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Looking Back: A Method to American Horror Story's Madness

02/12/2013 11:45 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2013
  • Michael Ardan Michael Ardan is a designer and art director living in New York City.

Now that the dust has settled and we've had a few days to process the final episode of American Horror Story: Asylum, we can finally step back, shake off that vague dirty feeling, and ask ourselves: What exactly just happened here? Be warned... spoilers lie ahead.

American Horror Story is a strange animal. It's an anthology series, meaning each story wraps up (with varying degrees of closure) by the end of each season, and actors return to the show each year playing completely new characters. It's also a series that revels in its own strangeness. This season involved a myriad of villains: violent nuns and a murderous priest, a serial killer, mutant zombies, a Santa Claus (!), a Nazi, aliens, and even Satan him(or her)self. This is a show that brought us notable quotables like, "show me your mossy bank," and "baby needs colostrum," spoken by respected actors without the slightest bit of irony.

Of course, such an animal requires a great deal of trust between the actors and creator Ryan Murphy. Production details are kept notoriously secretive and scripts are held tightly under wraps, even from the cast, so actors rarely knew very much about what they were getting themselves into. I suppose the upside to this is that it left little time for second guessing when, for instance, Chloë Sevigny was told that her character's legs would be amputated or Dylan McDermott was asked to pretend to breastfeed from an actress playing a prostitute. Julieanne Smolinksi, the hilariously talented writer who recaps the show for vulture.com said it best:

One thing became rapidly evident this season: This is less of a television series than an acting showcase, and I'm completely okay with that. It's like if you showed up to drama class one day to find that your flamboyant instructor was tripping his face off on salvia: You're Anne Frank! You've been abducted by aliens! You're the angel of death! And, as in improv, there is no "no" in American Horror Story.

This show has brought us Connie Britton eating brains, and Chloë Sevigny being scarfed with a rosary. I love it because I generally can't believe they got X person to do Y bonkers thing, but they all look terrific doing it. When people tell me they've "given up" on the show, I think that perhaps they're missing the point. This is not Lost. You cannot think of this as a mystery show, because it isn't. It's a whole other creature... If you're watching for some kind of payoff at the end, you're watching wrong.

Because of the general looseness of the production dynamic, and the anthology format of each season, the show is free to stray at times from a standard structured plotline in favor of showing off the talents of its troupe of actors, particular the unquestionable star of the show, the incomparable Jessica Lange. Lange, for her part, is along for the ride and seems game for almost anything, whether that be stripping down to a sexy red teddy, getting strapped down to an electroshock table, or caning the bare bottoms of various fellow cast members (she did draw the line, she admitted to New York Magazine, after filming the second caning scene. "I really feel like we've established it," she recalled saying. "There's nothing more we have to investigate here. I'm done. I've done two of these scenes; I'm not going to do anymore. And that was fine."), but you get the feeling that Lange doesn't have much reason to complain, and she knows it. She is clearly having fun, and giving the performance of a lifetime. And Murphy readily admits that she is his star, recently telling a room full of reporters at an advance screening of the season 2 finale in L.A., "I got Jessica to do [another season] because I did everything she asked, which was the location and I told her she will have complete hair and makeup and have the best designer gowns ever," adding that he's still taking meetings with "actors Jessica wants to work with" for the new season.

And why not? She's a proven powerhouse with multiple awards (including two Oscars and five Golden Globes) under her belt, and her performance as feisty but damaged Sister Jude this season was perhaps even better than her Emmy/Golden Globe/SAG Award winning performance as season one's Constance Langdon, a seductively southern Grande Dame with dark secrets and skeletons literally buried in the back yard. The bottom line is: if Jessica Lange wants to have a song and dance number in the middle of an episode in which two major characters suffer violent deaths, then by all means get it done. And while you're at it, get the rest of the cast in to act as her backup dancers. It's all joyously weird, but refreshingly joyous nonetheless in an otherwise dark and twisted television show.

Needless to say, the storyline itself is somewhat of a living thing, allowing for changes as the season progresses and occasionally drifting from its original path. Last week I spoke to Naomi Grossman, the actress behind this season's popular microcephalic Pepper, who told me that while she had no doubt there was a carefully thought-out general plan for each season, she wouldn't be surprised if the writers used online fan reaction throughout the season to help gauge the way certain aspects of the story would proceed. That is entirely possible for a show that plans its production schedule so that the show wraps for the season just weeks before the finale airs. "[T]here's really no time for [second guessing ourselves] in a show like this," Grossman told me. "We really have to just jump in and do it."

I reached out to other cast and crew members for comments about the production process and, out of personal curiosity, the dynamic of working with the iconic Ms. Lange. Many either never responded or gave me various versions of 'no time to comment' (through publicists). One person involved in the show assured me via email that Ms. Lange was a dream, but refused to comment on the record about anything that may be construed as gossip, adding: "The fact is [Lange] is the queen bee -- so anything that sounds at all like a diss could absolutely get me nixed from next season."

A show like this, which exists for the sake of its cast and the wild whims of Murphy, his star, and his band of writers, will always bring about criticism. The sheer wackiness of it means that it's impossible to please all fans, and there is certainly a consistent flow of complaints. It's too crazy, too weird. It isn't real horror. It is, after all, called American Horror Story, so why isn't it scarier? The fact of the matter is that's never been the purpose of the show. It's called American Horror Story, yes, but (strange as it may sound) it's always been about real American horrors -- the terrible things that affect real people every day. The first season dealt with tragedy, the death of loved ones, child abduction, school shootings, home invasions; and on a more personal level: infidelity, the destruction of a family, and dealing with the ghosts of the past. The second season involved (well, lots of crazy things, but mainly) rape, the deterioration of the mind, poor health care, being locked away unjustly, women and gays/lesbians being persecuted, etc. All the rest, the demons and the ghosts and the other horror tropes, are more metaphorical than anything else. It's a little on-the-nose sometimes, but when it works, it works.

On a simpler level, the show is very much about the choices people make and the way those choices affect them and others around them. In the final scene of this year's finale we are presented with an extended flashback to the first episode of the season, when Sarah Paulson's Lana meets Jessica Lange's Sister Jude. Lana is an ambitious young reporter who has come to Briarcliff Asylum in search of that one-of-a-kind career making story: an inside look at the notorious serial killer Bloody Face, who is rumored to be admitted into Briarcliff that day. Sister Jude is the asylum's head administrator -- a battleax of a nun with a sharp tongue and a thick Massachusetts accent -- who knows a determined woman with big dreams when she sees one. Jude abruptly dismisses Lana, but Lana is persistent. Finally, Jude offers an ominous warning: "I do hope you know what you're in for. The loneliness, the heartbreak, the sacrifice you'll face as a woman with a dream, on her own... just remember, if you look in the face of evil, evil's gonna look right back at you."

The last part of that line is a paraphrase of a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche: "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." Immerse yourself in darkness and it's nearly impossible to make it out unscathed. In other words, everything comes at a price, and just be sure you're willing to pay up and live with it. Lana certainly makes her choice, picking ambition over all else, and for that she pays dearly. On her quest for greatness she is locked up, tortured, subjected to electroshock and gay aversion therapy, her lover is brutally murdered, and she is held prisoner and raped. Perhaps the only thing that keeps her going is the fantasy of future awards ceremonies she creates in her increasingly fragile mind--visions of Pulitzers dancing in her head. Never one to be underestimated, Lana does finally make it out alive and eventually ends up with exactly what she always wanted: a groundbreaking exposé that sparks the career of her dreams and a life of fame. But just as Jude and Nietzsche warned, she does not come out of the darkness wholly unaffected. Her path to success was a long and impossibly bleak one, and she sacrificed everything (and pretty much everyone around her) along the way.

Interestingly, this ties in nicely with another theme of the series: the curious nature of evil, and how certain incidents and life decisions may or may not doom us to a particular fate. It's a derivative of the old question of nature vs. nurture: do our personal experiences and outside environment determine who we will become, or are we, as Noam Chomsky and Lady Gaga say, simply born that way? This question is perhaps most thoroughly explored in the season two episode "Origins of Monstrosity," where we are presented with two juxtaposing origin stories. On one hand, we have Dr. Oliver Thredsen (Zachary Quinto), who was abandoned by his mother as a child and shuffled into the system as another orphan all but forgotten by the rest of the world. On the other hand is Jenny Reynolds, a young girl (played with chilling skill by a nine year old Nikki Hahn) with a good life and a loving family, who wants for nothing. The catch: both of these characters are now ruthless serial murderers. So were they programmed that way, or did something happen to trigger it in them? In a world where Satan, angels, and aliens all exist (literally) under the same roof, we're left wondering if maybe both explanations are possible.

The whole concept of fate, choice, and karmic retribution was first explored back in season one. In one memorably bonkers episode, Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet guest stars as Derrick, a nebbish everyman who seeks out therapist Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott), to help deal with an irrational fear of mirrors stemming from a childhood ghost story about the Piggy Man, a Chicago butcher who was eaten alive by his own hogs. According to the legend, the ghost of the Piggy Man will appear and take vengeance on anyone who recites, "Here piggy, piggy, piggy" into a mirror in a dark room. Dr. Harmon, in an attempt to help Derrick conquer his fear, suggests that the only way to prove to himself the story is not real is to look into a mirror and try summoning the Piggy Man. Derrick reluctantly agrees and does just that, but in a cruel twist of fate, just as he gets to the final "piggy," he is shot and killed by a burglar hiding in the shower. The idea is that Derrick, having lived his life in fear, was quite literally doomed to be overtaken by that fear. Speaking about the episode, Ryan Murphy told Entertainment Weekly, "I love what the story is about. I like the idea that you attract fear to you."

This sentiment can also be seen in something the character Grace (Lizzie Brochere) says in the season two premiere when we first meet her: "What you put out into the world comes back to you." In retrospect, this was an eerily prophetic statement foreshadowing her own death (Grace was admitted to Briarcliff after she snapped and murdered her family with an axe; in the end, she too was murdered with an axe), as well as the deaths of various other characters: Dr. Arden (the always delightful James Cromwell) was a Nazi officer in a concentration camp who was burned alive in an oven like so many of the prisoners he oversaw. Oliver Thredson and son Johnny (Dylan McDermott again) both became serial killers and both plotted to kill Lana, but they were both killed by her instead. Sweet Sister Mary Eunice (played brilliantly by Lily Rabe) was genuinely good but her personal weakness allowed the devil to take her over and cause her to fall from grace. She later literally fell to her death because of it. Again, a little on the nose, but there's a little bit of wicked poetic justice in the whole thing.

And therein lies the rub; even at its seemingly haphazard craziest, there is a meaning to it all, a method to the madness. In many ways, American Horror Story is Ryan Murphy's most ambitious project to date -- a sprawling morality tale spanning across America's history and landscape (next season supposedly takes place across several cities and multiple time periods). Stories and characters come and go and disappear forever, and by the end of each season few are left standing. Like the cast and crew, the audience is asked to just let go and trust that Ryan Murphy knows what he's doing, and even when he doesn't, we at least have to be willing to go along for the ride. And it's always one hell of a ride.