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American Horror Story recap: The Untouchables

Sister Mary and assorted Briarcliff devils reveal their “Origins Of Monstrosity” in a very special Thanksgiving episode. (Not!)

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American Horror Story C
Byron Cohen/FX

American Horror Story

TV Show
run date:
Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters
Current Status:
In Season

The problem of evil is a tricky little devil. There is no single or simple answer to explain wickedness. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask and explore the question. (“If a way to the better there be, it lies in taking a full look at the worst” – Thomas Hardy.) Indeed, Ernest Becker – the famed cultural anthropologist who wrote The Denial of Death and Escape From Evil – believed that the root of humanity’s inhumanity to man lies in running away from the awareness of the only thing any of us know for certain: That we’re all going die. “It is the disguise of panic that makes us live ugliness,” wrote Becker. In this way, the problem of evil is made even trickier: We make the whole damn thing much more complicated than it needs to be. You know: Just like these recaps. But good news! This week’s gross indulgence is 2000 words shorter than usual, as I have a turkey to cook. (I plan to use a little nutmeg this year. I understand it makes a difference.) The bad news? There’s a long paragraph about monkey depression coming up, as well as a plethora of poorly applied references culled from the works of Alice Miller and Adrienne Rich. Just be thankful I decided to cut the digression on the mythology of adult breast feeding! Didn’t want to ruin your appetite. Gobble-Gobble!

The monsters of “The Origins Of Monstrosity” – Oliver Thredson/Bloody Face, Dr. Arthur Arden/Hans Gruber, Sister Mary Santanica, Problem Child Jenny — had several things in common, besides being two-faced deceivers. For starters, they didn’t think they were monsters. They viewed themselves as heroes engaged in great, grandiose projects full of significance and purpose. They claimed to be “self-aware” or “enlightened.” They felt unloved, unacknowledged, and untouchable, and they had each developed sick schemes to feel otherwise. They believed they were beyond good and evil, and they believed same thing about their victims: They brought it on themselves.

Regardless of their individual nature, each of the episode’s so-called monsters became monstrous, or remained so, from a lack of proper nurturing, be it from parents, peers, society, even God… if God even exists. (Satanically-enhanced Sister Mary claimed He didn’t, but the devil always lies. Right?) In fact, the story seemed to argue that, like sexuality, human beings are fundamentally wired for nurturing. In a digression after my own heart, Dr. Thredson cited the work of psychologist Harry Harlow, who (according to Wikipedia) “demonstrated the importance of care-giving and companionship in social and cognitive development.” Thredson referred to Dr. Harlow’s experiments with baby rhesus monkeys. They were separated from their mothers after birth and given substitute mothers, one made of wire mesh (with milk) and one covered with cloth. Every monkey preferred the cloth-covered surrogate, said Thredson, because of the simulation of skin, and the touch of similar beings. What Thredson couldn’t tell us  – because historically, this hadn’t happened yet — was that Dr. Harlow’s later research, conducted during the 1970s and widely condemned, involved placing infant monkeys in cages uniquely designed to cultivate clinical depression. The technical term for the environments was “a vertical chamber apparatus.” But Dr. Harlow preferred more descriptive terms, including “a dungeon of despair.” Looking at these cages, I couldn’t help but project upon them the design of Briarcliff Manor Sanatorium, itself a vertically designed structure with its own “dungeon of despair” operated by a scientist chasing after remedies for the human condition. Because Briarcliff is also a metaphor for culture, we wonder: Is our society a virtual “dungeon of despair,” a habitat for inhumanity that cultivates depressed, demented, doomed monkey-people? Are we responsible for the monstrosity in our midst? Or did I just go and make stuff more complicated again?


“Our heroic projects that are aimed at destroying evil have the paradoxical effect of bringing more evil into the world. Human conflicts are life and death struggles — my gods against your gods, my immortality project against your immortality project. The root of humanly caused evil is not man’s animal nature, not territorial aggression, or innate selfishness, but our need to gain self-esteem, deny our mortality, and achieve a heroic self-image. Our desire for the best is the cause of the worst.” – Sam Keen, from the introduction to The Denial of Death

Suffer The Betrayed Child. The terrible tale of one sinister girl encapsulated many of the episode’s thoughts on “The Origins Of Monstrosity.” Jenny Reynolds was an odd lass with an adult air and chillingly detached manner who claimed that a bearded man in a brown coat murdered the only girl who would play with her with a pair of scissors under the bridge, down by the river. The cops believed her, because why wouldn’t they? She’s a little girl! And all little girls are such Heavenly Creatures, aren’t they?

But Jenny’s mom suspected differently. Especially after she found the murdered playmate’s snipped-off pony tail in Jenny’s pocket. Mother Reynolds didn’t have the heart or guts to turn Jenny over to the police. (Mistake number one…) But she had enough sense to know that something was seriously wrong with Jenny, and so she took her problem child to Briarcliff Manor Sanatorium for fixing. (… and mistake number two.) Sister Jude – back in the habit after last week’s relapse into Trampy Judyness; still employed as Monsignor Timothy’s faithful right hand (but not for long) – wanted to help. She really did. “One of my dreams, for Briarcliff, was to open a children’s ward,” she said. “There are so many little souls that could use our help.” Her inspiration, no doubt, was that drunken night long ago when she failed another little girl in crisis. (SCREECH! SLAM! SPLAT!) Instead, all Sister Jude could do was supply Jenny’s mom with Briarcliff’s take-home miracle cure: The Bible. “Prayer,” she said, “is your strength and your ally.”

But Mother Reynolds wasn’t going to take “No” for an answer, and so she kissed her daughter on the forehead and ran like a bat out of hell, abandoning Jenny to Briarcliff. What to make of this profound, painful parental betrayal? 1. She just couldn’t accept personal responsibility for her child (although in her defense, she blamed herself, wrongly, for Jenny’s alleged abnormality for years prior this); or 2. She believed that Briarcliff had a moral responsibility to help her. It’s probably more (1) than (2), but (2) is more interesting to think about, given Briarcliff is a metaphor for society/culture, and one of the essential themes of American Horror Story is society/culture’s responsibility to the individual human flourishing. From this perspective, The Asylum’s response to Jenny was rather provocative…

The Untouched McKee. As Sister Jude scrambled to track down Mother Reynolds and make her come back and take her kid, Jenny fell to the care of Satanically-enhanced Sister Mary, who knew that the creepy lass was psycho. “I know everything,” said the nun, chopping onions with a Batesy cleaver. “I’m a devil.” But Sister Mary told Jenny she should feel no shame. After all: Her “friend” deserved it. “She was a phony little s—t! She didn’t even like you! She just played with you because her mother told her to!” Yep: Ouch! Except Sister Mary’s tough love tactlessness didn’t seem to ruffle the gloomy little sociopath. “But you’re lucky. Because you were born with the gift of authentic impulse,” said Sister Mary, using a philosophical buzz word that links to Sartre’s Being And Nothingness and notion of ” Bad Faith,” the idea that people blindly adopt values and roles foisted on them or engendered by their culture, at the cost of their true identity. “I wasted so much time trying to be a good girl,” said Sister Mary. “All I wanted, in the whole world, was for people to like me…”

NEXT: Diving Into Sister Mary’s Wreck

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