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.