American Horror Story: Asylum is a different show when you watch all of its episodes twice — and a richer one. As I binge-viewed the whole season again in the run-up for tonight’s finale (FX, 10 p.m.), the spoofy, campy wildness fell away like a scrim, revealing a deeply sorrowful and compassionate series: a tragicomic nightmare about sick and brutalized people crying out to be saved. It’s tempting to treat this show as one long, trashy, sick joke, a gratuitous swan-dive into pain, perversion, and taboo, and it definitely is that — proudly so. “You’re drawn to each other like the serpent and the apple,” Jessica Lange's Sister Jude tells two inmates that are smitten with each other. “Are you trying to make a murder baby?”
But it’s not a joke; more accurately, it’s joking and yet it’s serious: as serious as Samuel Fuller’s cult classic Shock Corridor (1964), a film that was reportedly required viewing for the show’s writing staff. This early-sixties period piece about reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) exposing evil in a Catholic-run mental hospital is, scene for scene, ludicrous, at times nonsensical, not to mention anachronistic (a nun used the term “epic failure” a few weeks ago); but series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk really feel for their characters, especially when they come within a hair’s breadth of freedom, salvation, or sweet death and then weep as relief is snatched away.
This was all true of American Horror Story’s first season as well. But where the original was, well, original — trashy, outrageous, and, toward the end, voluptuously sad — the sequel is, in its singularly wacked-out way, nearly great. There are still stylistic tics that annoy me. The cutting, for instance, is so jittery that you don’t have time to appreciate some of cinematographer Michael Goi’s bold, at times ravishing images: the fish-eye lens shots, Dutch tilts, and God’s-eye views of blood and torture. And the series could benefit from chilling the eff out; it’s in such a hurry to get to the next big twist or shock that it fails to exploit one of the most potent weapons in horror’s arsenal, the strategic power of boredom. (You know what I’m talking about: Ripley walks and walks and walks down a long, dark corridor in Alien, and just when your attention starts to wander — BOO!) And the whiplash-inducing character flip-flops are very Ryan Murphy. (In one episode, Sister Jude is a broken woman apologizing to the family of the girl she ran over years earlier, and in the next, she’s an avenging angel holding a straight razor to the throat of Lily Rabe’s devil-possessed Sister Mary Eunice.)
But AHS: Asylum has so much else going for it that the irritations aren’t deal-breakers. When Sister Mary Eunice waxed rhapsodic about “the gift of authentic impulse,” I thought, That’s the show! There is method to the show’s madness. It’s sadistic and masochistic, tender and exuberant. Despair and anger surge through its veins. It’s fascinated and repelled by the cruelty that people inflict on each other, and on themselves. It’s a spectacle of emotional and physical suffering that stirs pretty much every forbidden situation and image you can imagine into its witches’ cauldron: demonic possession, angel-of-death fantasies, blasphemy, mutilation, sexual assault, racism, anti-Semitism, Nazi war criminals, homophobia, misogyny, genocide, torture, unnecessary surgery, punitive electroshock therapy, forced pregnancy, and lesbian-to-heterosexual “conversion.” And alien abduction fantasies. And nun-on-monsignor rape. And musical numbers (the scene in which a post-electroshock Sister Jude leads a line dance to “The Name Game” was sublime). And seventies-style filmmaking flourishes (check out the Brian DePalma–style split-screen when Lana escapes!). And extended, flagrantly theatrical monologues, my favorite of which finds Zachary Quinto’s abandonment-obsessed Dr. Thredson telling Lana about those two lab monkeys clinging to their terrycloth “mommy.”
This show’s ability to make you feel sympathy for monsters is often extraordinary, as is its commitment to finding good within the evil and evil within the good. Sister Jude is a petty tyrant and sexual hypocrite, but when she peers up through shattered windshield glass in that flashback and sees the statue seeming to forgive her, it’s devastating. James Cromwell’s Dr. Arden is a former-Nazi torturer who needlessly maims patients and merges syphilis and tuberculosis to produce “the next stage in human evolution,” but when he gets his heart stomped by Sister Mary Eunice, it’s still sad. (“You have no idea what it means to have lost you,” he says, his voice breaking.)
AHS: Asylum’s everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic nearly begs the viewer to put ironic quotes around the show’s chosen genre — “horror.” It’s ultimately a humanistic series (incredibly!), but its humanism is nestled amid mangled flesh, overripe scoring, restless camerawork and cutting, and a John Waters–Ken Russell midnight movie sense of humor. You can’t separate out any characteristic because three or four others are always leering over its shoulder. For some viewers, I’m sure that’s a black mark, but for me, it’s a tonic. I give 50 bonus points to any show that asks you to hold two or three emotional wavelengths in your head at the same time, in every scene. Besides, even when it’s at its most seemingly chaotic, the series seems to know what it’s going for, even if Murphy and Falchuk couldn’t sum it up in a memo.
On top of all that, American Horror Story: Asylum isn’t afraid to deny its most tormented, pathetic characters the partial comfort of a happy ending or a merciful death. The writers’ motto seems to be “The worse, the better,” and there aren’t too many places on commercial TV where you can see that pop-operatic philosophy enacted. The result isn’t always scary, exactly, but it’s often disturbing, heedlessly so, and I love it. As I’ve written in other Vulture columns, over the years, horror has become my favorite commercial genre because it’s the only one left that’s not merely permitted but expected to go dark — the only mode in which stories can end on a dramatically correct note rather than a phony focus-grouped “happy” one, and the viewer still walks away satisfied. In horror, whatever the characters fear most is what happens to them; we know that going in, and so do Murphy and Falchuk. The genre’s allure is the same one that draws the cat’s paw to the cactus and the child’s finger to the electrical socket. Horror makes us want to test ourselves and see how much we can take. The answer: more than we imagined.