American Horror Story recap: Downfall Abbey
Death and regime change come to The Asylum, as the powerful take a tumble and the misfits take charge. And dance!
When we last saw Monsignor Timothy before the holiday break (Happy New Year, by the way), the man who would be pope had been nailed to a chapel cross like Christ himself by a Bad Santa and appeared doomed for a smooch from soul-sucking Shachath. But last night’s episode of American Horror Story revealed that the black winged femme fatale had not dropped by for a dark night of the soul booty call. The angelic buzzard had a message from the Good Lord himself. Thou shalt purge The Asylum of the She-Devil in your midst! It was a chance for the Monsignor to do some bona fide pro bono after tainting himself with so much greedy, self-serving evil. By the end of the hour, the man of faith accomplished his God-given task, although we were left to wonder how much God or faith had anything to do with it. The clash that produced The Devil’s downfall (one of many that defined “The Name Game”) resembled a familiar cultural conflict – powerful man forcibly imposing his will upon powerless woman – although it was preceded by a wickedly impish twist on that violence: The rape of Father Timothy by Satanically enhanced Sister Mary Eunice. (A corrupt church official abusing power to rob a veritable altar boy of his innocence? Now where have we heard that one before?) The whole episode was one of the season’s strongest hours, due in large part because it contained one of the most inspired scenes this series has ever given us… but we’ll get to Satan’s Great! Big! Music! Box! in a few hundred words or so.
Round One between Monsignor Timothy and The Devil saw the wounded priest — a recuperating Christ figure, who spent most of the ep encumbered by bandages wrapped around his crucifixion owies and swaddled in royal purple jammies — leaning into his faith and fighting a by-the-Good Book fight. Shachath coached him to clutch his rosary for strength and use it as a weapon. “Each bead is his name,” she told him. But “The Name Game” was all about what happens when names lose their meaning, and in The Asylum circa 1965, during the boom years of irreverent, revisionist Postmodernity, the sacred name of God no longer possessed it former potency. When Father Howard pressed the rosary to Sister Mary’s head and used the name of Christ to command the demon inside her to exit, The Devil whooshed him away with a telekinetic shrugs. Timothy and his tools of office were no match for Sister Mary and her dark passenger, perhaps because she (and we) knew how flawed and corrupt his faith had become. (I would say Monsignor’s Timothy’s beady accessory officially lost all of its holy punch back when he abused it to choke Shelley to death.)
Lady Lucifer further exposed the fallen father for the weak servant he was by working his lust for the world. In past episodes, Timothy’s fatal flaw was exemplified by his ambition for power. Last night, it was Sister Mary’s flesh. Father Howard believed he could resist the temptation, but Sister Mary disabused him of that notion PDQ. She stripped down to her power red teddy swiped from Sister Jude’s drawer, then mounted Timothy and rode him like the whore of Babylon atop The Beast of Revelation. “It’s okay,” she said, putting the thirtysomething-year-old virgin’s hand on her breast. “We’re like Adam and Eve, two innocent children discovering each other’s bodies for the first time.” In his small defense, The Monsignor did say “No.” Repeatedly. He invoked his vow of celibacy. He appealed to his marriage to The Church. But The Devil convinced him that his “No” really meant “Yes,” that he wanted her illicit “warm wet hug.” By the time she was cruelly telling him to slow down – another poke at his innate selfishness/weakness – The Monsignor was begging for it. He groaned, and gave it up. The priest had been deflowered. Shame bloomed.
It was a double win for the diabolical double-minded nun. Her humiliation of Monsignor Timothy also humiliated the man who crushed on her, Dr. Arthur Arden, who peeped most if not all of the rape show from the doorway. It was another kick in the manhood for the once mighty misogynist: Earlier, the mad scientist suffered the indignity of being shown up in his own place of power, his laboratory. By Pepper the Pinhead, no less! You’ll recall that the mentally challenged, physically deformed microcephalic returned to Briarcliff (and the American Horror Story narrative) after many weeks away in the company of the show’s enigmatic extraterrestrial meddler-observers, accompanied by a Christmas miracle: Resurrected Grace, very pregnant with child. Pepper was also changed. The aliens had dialed up her brainpower and loosened her tongue. Cranial and dental reconstructions were not included in this self-improvement package, but she didn’t need it to feel full of herself: Her internal makeover – made possible by a close encounter with an authentic higher power – had made her bright and ballsy. “No one takes a pinhead seriously,” she said. “When my sister’s husband drowned her baby and sliced his ears off, he told everyone I did it. … That’s how it works with us freaks. We get blamed for everything.”
But not anymore. In “The Name Game,” the misfits of Planet Asylum took charge, if not control, for better (see: Lana, blackmailing Dr. Oliver Thredson into obedience with his baby) and worse (see: Thredson, now a full-time Briarcliff employee, and most likely to become its next chief administrator in light of this episode’s executive turnover.)
NEXT: Pepper Goes Groucho
And so, as Dr. Arden was about to zap Grace with X-rays and slice open her swollen belly like a cantaloupe, Pepper – charged with protecting her – dared to stop him. The arrogant egghead scoffed. He dismissed Pepper as nothing more than a pea-brained parrot that had been taught to mimic faculties she couldn’t possibly possess. She returned volley with equally harsh words and nasty name-calling. She told this “stupid man” that his otherworldly betters were both amused and appalled by his “clumsy” attempts at building a better, stronger human, capable of surviving atomic holocaust and living forever. “They laugh at you, Dr. Arden. They make jokes,” said Pepper. “Knock, knock? Who’s there? Arden. Arden who? Arden you a quack who’d make a better duck?” She guffawed a defiant, toothy guffaw that was downright creepy.
Dr. Arden wasn’t amused, nor was he deterred. He finally got the point when the imperceptible forces safeguarding Grace caused a scalpel to fly out of his hand. Arden was confused and humbled. A terrifying threat also helped. “[I]f anything happens to Grace… they’ll take you, open up your head and stir your brain with a fork. And when you return, you’ll experience first-hand how you people treat us ‘freaks.’ Why don’t you go to your whore-nun. Have her soothe your deflated ego.”
He did, and that’s when Dr. Arden caught Sister Mary deflating Monsignor Timothy. (So to speak.) Defeated, the sad, emasculated Nazi decided upon a final solution. He pushed a wheelbarrow full of chopped meat out to his proverbial Garden of Eden – a last supper for his menagerie of crude, shambling transhumance, perverse products of an immortality project that no longer seemed relevant, that no longer meant anything to him. Having been shown up by his inexplicable alien superiors, having lost his Madonna-Whore prize to a younger inferior, having been humbled by inexplicable forces beyond his considerable ability to understand, Arden realized he had become profoundly obsolete. He intended to put his creatures out of their misery, then himself out of his own.
The Devil relished Arden’s despair. She caught up with him in the woods and goosed him further down the wintry road to hell by poking at his shame. She tried to assuage Arden’s broken heart (“He didn’t mean anything to me,” she said of her adulterous roll with Father Howard), which just reminded him that he had one. She called him by his real name – “Hans” – the name he had spent years trying to suppress and deny. “Don’t call me that,” he snapped. When she begged him to give Judy Martin one of his expert icepick lobotomies, Arden refused. Why? Because she wished it. Because it reminded him how he and his science had been made yet again to serve inhuman ends. Especially those of a lowly, beastly woman.
He pulled out his revolver and shot three creatures through their empty heads. Sister Mary beheld the bloodshed and smiled. Her anticipation intensified as Dr. Arden put the barrel to his eyeball. “Finito la commedia,” said the horror show Pagliacci. The farce is over. But a final burst of pride – or weakness – took hold, and Arden couldn’t pull the trigger. He looked to Sister Mary, his fetishized icon of innocence, his only touchstone of hope in a hopeless world: “You don’t know what it means to have lost you!” Sister Mary – no longer smiling – got in Arden’s mug. “Jesus Christ,” she swore. “You’re being pitiful, Arthur.” Arden collapsed in a whimpering heap.
While the not-so-good doctor was losing his grip on his last shreds of self, the not-so-good monsignor was struggling to keep hold of his. Father Howard sought counsel – and fluffing — from his own resident ego inflator, Judy Martin. But the Asylum matriarch-turned-Asylum patient was barely keeping it together herself. In another role reversal, Judy walked the story path reminiscent of the road she forced Lana Winters to travel during her first full day as a prisoner of Briarcliff back in “Tricks and Treats” (fittingly, the season’s other botched-exorcism outing, in which The Devil exited Jed Potter and entered Sister Mary). Sister Mary was bent on dehumanizing her enemy, be it by stripping Judy of her name (she was now just “Patient G2573”) or making her forget her name altogether by destroying her mind: In the moment that most resembled Lana’s suffering, Judy was subjected to electroshock violence – but much more severe than what she inflicted upon Lana — following a haughty, defiant encounter with Sister Mary after a room search. The jolt left Judy so fried she could no longer perform the labor that once gave her joy, not to mention some local renown: Baking. No more newspaper article praising her fabled Briarcliff Marble.
So when The Monsignor found Judy in the kitchen, struggling to knead her dough, and offered a sincere apology for betraying her – for his “epic failure” — it looked as if she could barely wrap her noodle around his words. But Judy understood enough to offer some advice when he asked to what to do about his predicament with Sister Mary. Should he run away? Should he renounce his vows and quit The Church and surrender his papal ambition?
“Kill her,” said Judy with a chilling garble.
NEXT: Sticks and stones may break The Devil’s bones, but Sister Mary’s name will always hurt her.
It wasn’t the counsel Monsignor Timothy wanted to hear, but he knew it was the course of action he needed to take. Sister Mary wasn’t going to make it easy. In fact, as she found him later that night, girding himself for spiritual warfare, she mocked his prayers, and told him she could see all those desperate little death plots percolating in his murky little mind. Father Howard was ready to give up, but he rallied to heroism when The Devil said that despite his want, he was stuck with her: She was going to make him stay the course to The Vatican, and make him take her along for the ride. Timothy had enough moral clarity to know that this would be a bad thing. He could not let The Devil rape any more meaning out of The Church. (I’ve appreciated how American Horror Story has shaded its portrayal of this craven man by making it clear that his belief that The Church should be — and can be — a redemptive force of good in the world is quite genuine.)
He went after The Devil’s weakness: His/Her/Its humanity. Which is to say, Sister Mary, the blind faith bride of Christ that The Devil was holding hostage within her own body. Satan – who could barely roll her eyes when Timothy invoked the name of God earlier in the episode — got downright pissed when he name-checked Sister Mary. The demon pinned the priest against the handrails of The Stairway to Heaven and threatened to “devour the last morsel” of Sister Mary’s soul right then and there. The monster must have gagged on it, because suddenly, The Devil was gone, and Sister Mary was back in control of herself. At least, for the moment.
She apologized to The Monsignor. She said was so tired of fight. She also said she “couldn’t let go,” which I took to mean that she couldn’t bring herself to pursue the quick fix solution of suicide. “Then let go of me, Sister,” said Timothy. Sister Mary released her grip, and he threw her off the stairs. The first fallen angel fell all over again, this time taking an innocent mortal with him. But her eyes flashed with gratitude the whole slow-mo way down. They landed and shattered.
Shachath was upon them in an instant. “Take me,” Sister Mary begged.
“I will take both of you,” replied the grim femme fatale. She smooched the nun, and Sister Mary was taken from the Earth. Ditto The Devil? Was the implication of Shachath’s valediction that Satan no longer haunts the world?
With Sister Mary gone, Dr. Arden had no reason to stick around. He convinced Monsignor Timothy to let him burn the body – even though cremation was in violation of Church teaching (or so Father Howard said) – and to perform the operation solo. Down in the death chute, the former death camp doctor prepared Sister Mary’s corpse for disposal… and then climbed on top of her. He had yearned for such a hot moment for quite some time – minus the part where she was dead. Oh, and the part with incinerator, too. The door closed. The flames did their work. Hans Gruber screamed like a man burning in hell. Next stop: The real thing.
So it went that The Asylum’s dynamically dysfunctional power couple – an alliance of spoiled faith and foul science — was deposed and disposed. I saw another transition, too. Both represented some old school horror tropes: The Devil, the world’s first bad guy; The (Nazi) Mad Scientist, a Modern era rogue. Who will take their place? Most likely Briarcliff’s newest staff member: Dr. Oliver Thredson, the post-modern bogeyman — the serial killer. You’ll be seeing a lot of him on TV this spring, from The Following to Hannibal to Bates Motel. One trait they all have in common — a kind of evil that seems to never go out of style — is misogyny. The season’s not over. Maybe the aliens can help us find a cure for that.
How to measure the legacy of The Devil’s reign of terror during her stint as Briarcliff’s major domo? At times, The Adversary was a counter-culture iconoclast, rebel/radical, or militant liberator. Her alliances with ambitious, awful men – most notably, with Arden; less successfully, with Howard – seemed to be driven by some shared or parallel purpose, but were ultimately in service of bringing them down, along with everything they represented. By the end, though, what little good came of her impish work was incidental and irrelevant to the primary agenda of promoting irreverence and cynicism, meaninglessness and faithlessness. Her parting gift struck me as a symbol for all of that…
NEXT: The Great Big Music Box
Which brings us to the jukebox. Sister Mary had it installed in the common room, to replace the phonograph that had become obsolete after Judy Martin shattered the only record it was ever allowed to play, The Singing Nun’s maddeningly catchy Catholic pop ditty “Dominique.” The Devil decided it was time to “bring Briarcliff into twentieth century” and make The Asylum’s residents dance to a different tune – or any tune they damn well wanted. “I am sure there is something here that can appeal to everyone’s taste,” said Sister Mary, who made her “GREAT! BIG! MUSIC! BOX!” – a metaphor for an eclectic, diversified, secular popular culture — sound like an intrinsic good. Yet her inaugural musical selection was downright ominous: “I Put A Spell On You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Right at the moment when Jay unleashed one of those signature screams, we saw Dr. Oliver Thredson strut into the common room, looking like he owned the place.
It was Judy Martin who made the episode’s most interesting musical selection. Returning from the electrotherapy room with her egg thoroughly scrambled, she drifted toward the jukebox and began pounding on it, as if attacking this unholy thing, and then tried to unplug it. As Lana tried to restrain and calm her, Judy looked through the glass and saw a song that called to her: “The Name Game” by Shirley Ellis, a novelty tune (also known as “The Banana Song”) in which the singer brags of her ability to turn anyone’s name into a nonsense rhyme. Given the themes of the episode, I wondered if the song was Judy’s way of warning her fellow inmates of evil disguised as “progress” that threatened to subvert their lives with more meaninglessness…
A BRIEF AND POSSIBLY RELEVANT DIGRESSION! “The Name Game” was nestled between Edith Piaf’s “Le Vie En Rose” and Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet.” (Meaningful allusions? “La Vie En Rose” was used in Inception, a movie about dreams, while David Lynch appropriated “Blue Velvet” for his classic 1987 neo noir renowned for its surreal dream logic. Consider this a sign post of foreshadowing if American Horror Story winds up going down some reality blurring Lost Highway/Mulholland Drive during its final three episodes.)
From there, we segued into Judy’s electro-popped brain for a Glee-fully demented sequence in which Jessica Lange rocked a blonde wig and powder blue dress and danced with the other Briarcliff unfortunates as she warped their names into goofy ridiculata. The tune is pure mid-sixties fun-time dance music, but in the context of an episode about losing personal meaning, the song represented something darker, an anthem for Judy’s deteriorating identity. Perhaps summing it up best was the recurring shot of one inmate merrily keeping the beat… by repeatedly pounding his head against a pillar. Coming out of the sequence, Lana looked Judy (and us) in the eye and asked, gravely, “Do you know your name?” Judy couldn’t answer the question, so Lana did it for her: “Your name is Judy Martin.” Warning: An electronic culture of euphoric pop thrills can be hazardous to your mental health, and possibly the entire wired, interconnected Global Village. Okay, I’m not 100% sure what exactly AHS was going for here… but damn if it wasn’t entertainingly strange, outrageous and provocative.
I was moved by Judy’s poignant, heroic final moment. We saw her in the common room, parked like a couch potato, a still life of frazzled misery, trying to hold onto to mind and meaning by looking at each patient and trying to remember their names. When Mother Superior paid her a visit, she drifted into the deluded daydream of going to Rome with Monsignor Timothy as his bride, serving together as Pope. But then she saw the woman whose life she ruined, and she regained some focus and recalled her redemptive mission. “Do you see that woman over there, smoking that cigarette?” she asked Mother Superior. “Her name is Lana Winters. She doesn’t belong here. I put her here. Help her! Get her out!”
I hate to give short-shrift to the episode’s other bits of business, i.e. the Lana-Kit-Thredson manipulations, the birth of Grace’s baby, and the Son of Bloody Face stuff, but I’m sure we’ll be talking a lot about all of that over the next three weeks, as these conflicts and lingering mysteries seem set to drive the endgame of the season. But let me say that Lana scored the best line of the night: “You know I can do it, Oliver. I’m goddam plucky, remember.” I cede the floor to you, my fellow horror freaks: What did you make of “The Name Game?”