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American Horror Story: Asylum Shows Its Big, Bloody Heart

Though the series might seem all style over substance, the finale of AHS: Asylum showed genuine sympathy for the monsters it created.

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20th Century Fox Television

American Horror Story: Asylum has, in turns, been about the Catholic Church, sexual repression, Nazis, eugenics, the Devil, misogyny, interracial relationships, serial killing and aliens. But in its final episode it sprung one more surprise on us, revealing itself as a story about parents and children, redemption, and forgiveness.

Because this is American Horror Story, of course, it was not that simple. In AHS’s moral universe, grace not always come where you expect it, nor do your sympathies end up where you might have predicted. In the end, Sister Jude–whom you would have made for a villain at the outset of the season–is saved mentally and spiritually, coming to find some kind of purpose and peace before she dies. Whereas Lana, framed as the protagonist and heroine at the start, ends the series as the much more complicated figure she turned out to be. And the season, which reached transcendent, ridiculous heights with its willingness to go anywhere to shock, turned out to have sincere heart.

“Madness Ends” was constructed as a long catch-up / flashback, with the present-day Lana reflecting on a long, storied, post-Briarcliff journalistic career. It ended, as the present-day storyline led us to expect, with a dramatic showdown between Lana and her abandoned son. (You do not cast Dylan McDermott unless you intend to give him a chance to Scream! Really! Loud!)

Lana’s abandonment of him, we find–at least as she tells it–was a complicated thing. She knew she couldn’t bring herself to love and care for a baby conceived in rape and torture; yet she also couldn’t force herself entirely not to love him, or at least to regret what had happened. Her final choice comes down, as many of her other decisions have, to self-preservation: she disarms him and guns him down. Yet there seems to be a genuine, unfeigned tenderness in their final encounter: “It’s not your fault, baby. It’s mine.”

Yes, but where does the fault end? Much of this season of AHS has been about showing how pain and evil are passed down through time, through generations and institutions; all the malign forces channeled into Briarcliff are eventually packed into the agonized frame of Bloody Face Jr. That doesn’t excuse individuals: in the end, it’s just you holding the gun, and you still have to decide whether to pull the trigger or not. But for a series that might seem all style over substance, AHS shows genuine sympathy for all its monsters.

That extends to Sister Jude, who got the most empathetic and oddly happy ending of AHS’s finale. Having first been Briarcliff’s torturer, then its prisoner, she ends up being the one character who manages, if only for a few final months, to break the patterns that made her cruel, then made her insane. Her epilogue, in which she becomes surrogate grandmother to Kit’s children, might seem corny if it weren’t so well-earned, and her last kiss from the Angel of Death was darkly beautiful. (Between that scene and the ’70s-news-video recreations, this was a striking-looking finale all around.)

It would be easy to look at any individual episode or scene of AHS and see it as a cold, stylized thing, too flashy and crazy to sustain any emotion. But the sincerity and empathy of this season was hiding in plain sight all along, in scenes like the astonishing “Name Game” sequence: on the surface, it was just a crazy musical interlude, but in a season that was so much about brutalized people losing their identity, it was also deeply sad.

None of that means that AHS is becoming a conventional, sentimental drama–and I hope it never does. But it does show an emotional method to all that madness. Asylum delivered plenty of horror thrills, but it pulled its neatest trick at the end: having conditioned us to expect gushers of blood, it stabbed at us one last time, and drew tears.

6 comments
TonyaJarrett
TonyaJarrett

I'm surprised at the surprise expressed by viewers, in even the few places online I read about television and film, that the series turned out to be so deep and emotional, especially as tied up with Tim Minear's exceptionally beautiful ribbon.  Satisfying seems to be the key word used, and that it was, but happy ending?  I felt conflicting emotions:  sadness for Lana, joy for Jude, grief but maybe some hope for Kit, relief that a lying coward of a man (Monsignor Howard) got exposed.  I feel like I had a fully human experience because the verisimilitude was so intense.  And also, kudos to whoever is responsible for the art direction (I haven't checked yet),  because the way Jude's bed recedes into blackness as she meets her final moments, and everything is so quiet and so still is one of the most stunning images I have seen in a long time.

IPFletcher
IPFletcher

I was honestly amazed at how invested I was in this finale and the season overall. I was extremely moved by the final scenes with Jude, just as I'd been extremely shocked at the ultimate fate of the doctor a couple of weeks ago- seriously, once I realized what he was going to do I was shouting "OH MY GOD" at the screen.

I had a pretty good idea how the final confrontation between Lana & Bloodyface Jr. was going to go, but her last words to him overrode the predictability- that was perfect.

I quit this show early on last season because I thought it was going to be nothing but over-the-top 24/7, but after watching this season I think I'm going to give that first one another shot and an additional benefit of the doubt.

vrcplou
vrcplou like.author.displayName 1 Like

The darkest thing this show ever did was give itself a happy ending. 

KateMcDaniel
KateMcDaniel

this was a good season! cant wait to see how next season will go!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

coobs
coobs like.author.displayName 1 Like

Agreed. I didn't realize how emotionally invested I was in these characters until the finale. Satisfying is the word I'd use. And the fact that we'll never have to visit Briarcliff again (with an opportunity to hit the reset button) is just icing on the cake.