelty around them. Even though Lana's son couldn't forgive her (and she couldn't forgive herself, possibly), Kit forgave Jude and allowed her to have a few final months of peace. Briarcliff was supposed to make people better, and though Kit never deserved to be there, maybe what Sister Jude was trying to do actually worked for a few of the institution's inmates.
But nothing lasts forever in the world of "AHS," and next season, we'll get something entirely different. Who knows? It may not be my cup of tea. The show likes to take on big ideas (life, death, sex, the Church, God, aliens, Nazis), often in big, colorful ways, but by setting this particular season in the '60s, a time when powerful social institutions really could crush individuals, "AHS" made the stakes feel much more real and important. It could be florid and melodramatic and operatic, and all those tones just seemed to fit that time period and its shifting morality.
What's next? Well, if executive producers Ryan Murphy, Tim Minear and Brad Falchuk are taking requests for Season 3, how about Jessica Lange in space? It's just a thought.
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