Sister Jude engages in spiritual warfare with a shrink, a possessed child and her own demons in 'Tricks and Treats'

By Jeff Jensen
October 25, 2012 at 01:45 PM EDT
Byron Cohen/FX
  • TV Show

Twilight in The Asylum, and a devil is on the loose.

Bloody Face, an iconic serial killer, stands at one end of a corridor within the mischief-wrecked deathtrap that is Briarcliff Manor Sanatorium. The bogeyman cuts a terrifying figure — trenchcoat, work gloves, a mask made of stitched human flesh. (What big green wolfish eyes you have, peeping through those holes!) He/She/It grips an orbitoclast, the ice pick lobotomy tool, invented in 1948 by Dr. Walter Freeman, one of the pioneers in so-called “psychosurgery.” But this psycho has a different kind of surgery in mind.

Teresa, a self-described “horror freak,” is freaking out. A close encounter with Bloody Face? A chance to be hunted by Horror Culture incarnate? Not what she and her husband signed up for when the newlyweds bought into the “Haunted Honeymoon Tour.”

Or is it?

Either way, Teresa does what she’s supposed to do. She runs. And Bloody Face chases.

Teresa goes to Leo, languishing in a slick of blood poured from the raw hole where his arm used to be, the limb that had been ripped from his torso like a weed pulled clean from the ground by The Thing On The Other Side Of The Door. She grabs Leo and begins to drag him to safety…

But Leo is too heavy, and Bloody Face is closing quickly, and fear is jabbing at her like a finger pounding on a panic button. Salvation demands that she leave her man behind. Teresa drops the dead weight of her dying spouse. She falls backward and crabwalks into an open cell and slams the heavy metal door shut. CLICK. Automatic lock. She peeks through the food hole, peeping the creepshow that follows:

Bloody Face straddles Leo. Leo murmurs “Help me.” Bloody Face drives the orbitoclast into Leo’s chest, over and over. Chunk. Chunk. Chunk. Chunk. Teresa goes Scream Queen, then screeches louder as Bloody Face rises and goes to the door and pounds and Pounds and POUNDS until finally —


Or rather: SMASH CUT

To another time. Another place. Another woman who abandoned her true love to a hideous fate, possibly Bloody Face himself. And there are ghouls pounding on her door, too. October 30, 1964. It is Mischief Night again in America. Also known as Hell Night or Devil’s Night. The evening before Halloween, full of highly spirited pranks and, occasionally, worse.

Wendy Paisa listens to the loud rapping, momentarily distracted from the shame she feels over the traitor’s choice she made last week: Remanding her girlfriend, Lana Winters, to The Asylum after a certain twisted Sister threatened to expose her sexuality to a town that doesn’t and won’t tolerate it, especially in their schoolteachers. Watching Wendy wrestle with her demons are two friends who mean well, but don’t make for the greatest company. Barb smokes and says they shouldn’t answer the door because it could be a certain sadistic killer of women, aka Bloody Face. Lois shoots down the idea, because she believes the reports that Bloody Face is now safely locked away… inside the same mad house where Lana is currently trapped. Wendy sobs harder. Nice one, Lois.

POUND! POUND! POUND! Oh, screw it. Lois ain’t going to live life being afraid. She opens the door, and sure enough, there’s a masked monster waiting to pounce – a kid in a dime store Frankenstein costume. Accompanied by friends: Gypsy Fortune Teller and Clown. It seems they’re celebrating Mischief Night by getting an early start on trick-or-treating. But Wendy has no candy, and anyway, she’s not in the mood. She’s more in a Tears for Fears/It’s-a-world-gone-crazy-keeps-a-woman-in-chains state of mind. “My job, kids, Halloween, nothing makes sense without her,” she sobs. “I just hate myself.”

Lois nestles next to Wendy and tries to offer some comfort… and more. “Do you want me to stay over tonight?” she asks. (Barb’s eyes pop knowingly.) Wendy stands, as if trying to extricate herself from a moment gone awkward. She announces that at first light, she’s going to recant her affidavit and do what it takes to liberate her lady. Barb suggests an excuse: “You can say you made a mistake. You got scared and hit the panic button.” Wendy nods, resolves. “I just got to get her out of there.”

Later that night, Wendy lights up a joint, puts on a record (Dusty Springfield’s 1964 recording of “Wishin’ and Hopin’”) and starts a shower. Wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and praying’/Plannin’ and dreamin’ his kisses will start/That won’t get you into his heart/So if you’re thinkin’ of how great true love is…

The visuals deliberately evoke the infamous sequence in Psycho, but it’s a psych-out. Wendy is out of the tub before things get Batesy-Chunky…

But wait. Did she hear something? Or is the reefer just messing with her mind?

Wendy cuts an interesting figure as she glides down the hall, tracking the source of the disturbance. With her blue robe and with her hands folded and pressed to her chest, she looks like a Praying Mary. Blue robes on the mother of Christ symbolized innocence, truth and clarity of vision – a sly choice for under the influence Wendy.

The sound? Just a breeze coming through an open window, one of many in the home. No big deal for her. She feels safe. Safe as houses. She closes the window, walks through a beaded partition, and just as Dusty reaches the crescendo –

You will be his/You will be his!

Wendy walks right into Bloody Face.

Huh? Isn’t Bloody Face in Briarcliff? Is he not Kit Walker? Just who or what is this gruesomely costumed trickster, who unlike Teresa’s Bloody Face in the present day, appears to have darker eyes and scraggly hair?

But He/She/It does have an orbitoclast. Which again, is a lobotomy tool, used in psychosurgery. It is a thing that is driven through the eye, into the brain, to sever the frontal lobes from the thalamus, for the purpose of reducing the pique of neuroses. The procedure, now considered barbaric, left many patients even more messed up before, with side effects including the blunting of emotions or personality. Which is to say: It could make you a vegetable, numb and desensitized.

Understanding this lends provocative subtext to what Wendy says next. She pleads for her life by arguing that the violence he’s about to commit will have a discombobulating impact on kids — that it will destroy their innocence. “I’m a school teacher!” she says. “The children — they won’t understand!”

Bloody Face, butcher of women and horror pop incarnate, is unmoved. We take Wendy’s perspective as Bloody Face gets in our face, raises the orbitoclast, and swings into the eye of the camera — into our eye. CHUNK! Smash to black. Numb and desensitized. And now, we are his.

Okay, maybe I’m imagining things. But was Wendy seeing things, too? Was her close encounter with Bloody Face for real, or just reefer madness? MORE DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What was the significance of those trick-or-treaters showing up a day early? I loved the subversiveness of jumping from present to past by linking the pounding of one certifiable masked monster to a child dressed as one for fun. But might it mean something more than just ironic juxtaposition? What is the extent of the relationship between these two horror stories? Is one influencing the other? Is the evil of one generation trying to POUND! POUND! POUND! break through the wall of time and ravage the other? Will the two realities blur and blend? Are horror history freaks Leo and Teresa spiraling into the past? Will liberation-questing Kit and Lana find freedom in the future?

NEXT: Enter the Headshrinker!

October 31st, 1964. Change is in the air. The Roman Catholic Church plugs away on Vatican II, a major rethink of how The Church should address the modern world. In New York City, President Lyndon B. Johnson, stumping for re-election, pledges to forge The Great Society. No more poverty. No more inequality. Plus: A commitment to education, environmentalism, elder care, the arts, and more. An all-out war against the social ills bedeviling the country; a ministerial mandate to rehabilitate and elevate the nation’s character. Progressivism – part exorcism, part sanctification.

It’s morning again in The Asylum. And it begins earlier than usual, thanks to an impromptu room search. Pepper the Koo Koo Girl has been sneaking food again. Shelley the Nympho claims to be harboring a cucumber, and not for snacking. And Lana Winters has been scribbling notes for the glossy expose she intends to one day write about Briarcliff. Keep dreamin’ girlfriend. Sister Jude – determined to protect Monsignor Timothy’s great ambitions for Briarcliff, part of his big picture plan to become Pope — orders Frank to rip them up. Lana protests. The Sister tells her she can file a complaint to the “American Civil Lesbians Union.” (Frank chuckles a Beavis chuckle. Heh-heh! Good one, Sister Butt-Head! Heh-heh!) Lana says she doesn’t need notes, because she has an excellent memory. Sister Jude makes a crack about how Lana’s ambition exceeds her talent and pretends not to sweat it…

But she’s sweating it. She needs a more radical fix to make sure that Lana never becomes the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn of Catholic sanatorium gulags. She needs some Dirty Tricks. And the only person that can help her is her ideological archenemy, Dr. Arden. But hey: Strange bedfellows and all that. And anyway, the madhouse Mengele has his own secrets he wants kept secret, his own reasons to keep Briarcliff secure. Sister Jude and Arden want to do to Lana’s memory what Nixon did to his tapes: Erase the incriminating parts. They plot their plan with sly lines that cloak their conspiracy. “I believe her memories are her worst enemies. They’re terrorizing her, impeding repentance,” says Sister Jude. “Is electroshock therapy something you’d suggest?” Arden notes that this represents a “turnaround” for Sister Jude; the last time he suggested ECT, she accused him of being a “barbarian.” Sister Jude credits prayer for her progressive reconstruction: “I came to an understanding that this therapy is just another tool in His bountiful tool chest.” Arden’s snarl indicates that he doesn’t like God getting the credit for the miracles of science – but he’ll roll with the Nunsense for the chance to play with his toys.

And so it goes that Lana gets her brain cooked. She doesn’t go willingly. She fights. She struggles. She pleads her innocence to Arden. She’s been falsely imprisoned! Sister Jude blackmailed her lover! Arden is unmoved by the woman. Still, if he’s going to do this, he isn’t the only one who’s getting his hands dirty. He asks Sister Jude to hold the electrodes. A tool in His bountiful toolchest? More like a slimy electric eel. ZARK! Lana convulses from the surge and the pain. Sister Judge grimaces from the power and the ingloriousness, and guilt darkens her mind like a dirty thought. It’ll bite her in the ass later.

But Progressivism did come to Briarcliff in a more sincere form, although it struggled to take hold or advance positive change. Meet Dr. Oliver Thredson, a suavely spectacled psychiatrist, a big believer in the theory of cultural influence, and nearly unflappable when confronted with various forms of perversion, be they psychotics or severe nuns or more spirited entities. His job: To determine if Kit Walker, 24, is mentally competent to stand trial for the murderers attributed to Bloody Face. Thredson knows how to get his patients talking. He shakes Kit’s hand warmly, offers him a cigarette. “I see no reason why a man should be denied the right to smoke,” says Thredson, planting a symbol that would have great resonance in the episode’s final moments. Thredson has a theory about Kit. He believes this high school-educated gas station attendant was becoming unstable due to “racial guilt” over his secret marriage to his African American wife, Alma, as his “conditioning” taught him that his “coupling” with Alma was illicit. But after interviewing Kit, and hearing his claims that he and Alma were abducted by aliens, that Alma still lives, that “they” – the men from outer space, the ones who probed him with their anarchic hands – still have her… well, Thredson can only come to one conclusion: “Acute clinical insanity.”

Thredson, a court appointed shrink, is supposed to limit his focus to Kit Walker. But he’s a good doctor and responsible citizen so he can’t help but notice the appalling conditions at Briarcliff. During an impromptu confrontation at the foot of the Stairway to Heaven, Thredson accuses Sister Jude of abuse (Shelley’s caning), malpractice (Lana’s ECT), and other primitive, passé practices. “Your hospital still administers electroshock therapy to treat homosexuality,” says Thredson. “It’s barbaric. Behavior modification is the current standard.” (While Thredson brings hope of relief and reform to Briarcliff, he himself remains several watts short of full enlightenment.) “Tomato, tomahto,” says Sister Jude dismissively, then ascends the winding steps to her seat of power.

But Thredson will neither be bullied nor ignored.

NEXT: Unholy Communion

And so the haughty doc barges into Sister Jude’s office and interjects himself into a tense meeting with a distraught mother and father, the Potters, seeking help for their troubled son. Sister wants Oliver out, asap, but Mrs. Potter begs him to stay, as she craves his expert medical opinion. Thredson quietly gloats; Sister Jude – her authority subverted by yet one more “patriarchal male” (her term) – simmers. The Potters explain that their son, Jed, who recently turned 17, has been listless and moody of late, alternately sluggish and wired. Adolescence? If only. Jed has also been having visions and speaking in languages no one can understand.

Oh, and one more thing. Just yesterday? HE GNAWED THROUGH THE BELLY OF THEIR BEST COW AND ATE THE HEART. A Guernsey, to be precise. Hearty but docile, a producer of rich, creamy, high-grade milk, known as Golden Guernsey.

“It was unholy,” Pa says. “It was as if some… thing… had stepped inside my boy’s body and taken over his soul.” (Maybe. Or maybe it was just a dairy farm version of Dothkari prophecy ritual. A prince rides inside me! A prince of DARKNESS, that is! And he wears A Golden Crown! Just the golden crown that’s the logo for Woodall Gasoline!)

We meet Jed Potter in his cell, sitting in a contorted pose, looking pained and innocent… until he turns hoary and starts hissing like a snake and spitting strange curses. (A yoga-pretzeled boy named Potter capable of parseltongued xenoglossy? Sounds like a sly reference to (in)famous Vatican exorcist Father Gabriel Amorth, who made headlines last year for claiming that both Harry Potter and yoga were Satanic.) Thredson recommends heavy drugs; Sister Jude insists they’ll need something stronger.

And so The Exorcist is summoned. Monsignor Timothy asks/commands Thredson to stay and fulfill the legal obligation that a medical doctor be present. Thredson gets apoplectic: “It’s 1964! For God’s sake! An exorcism?! You can’t be serious.” He says this just as the demon-caster rolls into Briarcliff in a Dr. Strangelove wheelchair. “A non believer! Good. I like having one in the room. It ups my game,” says the cocky Irish Catholic priest, Father Malechi (spelling provided by FX). Pride rolleth before the fall. Played by John Aylward, Father Malechi just happens to bare a strong resemblance to… that Father Gabriel Amorth guy. (Although I wonder if the story was flicking at Malachi Martin, an Irish Catholic priest, theologian, critic, occasional exorcist and author, whose books include Hostage To The Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Living Americans.)

Of course, the more obvious reference that comes to mind is The Exorcist, director William Friedkin’s Oscar-nominated, blockbuster adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same name. That story dealt with the demonic possession of a pre-teen girl – a fiction inspired by the real-life story of a rural Maryland boy codenamed Roland Doe in the 1940s. The pop phenomenon of The Exorcist — which reportedly led to a resurgence in real-world exorcism, as cases of demonic possession suddenly, suspiciously exploded after the book and movie were released — could be a case study for anyone wanting to write a dissertation (or cool TV show) about the snake-eating-its-tail dynamics of cultural influence. Though widely praised and piss-the-carpet chilling, The Exorcist has been blasted over the decades on the grounds that it’s misogynistic, steeped in fear of womankind. Interesting, then, that American Horror Story’s own gloss on The Exorcist occurs in an episode thick with Feminist concerns – about the solidarity of sisterhood; the debasement, demonization (and, equally and conversely, perverse idolatry) of female sexuality; and marginalization by those damn patriarchal males. That the story happens to conclude with The Asylum’s most subservient lass possibly becoming its most powerful (and angriest?) resident makes it even more provocative.

The theme of liberation boldly announces itself in a scene set in the hydrotherapy room, in which Lana and Grace bare much (but not quite everything) and forge a rapport/alliance. Sealed inside tubs of near-scalding water, Grace makes like Houdini and cuts through the canvas lid with a small sharp pointy thing (where exactly was she hiding that on her person?), then frees Lana. She drifts to the barred window, naked as the day she was born, to gaze at the autumn trees, and as Lana watches, we are given to wonder, for a fleeting moment, if she is attracted to her. Intimacy does follow, but it’s not sexual. Lana asks Grace if she ever thought about escaping. Grace scoffs. “All you new people,” she says. “There is no way out.” No, she’s content to settle for moments like this — fleeting, meaningless rebellions against the powers that be, that win her nothing but the chance to admire meager vistas of the Fall. One might say she’s living up to her name; she has grace for her circumstances. Someone else might say she’s become so institutionalized she has lost the ability to hope for more and better. The latter seems to be the case, as Lana decides to take a risk and shares her most treasured secret: She knows a way out. The secret tunnel that brought her into Briarcliff, the one that Sister Mary uses to feed the mystery creatures that dwell the woods. Lana wants to give it a try, and she wants Grace to go with her. Grace’s sleepy, hollow eyes rekindle. Yes, she’ll join her — but she wants to bring Kit, too. She believes he’s innocent. She knows murderers (how?!), and she’s certain that the doe-eyed rebel with a Romantic cause (Alma!) isn’t one of them. Lana vetoes Grace’s petition. She believes Kit is a bloody faced menace to womankind; she’s not going to pull a David Ellington and spring that devil loose and send him back into the world. Grace asks if Lana has a problem trusting people. Lana: “You would too, if the person you trusted the most in the world betrayed you, then threw you away forever.” How sad: Lana’s electroshock torture has apparently burned away the intuition that made her so certain that Wendy must have been coerced into betraying her. Grace says she can relate to being abandoned, although she doesn’t elaborate, and so this seemingly good girl remains a mystery. (My pet theory: She’s Sister Jude’s daughter.)

We leave the women thinking that solidarity has been achieved, sisterhood has been forged. But one of them isn’t playing straight — and it isn’t the “Sapphic reporter.”

NEXT:  In Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned To Stopped Worrying and Love The Bomb, Peter Sellers plays a mad Nazi scientist suffering from alien hand syndrome. It was released in 1964, the year of AHS: Asylum. Loosely based on a book called Red Alert, the story dramatizes the final fate of a world ruled by dangerously misguided men insanely obsessed with precious bodily fluids. The movie was produced, co-written, and directed by a control freak named Stanley, whose illustrious body of work also includes movies about aliens who meddle with humans, social engineers who believed that people could be programmed like clocks, and an abusive father/neglectful husband who succumbs to the evil influence of The Ghosts of American Horror Stories Past and tries to kill his wife and child with an axe.  

This is all to say that I think Arden, like Strangelove, used to be a Nazi.

As Lana unwittingly barrels toward more heartbreak, another oblivious Briarcliff innocent finds herself cast in a twisted reenactment of a very old, very grim story in the gloomy Eden outside The Asylum. We find Sister Mary making like Little Red Riding Hood, clutching an empty basket and hustling through the woods, when suddenly the wolfish Dr. Arden springs from a hiding spot in the bushes. He apologizes; she giggles. They discuss the creatures she’s been tasked with feeding. She asks: What are they? “All in good time,” says Arden, his knowing tone a wink to the audience. He wishes to reward Sister Mary for her hush-hush assistance with the mystery menagerie, and he presents her with an ornate tin. Inside: A candied apple, a Granny Smith thick with muddy-yummy caramel. Is it also spiked with something that Arden whipped up in his lab? I wonder…

Sister Mary tries to decline. Arden ramps up. “Sister. Life is too short for regrets. Take a taste.” Sister Mary declines once again, citing Sister Jude’s teaching that sweets lead to sin, just like horror movies, Harry Potter, yoga, and comic books. (Or so Seduction of the Innocent tells me.) But Dr. Arden is man for whom no does not mean no when a woman utters it. “I said: Take a taste.” Sister Mary succumbs. She leans in for a nibble… and then she’s going down like Gretel, grabbing onto the stick and chomping away. The Woman giggles. The Snake is pleased. They walk into The Asylum together, unaware that hungry eyes are watching them from above…

The Biblical story of The Fall explains many things for those who believe, all filed under “The End of Innocence.” How death entered the world. How men and women became ashamed of their bodies, embittered toward each other, and locked in a destructive, irresolvable power struggle. How God distanced himself from now-corrupt humanity and began to execute a cryptically teased redemption project spanning centuries, designed to destroy evil and transform all his creatures into new creations. Of course, this story has also been used to demonize women since the dawn of man. It’s a world gone crazy… and it’s all because of Eve! I think we can agree that American Horror Story: Asylum does not share this worldview, and in fact stands in violent opposition to it. More on this later, when we get to the episode’s There’s Something Strange About Sister Mary climax…

But for now, we run with the devil. Turns out Dr. Arden not only suffers from a perverse God complex, but also from a very acute form of insanity, a mad kind of misogyny seeded and exacerbated by corrupt cultural conditioning: a Madonna-whore complex. Arden’s diseased perspective on women begins to reveal itself when he’s confronted in the kitchen by the woman who spied him and Sister Mary in the woods: Shelley. She hits on him, or pretends to, plying him with crude teases delivered with ripe theatrical flair. Yet her real want isn’t carnal; what she craves — what she’s willing to trade her body for — is just 15 minutes of fresh air, to feel the sunshine on her skin, to feel free once more. (Do the Briarcliff inmates not get yard time?) We get her backstory — the origins of her alleged nymphomania; how she got committed –in a dramatic soliloquy that suggests Shelley fancies herself a Tennessee Williams tragic heroine. (And rightly so, presuming she’s telling the truth here.) “Men like sex and no one calls them ‘whores.’ I hate that word. It’s so ugly. I’m into pleasure,” says Shelley, adding that she got hooked when she discovered self-gratification at the age of five. Her mother did not approve.

“Because you’re a little slut,” Arden seethes.

No: “She didn’t understand me,” Shelley corrects. Amping up the ham (and midcentury Feminist complaint), Shelley continues: “So I ran away from home. Met some jazz musicians — free thinkers! I fell in love with the bass player. Big mistake! As soon as he put a ring on my finger, I was his property. He could screw every Betty in town, and I had to stay home and scrub his dirty drawers. So come Fleet Week, he comes home and finds me in bed with two Navy guys, and I told him, ‘It’s not for self! It’s for country!” He decked me flat out, put me in the car, and locked me in the nut house. And the sickest part is, they let him. Because l like sex. It’s my ‘crime.'” Shelley’s story encapsulates so much troubling history of western culture’s weird and wrong regard for women as things to be possessed and owned…

And Arden doesn’t give a s–t. As Shelley goes on bended knee to beg for just five minutes outside, Arden looks down on her, eyes hard with cold condescension, yet tweaking with a desire he love/hates to feel, that he blames her for. “You make me sick.” Then he finishes her off with the demeaning curse that hurts Shelley the most. “Whore.”

Yet Arthur Arden is one sick puppy himself, and his perverse form of romance is the proof. Just call him… Dr. Strangelove. Check that: Call him “Stanley,” the name he uses when he entertains the prostitutes that comprise his demented, possibly deadly dating life. We see him in action with his latest lady of the night/victim. The nameless lass — an Unidentified Female Object — arrives at his home, rocking a Holly Golightly black evening gown, and finds Chopin on the record player and an elegantly prepared table waiting for her. But it’s really for his benefit, not hers. “I find the anticipation far more erotic than the act,” says Arden. Thinking she knows her part in the kinky drama Arden wants staged, UFO starts talking dirty. “Stanley” blanches. “If you’re going to be vulgar, I just assume you not speak at all.” Unfortunately, the escort continues to do everything wrong. She refuses his expensive wine (she needs to have her wits about her on dates, she says; can’t have her head full of spirits); she offers to dance for him if he’d only turn off the Chopin and give her something with a beat. Arden stands, grabs a carving knife, then orders her to sit… as he starts slicing up the roast with intimidating vigor. He speaks of how spooked she must have been in recent days, doing what she does for a living with a butcher like Bloody Face on the loose. “It must be a relief, knowing he’s been captured and you’re perfectly safe,” says Arden as he cuts, the rare meat oozing.

The UFO gulps.

After supper, the totality of Arden’s psychosexual complex comes into focus when he asks his leased lady, his rented property, to get “clean as a virgin” by scrubbing away her make-up and putting on a costume for the grand finale of their feature-length date: A nun’s habit. Coif, veil, tunic. Arden is remaking Nameless into a Sister Mary he can sexually possess. She finds the whole thing odd, for sure. But it’s not until she peeks into Arden’s secret stash of fetish photos that she hits the panic button. A bondage smut rag called Fetters. Pictures of women tied up and laying on a bed (Arden’s bed?)… as well as pictures of dead women, as well. (Did Arden produce these pics? Or is he just a consumer? Perhaps they’re merely on loan from The Martin and Gottfried Vagner Men Who Hate Women Collection in Sweden.)

Arden bursts into the room, sees what she’s found. She offers a refund and tries to abort their assignation, but Arden throws her onto his bed. She cowers. He looms. He’s wearing a wife beater T-shirt. He’s got a toothpick poking ramrod straight out of his mouth. He’s grabbing his junk. Now who’s the one pretending to be in a Tennessee Williams play? Arden’s “Stanley” must be a nod to Stanley Kowalski, the hideous, tortured working class He-Man of A Streetcar Named Desire, a wife-beating thug who winds up raping his wife’s troubled, delusional sister one drunken night, then tossing her into the madhouse. With crude words, Arden demands that Nameless expose herself to him. He then slithers toward her, toothpick jutting from his lips like a forked tongue, a devil about the defile the copycat object of his idolatrous/misogynist Madonna/whore lust/loathing…

She chomps on his arm and knees him in the nuts. “Stanley” collapses in a metaphorically castrated heap, and the UFO flies away.

One devil down. Another one to go.

NEXT: The Exorcism of Hoary Potter… and The Possession of Sister Mary.

The war for Jed Potter’s spiritual liberation begins with Sister Jude’s marginalization. “Go sit with the parents,” commands Father Malechi. “This is no place for a woman.” Sister Jude gives the sexist a scornful glare. “I’m stronger than you think,” she snaps. But she does as she is told.

Father Malechi warns Monsignor Timothy and Dr. Thredson that The Entity inside Jed will fight dirty. “Don’t listen to it,” he says. “The demon is a liar. If it speaks to you just ignore it and do your job.” But what to do when the alleged demon is a truth-teller who seeks to wound by exposing your most painful, shameful secrets? “Oliver, look at you,” says The Entity, adopting a femme tone. “I see what you have become. I’m glad I gave you up.” The shrink is shaken. Unspoken: Mother? Is that you? I have so many questions — FOCUS, DOCTOR! You can process your childhood when we unpack your backstory in a future episode!

Father Malechi rips through the Rite of Exorcism. Or tries to. The Entity commands, “Lose your place, old man!” (A loaded line, in the context of the Feminist reading.) The priest gets distracted, recovers, repeats something he’s already read. Hoary Potter gets impatient. He crudely paraphrases a verse from chapter five of John’s gospel, then sends the handicapped exorcist flying through the air with a telekinetic blast. Father Malechi is down, out, maybe even dead. He just disappears from the story from this point forward. Father Malechi: Excised and Exorcised. His patriarchal spiritual energy — his male chi — extinguished. (“Chi” in Greek looks like the letter X; means “soul of the world,” also a symbol for Christ.)

Re-enter The Woman. Monsignor Winters tells Sister Jude that the boys need to regroup. He tells her to watch over the beleaguered, bedeviled boy, but from outside the room. And heavenly sunshine, Sister, say nothing to the beastly boy! But then she hears the sound of the electroshock machine (ZARK!) and she sees Jed screaming in pain from burning, blinding light irradiating his face. Something prods Sister Jude to intervene — perhaps something like the memory of what she did to Lana Winters earlier in the day; a memory now linked to another memory of an innocent who suffered by her hand.

It’s an ambush, of course. Once Sister Jude gets to the boy, Hoary Potter takes hold and pokes her with his truth stick, right where it hurts the most. Using a salty (shell)fishy euphemism, The Entity says: “Oh, it drives you crazy, doesn’t it, to be the smartest person in the room, with no real power, because of [the fact that she’s a woman.]” Sister Jude tries to escape. The door slams shut. Then, working her over like some Satanic Dr. Phil, The Entity forces Sister Jude to take a look at the monsters locked in her mental closet, the Legion that she tries to muffle and smother with Habits and Ritual, the horrible mistakes that she’s never forgiven herself for making, the guilt that keeps her in spiritual bondage. What did Sister Jude say about Lana earlier the episode?  I believe her memories are her worst enemies. They’re terrorizing her, impeding repentance…

NEXT: The Fall of Trampy Judy

Behold Sister Jude’s creation myth. She was just Judy once. She wore lipstick red dresses and sang flirty-teasy Ella Fitzgerald tunes to bad boys in uniform and begged them to take her home. Maybe some of them did. We just see the one who steals a kiss and dumps her on the dance floor, just to get a laugh from the other guys. Was Judy a prostitute? Or was she just Shelleyesque, reduced to degrading herself sexually to feel free, empowered, loved? What’s certain is that one night, while driving home lonely and drunk and listening to Dinah Shore sing “Buttons and Bows” on the radio, she got distracted while plucking cigarette ash from her tongue and ran over a young girl (“The little girl in blue,” hissed Hoary Potter. “The Innocent.“) and left her in the dust to die. (Recurring Motif: Also see Teresa leaving Leo behind to die in the opening sequence.)

“You didn’t even bother to get out of the car,” says The Innocent, now out of Judy’s head and laying in Jed’s bed. The Entity goes for the jugular. “You’re a MURDERER, Judy! MURDERER! MURDERER!” Over and over. Sister Jude snaps. She blitzes the bed and swings away, and Hoary Potter just laughs and laughs and laughs. Monsignor Timothy enters, drags Sister Jude away. A parting shot, another shameful secret exposed: The Entity informs the Father that the Sister lusts after him. Sister Jude roars with fury. Which is something that someone who is truly forgiven and free wouldn’t do. And so Sister Jude’s shame speaks volumes. She’s a hypocrite. She has never confessed, repented, and atoned for that which she clearly deems sinful in herself.

Monsignor Timothy starts the Rite anew. The Entity howls. The lights begin to fritz, and the boy, Jed, is beginning to deteriorate. He looks like he’s smoldering or corroding from the inside out, all charred teeth and blackened veins. Thredson wants to shoot him up with drugs. Monsignor Timothy looks conflicted, as if bending to the doctor’s science means his religion has failed. He makes a choice: “Help him! Help him now!” Empowered with this authority, Dr. Thredson administers the medicine…

And the lights go out. Power failure in The Asylum. From the top of the Stairway to Heaven, to the depths of the Women’s Ward…

Where in her cell, Lana Winters watches the door violently shake, then mysteriously open. Very Acts 16: 16-38. She steps out into the hallway, now aglow with fire-red emergency lighting. (The women’s ward, now a red light district. Arden would approve.) She hears the scary howl of an air raid siren, ominous as doomsday. But when she sees that she’s not alone, that all the captives in this hellhole have been mysteriously freed, including her new soul sister Grace, Lana recognizes the opportunity that they’ve been given. It’s not Apocalypse Now. It’s Liberation Day.

They make a run for it, then run into Kit. He wants to join these defiant ones. He can’t fake crazy for Thredson to save himself; he needs their help. Lana refuses. He’s a psychotic scourge to women, and he must remain caged. But Grace believes in Kit’s innocence, and she breaks from Lana to run away with him. Feeling abandoned once more by a woman she trusted, looking as shellshocked as Trampy Judy when she was dumped on the dance floor, Lana watches Grace and Kit sprint toward the exit — and she screams for help. Jealousy or justice? Responsible citizen or a rat? Either way, the orderlies seize Kit and Grace and drag them back into the Briarcliff inferno. They also use the opportunity to batter Kit into unconsciousness. Grace shoots daggers at Lana: This is on you. Lana weeps, either from regret or despair. Regardless: Liberation, lost; Paradise Regained, delayed indefinitely.

It’s at this moment that Jed Potter gives up the ghost. Literally. The boy has slipped into cardiac arrest, and Dr. Thredson hammers on his chest to jump-start his heart. Suddenly, the technically lifeless lad sits bolt upright and issues a purging, deflating cough; we can’t see it, but we can clearly imagine he’s expelled something virulent into the space shared by Monsignor Timothy, Thredson, Sister Jude, and now, Sister Mary, who watches the horror show from the doorway slack-jawed. Jed’s mouth is now frothy with a white and cottony substance. It wasn’t there before he sat up, and it vanishes as he falls back, emptied and expired.

NEXT: What you’re about to read next will make you hungry for pasta. Or shoot yourself. Or me.

This fleeting appearance of ephemeral foam could be what’s known as angel hair, a phenomenon that’s typically part of stories involving UFO encounters (see: Kit) and Virgin Mary manifestations (see: the bottom of the Stairway to Heaven; also Sister Mary). It’s usually explained as the byproduct of electromagnetic discharge. Still, the appearance of something called “angel hair” in an exorcism scenario begs a question we have not asked yet:  What the hell got into Jed? Or maybe… what the heaven? How truly “demonic” was this Entity that possessed Jed? Think about what it did. It rebuked and humbled a prideful priest. It served as a conduit for revelation and affirmation to Thredson. It staged a tough love intervention for Sister Jude. The Entity provided, in essence, an electroshock jolt of enlightenment. Okay, so the experience destroyed a child… but there’s a rich, long history of divine powers sacrificing innocents to facilitate salvation.

Is The Asylum under siege by an evil supernatural force? Or is this hellhole under siege by a harrowing of redemptive, reforming good?

“He’s dead,” Thredson says. Suddenly, the Christ-on-the-cross crucifix above Jed’s bed rattles and falls to the floor, as if stripped of whatever sticking-power that kept it perched. (Poor Jesus. He did not fair well in this episode.) The lights go on. Electricity restored — and power bestowed. Something unseen nails Sister Mary right between the eyes, causing her to faint. Did the phantom menace inside Jed’s head ping into her brain? That was certainly the implication. But might there be another explanation?

A possibility suggests itself the next morning when Dr. Arden visits Sister Mary in the infirmary. He finds her sleeping. He also finds her wearing only a slip, slightly hiked up her thigh, ivory silk matching her soft flesh. Sister Mary, as alabaster white as the Virgin Mary statue at the foot of the Stairway to Heaven. Arden ogles the nun’s madonna pure beauty and feels a longing that makes him feel icky. He yanks on the hem of her garment to cover her leg when Sister Mary startles to consciousness. He apologizes and explains he was only trying to protect her “modesty,” not “frighten” her. Almost everything that gets said from this point forward is shaded with double meaning, as Sister Mary now seems to be operating from a perspective she didn’t previously possess. “You can never frighten me. You makes me feel safe.” “I know how busy you are. Saving lives.” “What about The Creatures?” When Arden, increasingly agitated by Sister Mary’s semi-undress, says he’s having a hard time looking at her “out of costume,” she forces a smile and covers up her bothersome body. “I’m sorry, doctor. I’d hate to distract you from the important work of the day.” Arden tries to deny the implication that he’s unnerved by her sexuality by insisting that the human body is “nothing more than… a complex machine, like a clock, all cogs and sprockets.” Sister Mary smiles a smile that could mean any number of things, including blissful obliviousness. But once Arden exits, the smile transfigures into pure knowingness, and with a resentful flourish, she throws off the cover-up of sheets. The crucifix on the wall shudders, as if scolded.

According to Christian theology, Christ was the fulfillment of God’s top secret, centuries-spanning rescue operation, designed to solve the problem of evil that came from The Fall. Let us also remember that Arden has a similar ambition: He wishes to solve the problem of evil himself and make religion — specifically, Christianity — irrelevant. What was in that candied apple? THEORY! Sister Mary hasn’t been corrupted by a supernatural force. She’s been transformed by science. Specifically: a cure for original sin, which has restored her to a pre-Fall condition, when The Woman was uncursed, unashamed of her body, and an equal partner in the stewardship of creation. Per this theory, said cure was developed by Dr. Arden, administered via the candied apple, and activated via the discharge of electromagnetic energy that occurred when Jed was exorcised. Why doesn’t Arden recognize this? Because she’s hiding this from him, because she sees through him and sees the ugly evil man he really is. She is The Bride of Dr. StrangeloveFrankenstein — and her creator/intended mate repels her.

But I am frequently wrong about these things. [UPDATE ON FRIDAY MORNING: And it does look my theory Arden is indeed totally wrong. I write these recaps before I read our weekly postmortems with AHS co-creator Ryan Murphy, and in the “Tricks and Treats” Q+A, Murphy seems to make it clear that Jed was possessed by The Devil himself, and that the demon now dwells inside Sister Mary. As we move forward with the recaps, I’ll be writing from that perspective.]

“Tricks and Treats” ends with more winks and ironies in the office of Sister Jude. The lady that used to be a tramp enters and finds Lana smoking and waiting for her, as requested. Ms. Winters wears Virgin blue, just as true love Wendy did during her encounter with Bloody Face as the beginning of the story. Sister Jude takes Lana’s cigarette and plops it in a glass of water. The cigarette: A reminder of the night Judy killed The Innocent; but also, in this episode, a symbol of masculine entitlement. (Thredson to Kit:  “I see no reason why a man should be denied the right to smoke.”) Sister Jude tells Lana she deserves a reward for stopping Kit and Grace from escaping, for putting The Good over self-interest, i.e., what Judy didn’t do back in the day.

But the “treat” is a sick trick: What Lana gets for her righteous heroism is the privilege of watching Sister Jude flog Kit and Grace with a cane of Lana’s choosing. Lana says sorry to Grace; Grace rejects her sorry, calls her a “Judas bitch.” Just as Sister Jude is about to swat, Kit stands and insists that Grace did nothing wrong, and asks that he be punished for her crimes. And so Kit lives up to his name, as “Kit” means “bearer of Christ, pure.” Also interesting that Sister Jude expresses sarcastic admiration for Kit’s chivalrous example of substitutionary atonement by likening him to Galahad, the wholly virtuous Arthurian knight who found the Holy Grail, and in some legends, was the embodiment of Jesus himself and ascended into heaven while still living. Kit Walker — Madhouse Messiah? Destined to cheat death via supernatural means? TBD.

Of course, Kit first has to survive his caning. By taking on Grace’s 20 strokes, Kit now has 40 whollops coming to him, and per Roman law, 40 lashes was a death sentence. Kit bends over, and as Briarcliff’s mad and damaged matriarch hammers away with her highly metaphorical rod, he casts a teary glance at that highly metaphorical deadhead cigarette drowned in the water glass. Sister Jude swings away. POUND! POUND! POUND!

Copycat Jesus wept.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

An anthology series that centers on different characters and locations, including a haunted house, an insane asylum, a witch coven, a freak show, and a hotel.
  • TV Show
  • 8
  • 94
  • TV-MA
  • 10/17/12
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