American Horror Story recap: Cinema No Paradiso
Devil-possessed Sister Mary turns Sister Jude's movie night into a bloody black mass in 'Nor'easter'
Inside the wasteland of The Asylum, the horror freaks are amusing themselves to death.
Bloody Face, a legendary serial killer who wears a stitched mask made from flayed female flesh, hammers on the steel door separating him from Teresa, a kinky creepshow fetishist whose perverse passion for Chiller channel pop is now biting her in the ass. She scampers to snatch her phone and call for help but it’s too late: The awful American idol explodes into the cell with “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!” swagger. The Butcher of Briarcliff is about to make like Vlad the Impaler with his lobotomy pick when Leo – Teresa’s husband – rises from near death and tackles Bloody Face to the ground despite being down one arm. They wrestle; Bloody Face loses the orbitoclast. Lion-hearted Leo grabs it and makes like Van Helsing, driving the metal stake into his Bloody Face’s chest. The beast is down…
But Teresa isn’t done. She’s got adrenaline coursing through her veins and rage surging in her heart and all of it needs to be purged before she can move on. She sees the brain skewer embedded in Bloody Face’s torso, yanks it out, and stabs him with it over and over and over again, looking as terrible as the abysmal shadow creature she desires to destroy, looking like Buffy gone berserk, until she’s spent of her anger. “Theresa” spelled with an ’h’ means “angel.” But “Teresa” without the ‘h’ means “reaper.” And so we slay our demons and become our monsters.
The “Haunted Honeymoon Tour” is over. Teresa and Leo want out of The Asylum. She shoulders his dying weight as she calls 9-1-1-. The operator asks about the “nature of the emergency”… and that’s when the Bloody Face clones come marching in. Holy what-the-what?! narrative subversion! There’s one copycat cretin coming from one direction, another from the other. And one of them has a gun. POP! POP-POP! The lovers drop “like a sack of potatoes,” to use the shooter’s giddy metaphor. He pushes up his Bloody Face headdress and reveals himself to be a pale-faced young man. He whoops-whoops, gunman style. “So sick! It was like BANG! Lights out!” His accomplice isn’t as gleeful. “Cooper” peels away his death mask and bemoans a “s—t” game gone “way too far.” Gunman Geek: “This went as far as it can go. Don’t puss out on me, Cooper!” (Says the man who prefers killing at a remove with a pistol. Would Bloody Face really approve of such alleged innovation?)
Who the hell are these lunatic fringe skin-head jokers, these Bloody Face Fanboys? Are they aligned with the first Bloody Face that was hunting Leo and Teresa? How did they know The Lovers were in The Asylum?
The BFFs have questions of their own. Gunman Geek notices Leo’s severed arm. We see it, too; the “Angeles” tattoo conspicuously visible. “I wonder what the hell could have done that?” asks Cooper. Clearly, they don’t know jack about The Thing Behind The Door…
But do they know anything about THIS fearsome fella walking down the mischief-wrecked hallway, heading straight toward them. Bloody hell! It’s another Bloody Face! An ever-growing legion of indecency! Do these deviants belong to the same wild bunch death cult? Or is this former Catholic madhouse buggy with multiple sects of rival horror freaks?
We won’t be finding out this week. BF No. 4 struts toward Nos. 3 and 2, whose faces go slack with fear, and as we wonder if they’re suddenly going number one in their pants, we leave the Monster Mash and cut to the credit sequence, a Stanley Brackage-esque “Eye Myth” of religious madhouse horror. And so continues this show within a show, this twisted cliffhanger serial about the awful legacy of awful events that have their own awful precipitant histories…
November, 1964. Libra has waned, and Scorpio is Rising, and a wrinkle in time is about to unravel the tightly-wound control freak named after the saint of lost causes. Sister Jude presides in her office at the top of the Stairway to Heaven, pushing bakery biz paper and grooving to sweet, sweet Catholic death metal. On the radio: A concert version of Faure’s “Requiem in D Minor” – choral-orchestral music for the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, famed for its “Libere Me” and “Pie Jesu” movements. Gabriel Faure – who wrote the piece “just for fun” – explained that his so-called “lullaby of death” was suffused with his belief that shedding the mortal coil was “a happy deliverance.” The episode would give us plenty of people who would sharply disagree.
Enter Sister Mary Eunice. Is she Satan possessed or Goddess enhanced? Baphomet infused or Thelema imbued? We wonder. Oozing Discordian sass in the wake of her Maladay episode, Sister Mary plops a stack of mail on boss lady’s desk and announces that a tempest is about to rock and roll the joint. “A big fat storm,” she adds with ominous punctuation, sounding almost sincerely spooked. Perhaps there are things that can even scare the devil… like, say, an army of the heavenly host, who look like E.Ts. and travel by spaceships?
NEXT: Bad Religion
The day’s post includes a newspaper, but not a local or recent one. It’s the Framingham Herald. The date: June 28, 1949. The banner headline: FRAMINGHAM GIRL MISSING SIX DAYS; THE SEARCH CONTINUES. The picture: The Little Girl In Blue; The Innocent; the child that The Nun Formerly Known As Trampy Judy ran over and left for dead. Sister Jude sees the newspaper and freaks. Where did you get this?! “The mailbox,” says Sister Mary. Yes, you ninny, but who delivered it? Sister Mary, facetious: “The mail-man?” FUN FACT! June 28, 1949 minus 6 days = June 22, 1949, which happens to be the day that two famous actresses were born: Meryl Streep, whose many credits include She-Devil, Doubt, and Angels In America, and Lindsay Wagner, who became famous by playing a woman who lost her legs during a date gone wrong and became a super-powered secret agent/transhuman Frankenstein known as The Bionic Woman. Think she might have a referral for Shelley?
Sister Jude is convinced that someone is subversively punking her (I know what you did 15 summers ago, you naughty-naughty girl!), that someone is trying to spook her with winky-wicked coded messages,
and that this sequence is subliminally alluding to the work of Neil Postman, the cultural critic who penned the books Amusing Ourselves To Death and The Disappearance of Childhood and coined the term “media ecology.” (FUN FACT! American Horror Story: Asylum premiered on October 17, 2012 – the 15-year anniversary ofI Know What You Did Last Summer.) Sister Jude does not consider that some divine conspiracy, heavenly or otherwise, is presenting her anew with an opportunity for confession, atonement, and redemption from the guilt that snares and warps her. Regardless: Sister Jude’s shame has flared anew – and it will lead her to a close encounter with the gray alien shadow that harrows her soul.
Unless that thing gray-faced thing was literally an alien.
What is this tempest about to sock The Asylum? Natural? Supernatural? (SatanStorm!) Unnatural? (Extraterrestrial Mothership, Inbound!) We get a specific word for this FrankenStorm in the very next scene, in which we find Dr. Arthur Arden, creature maker and beastly misogynist, experimenting with the exotic matter that he extracted from Kit Walker’s neck back in the pilot, the futuristic microchip-looking thing that sprouted six tiny legs and scampered away like a bug. IT’S ALIVE! Arden has dissected the (alien) mini-machine, and he’s examining the quartered pieces though a magnifying glass when suddenly, the seemingly sentient bits begin to stir and then SNAP! together. The mad scientist pops his eyes and recoils in shock. (In a scene that was cut from the episode, Dr. Arden then opened his diary and wrote these words: I was working in the lab late one night, when my eyes beheld an eerie sight. They did a mash! They did a monster mash!)
Sorry. We were talking about storms, right? Arden has Faure playing on the radio, too, but a severe weather warning interrupts the broadcast: “There’s a Nor’easter storm approaching the entire Eastern seaboard. The eye of the storm is expected to hit Friday night…” And commence Wikipedia-assisted decoding! By my estimation, the Friday night we’re talking about here is November 6, 1964, the day that Greg Graffin – noted atheist and naturalist — was born. He is also the leader singer of the influential Los Angeles-based punk-rock band Bad Religion, whose hits include “21st Century Digital Boy” (chip-headed Kit Walker!) and “The Devil In Stitches” (Bloody Face!). Nor’easter = Noir’Easter = Black Easter, Jams Blish’s 1968 sci-fi fantasy novel about an occultist who unleashes demons upon the world, and ends with Baphomet – a demon favored by the black magic set — declaring that no power can command the hoary host back to Hell, for God is dead. Black Easter is the third in a four-part cycle that Blish called the “After Such Knowledge” series; the first was called A Case Of Conscience. It’s about a Jesuit priest who leads a group of Catholic scientists to a planet that’s home to an alien race that has an innate sense of morality despite lacking any kind of religion. Naturally, the Catholics deem this Utopian society to be Satanic, and therefore must be converted, exorcised or destroyed. The phrase “After Such Knowledge” comes from the T.S. Eliot poem “Gerontion” about a faithless, impotent post-war man wrestling with sin, sexuality, the weight of history, the relevancy (or lack thereof) of Christianity, and salvation. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”
It’s a question that nags at Sister Jude, as well.
NEXT: B.F Skinner; Bloody Face skin-heads. Is there a connection?
We see the troubled nun trying to distract herself from her curious case of conscience by working in the bakery. Yet no matter how hard she massages and kneads, the memory of 6-22-49 beats on her like a rolling pin to the head. What she needs is a session with a gracious Alienist to process her sore psyche. What she gets instead is Dr. Oliver Thredson, who enters the kitchen and inquires about her noticeable agitation. She dodges, denies. She says the “inclement weather … upsets the natives, they’re fragile souls.” Thredson seizes the opportunity to confront Sister Jude about how she disciplines Briarcliff’s sensitive unfortunates. He asks her to abandon corporal punishment and adopt a policy of “positive reinforcement,” citing the work of B.F. Skinner, a psychologist, social philosopher, and proponent of radical Behavioralism, the belief that the study of human behavior should focus first and foremost on environmental histories and reinforcing consequences. (B.F Skinner — Bloody Face; skin masks. Is there a connection?) “In lay terms, sister,” says Thredson, oozing righteous condescension, ”a little compassion would go a long way.” It’s enough to make Sister Jude’s eyes roll…
But she doesn’t completely disagree. She reveals she’s got a treat in store for inmates – something to elevate their spirits. It’s a quintessential Friday evening ritual – a movie night. St. Angelo Parish is loaning her the projector, and the archdiocese is lending a film from its library: Cecile B. Demille’s The Sign of the Cross, a kitschy classic from 1932 that was famously censored after the Motion Picture Production Code — largely informed by Christian moralism — became stringently enforced in 1934. The film also helped catalyze the formation of the National Legion of Decency in 1993, dedicated to staunching the “massacre of innocence” and promoting the “purification of the cinema.” It was until the mid-sixties — about the time of Asylum — the Hollywood shed the Code and hardened itself to the Legion’s influence. And then everything got better, and everyone lived happily ever after. Right?
The subtext deepens and thickens when Sister Mary hits the Common Room to interrupt the maddening bleat of The Singing Nun and make an important announcement. “There’s a big storm headed our way. And when it hits, half of you are going to be too afraid to move, and the other half won’t be able to stop moving. It would be chaos. And that won’t do. So, Sister Jude has arranged for a distraction. A movie on Friday night when the storm is at its worst. We’re all going to be together, in the dark, watching The Sign of the Cross. A movie full of fire, sex, and the death of Christians. What fun.”
“The big storm” is a metaphor for crisis (existential or social), and “movie night” is
A SATANIC BLACK MASS a metaphor for the things we do to run away from our problems (figuratively or literally), instead of dealing with them, to the point that our escapism become debilitating problems themselves. Over the next several scenes, we see Sister Mary acting devilish, even despicable, and yet her terrorism also exposes and reflects back the weakness or corruption of the person she’s terrorizing. What evil lurks in the hearts of men? Only Sister Mary knows! Is this her intention? An important big picture question, for sure. For now, irrelevant. What’s important is how her targets respond to the scary images – the cracked yet truthful mirror — she puts before them. A quote, from the episode’s featured author, Anais Nin: “From the backstabbing co-worker to the meddling sister-in-law, you are in charge of how you react to the people and events in your life. You can either give negativity power over your life or you can choose happiness instead. Take control and choose to focus on what is important in your life. Those who cannot live fully often become destroyers of life.”
Sister Mary’s day of mayhem begins with The Mexican (real name not given), an elderly female inmate who loves to sway to The Singing Nun and whose seemingly devout Catholicism feels more like superstition. After Sister Mary issues her severe weather advisory/programming announcement, she beelines toward The Mexican, flashes her with evil snake eyes. Confronted with palpable evil, The Mexican shrinks from fear, and retreats to her cell like a survivalist to a bomb shelter.
Next: The Boss. As an increasingly paranoid Sister Jude orders Frank to keep a wary eye on Dr. Thredson, Sister Mary barges into the room holding a decanter of communion wine. She claims someone has been sneaking sips and adding water to cover it up. She places the bottle within tempting reach of Sister Jude – not a nice thing to do an alcoholic. Sister Mary fake apologizes. She knows better, and proves it by reciting Sister Jude’s conversion story, about how she renounced all worldly pleasures, including a booze addiction, after receiving “a calling from Jesus Christ” in 1949. Hearing this, Sister Jude’s guilty conscience flares. SCREECH! SLAM! SPLAT! Time to confess, yes? No. Sister Jude eyeballs and fixates on the “ravish me red” lipstick on Sister Mary’s mouth and blasts her for looking “like a street walker” – which is to say, the floozy tramp that Judy used to be, and still is, at least in her mind’s eye. Time to deal, yes? Again: Nyet! Sister Mary springs a twist: The lipstick was a gift… for Sister Jude… from Dr. Arden. Sister Jude burns indignant. She now has a new prime suspect for her phantom menace – a new scapegoat for her own demons. (Note: Much later in the episode, we get a reference to C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, so it’s probably relevant to note the notorious “Problem of Susan.” In The Last Battle, we learn that Susan Pevensie, the eldest girl of the four kids from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, was not permitted to re-enter Narnia as a teenager because “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.”)
NEXT: Red Scare
Speaking of the devil (and continuing with the theme of demonization), we next descend into Dr. Strangelove’s laboratory, where Arden is doing more experiments on Kit Walker. He shows him the black alien chip. It’s bouncing up and down in a bottle like a jumping bean. Arden notes that the weird little wafer seems to recognize Kit, that it’s drawn to him — that it wants communion with him. Might Kit Walker have more tech embedded within him, tech that’s communicating with the chip and relaying intel to his foreign masters? Put another way: Kit Walker, are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist party? “This is not the first attempt to infiltrate my labs,” says Arden, once again teasing us for backstory to come. He accuses Kit of being a mole for the East German Stazi. Or maybe the KGB? Or worse, maybe the rats who’ve allegedly infested every corner of American government. You know who we’re talking about. “Jews,” says Arden, “and fellow travelers.” He coldly pokes and pokes at Kit’s flesh, digging for more black bugs, and Kit screams hot. (Later in the episode, we’ll see Dr. Arden babysitting that spazzy chip and reading a book about mind control — an interesting allusion to drop in an episode about the power and influence of Christian-shaped culture. Again, Ms. Nin: “When we blindly adopt a religion, a political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons. We cease to grow.”)
Of course, to each generation, their own bogeyman. Black magic witches. Pinko commie bastards. Those damn immigrants, legal or otherwise! And so we circle back to The Mexican. We find her worrying her Rosary and feverishly praying to God as The Asylum’s true red menace enters her cell. Sister Mary slaps those beads away and orders the woman to get on her knees. The Mexican scrambles to reclaim her charm, begs Lady Satan for mercy. Sister Mary asks The Mexican to join her in prayer, and The Mexican obeys. There’s no fight, no resistance. Confronted with The Adversary, The Mexican’s faith fails her… or rather, The Mexican fails her faith. The point is underscored by the irony of the words Sister Mary asks The Mexican to recite: “Father in Heaven, ever-living source of good, keep us faithful in serving you.” Regardless: The Mexican’s a goner. Time to kill some Christians! Sister Mary stabs The Mexican in the neck with a pair of scissors, then through the heart. She admires the gush of blood, as if pleased with quality of sacrifice…
And then carts the corpse out to Arden’s Garden and watches The Creatures chomp chomp chomp away. It’s a Movable Feast for the abused, degraded, objectified unfortunates living on the fringes of Asylum society, albeit at the expense of someone not unlike themselves.
Sister Mary’s shock therapy tour makes its final stop of the day in Dr. Arden’s lab. The bow-tied brute brightens at the sight of his idolatrous crush, the manifestation of the innocence he never had and craves to possess. He praises Sister Mary for her compassion for The Creatures, and helps himself to a queasy-paternal pat-stroke-grope of her thigh. With that, the She-Devil drops the Sister act and busts him on his lurid-lustful heart. Arden is repulsed. My milky little Madonna?! Talking like the Whore of Babylon?! Say it ain’t so, you Ho! “This little bride of Christ has had an awakening. Not the lord, but to the power of sex, lust and desire,” teases The Scarlet Woman, blooming full Thelema. She crawls on his desk, hikes up her robe, and offers herself to him. Arden snaps. He strikes her, calls her a whore (his favorite word), strikes her some more. Sister Mary cackles, and hexes him where it hurts: His manhood. “I didn’t know you were such a sad little panty waste.” She exits, leaving him looking broken and impotent – more than he knows. Dr. Frankenstein, made small by his dream bride turned monstrous. “Friend?” No. “She. Hate. Me.”
Tough s—t, jerk.
While Sister Mary pushes her subversive agenda throughout The Asylum, Dr. Thredson pursues his own in the Common Room. We see him take charge of Sister Jude’s makeshift cinema paradiso, directing the orderlies on how to hang the screen. He’s approached by rebellious Lana Winters, who suspects him – correctly – as being a fellow traveler in the war against evil empire that is Sister Jude’s Briarcliff. Making like Princess Leia – sounding like Princess Leia – Lana begs Dr. Thredson to play R2D2 and transport a message to true love Wendy, the one person who can save her: “Help me, Dr. Thredson. You’re my only hope.” He pierces her with his gaze; we think he’s going to spurn her invitation to rage against the machine. “You’re asking me to betray Sister Jude, who is the administrator of this sanatorium?” But then he snatches and pockets the note, and they share a knowing, conspiratorial smile.
NEXT: Come As Your Madness
Down in the bakery, Shelley and Grace work the ovens and roll the dough for their cane-wielding captor-commandants. Earlier in the episode, Shelley overheard Kit and Grace plotting another escape plan. Now, she corners Grace and asks to join. But Grace has no grace for Shelley. Why should she care about her freedom, anyway? She’s just going to waste it on “screwing more guys.” Shelley gets haughty. “Did you think as a little girl I thought I would spent my life wasting away in the bug house?! I want to go to Paris. France! They’re 20 years ahead of us! Here I am a freak! There I would be celebrated! Didn’t you ever read Delta of Venus!? Anais Nin embraced her sexuality, without apology! You’re from France! You must know what I’m talking about.” But Grace says she only lived in France until she was nine, and she leaves Shelley to dangle. And so the slow-moving mystery of Shelley’s identity inches forward…
Anais Nin is a provocative reference. Shelley is correct in her characterization – Nin challenged sexual taboos and wrote powerfully, uniquely about Feminist concerns – although I’m not sure if Shelley makes for the best Nin acolyte. (But then, disciples rarely flatter their masters. Or mistresses.) But there’s another story from Nin’s life that intersects with this episode, and it didn’t occur in France. It happened in Hollywood, in the wake of a famed masquerade party built around the theme “Come As Your Madness.” Nin showed up, looking a lot like this. Among the guests was one Kenneth Anger, an avant garde filmmaker and author of a notorious, suppressed book of celebrity gossip called Hollywood Babylon. Anger is also famous for many other things, like being a provocateur with a furious antipathy toward mainstream culture. Oh, something of a Satanist, too. Specifically, a Thelema believer. The story goes that “Come As Your Madness” party was among the inspirations for Anger’s 1961 short film Inaguration of the Pleasure Dome. It’s a surreal, symbolic work, depicting an “occult Eucharist” awash with Jungian shadow creatures, pagan deities (Astarte, Isis, Lilith, The Scarlet Woman) and imbibing consciousness-altering substances, Anais Nin in her “Come As Your Madness” costume, and an apocalyptic orgy that unleashes a new age of (Satanic) liberation… or fiery armageddon. Not sure. One of the most fascinating things about Anger is his belief that cinema is basically… well, Satanic. From a bio, posted on Anger’s website: “Offering a description of himself for the program of a 1966 screening, Kenneth Anger stated his ‘lifework’ as being Magick and his ‘magical weapon’ the cinematograph. A follower of Aleister Crowley’s teachings, Anger is a high level practitioner of occult magic who regards the projection of his films as ceremonies capable of invoking spiritual forces. Cinema, he claims, is an evil force. Its point is to exert control over people and events and his filmmaking is carried out with precisely that intention.”
Does any of this have anything to do with American Horror Story: Asylum? Better question: SHOULD IT?! But at least now you know why these recaps post so late.
It’s right about the time that the Nor’easter/extraterrestrial maelstrom reaches Briarcliff that Sister Judge begins to unravel. She’s watching the fireworks out her window when the phone rings. It’s a voice from the past. It’s The Innocent. “You left me there. … You never even bothered to get out of the car.” Sister Jude stops fighting and surrenders to the judgment, at least for a moment. “I’m sorry,” she says. And the line goes dead. Where did this phone call come from? Did it all take place in her tortured mind? Was it a Sister Mary trick? Or is it possible another force altogether is meddling with Sister Jude, like, say… alien-angels? The battle for Sister Jude’s soul could very well be a two-front war, maybe more.
Sister Jude sees a pair of glasses on the desk. It’s the girl’s glasses. Cracked. And with that, Sister Jude cracks. She slumps, defeated. Without looking, as if operating on instinct, she reaches for the bottle of wine. She imbibes. All of it. Until she’s blurry-eyed drunk. Her head full of spirits – her consciousness altered – Sister Jude descends the stairway to heaven to the common room rowdy with crazies of all stripes – a proverbial “Come As Your Madness” masquerade, except the inanity is painfully, no-joke legit. The lady nursing the toy baby? Creepy.
Sister Mary blows her whistle. And movie night begins.
She starts with an invocation – a blessing for the pleasure dome. She makes it sound like something grand is at stake, something like a reformation or cultural revolution. “Welcome one and all to Briarcliff Manor’s inaugural movie night,” says Sister Judy. “Whether this evening marks the beginning of a beloved tradition, or just another bitter disappointment, is entirely up to you.”
Sister Jude reads the rest of her introduction from notes, although she ad libs a potshot at the end. “Now settle in, relax and return with me to ancient Rome, as we present the 1932 Ceil B. Demille classic The Sign of The Cross, starring Ms. Claudette Colbert as the Empress…” — she struggles to properly say “Poppaea,” make it sound “Propia” — and as the Emperor Nero, the incomparable Mr. Charles Laughton… who, I understand, is an enormous whoopsie.” Sounds like someone’s been reading too much Hollywood Babylon.
It’s at this moment that we get a violent crack of thunder and lightening, as Sister Jude’s Laughton-bashing was offensive to Heaven itself. The inmates squirm. “Don’t be afraid of the dark!” Sister Jude commands, then tries to comfort them further with the saddest rendition “You’ll Never Walk Alone” ever drunk-warbled. The tune comes Carousel, a musical about a dead man who earns his way into Heaven by returning to Earth and minster to his lonely, bitter daughter. As Sister Jude gets to “you’ll never walk alone,” she remembers the lonely, bitter girl who haunts her like a ghost, trying to goose her toward redemption. Sister Jude stops singing, and breaks into a stream-of-conscious ramble, empathizing with The Innocent’s perspective. “But she was all alone… dying…” She says more (I couldn’t hear it, for technical reasons), then regains composure. “Lights!” she commands, and the common room goes dim. She leaves the Common Room to hunt The Mexican, who has gone mysteriously missing, and Sister Mary scoots to the front row to better enjoy the black and white mass of camp sensationalism about to unspool.
NEXT: Film Studies
The way in which “Nor’easter” cleverly uses The Sign of the Cross is ingeniously subversive. Each snippet shown to us, the TV viewing audience, is layered with multiple meanings. The first snippet we get is Nero’s cackling face, super-imposed upon a city going up – or down – in flames. “Burn, Rome! Burn!” Laughton is literally gay and flaming. Of course, this is a historical reference: the whole “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” thing – a legend that’s become a metaphor for any great civilization in decline, distracting itself with diversion and blame-shifting instead of dealing with its cancers. We cut to Dr. Thredson informing Lana that when he went to find her lover, Wendy, at their home, he found evidence that suggested Bloody Face – slayer of women; male hatred for women made monstrously incarnate — had killed her. As the other inmates (and Sister Mary) try to shush Lana and Thredson – their urgent chatter of real issues is distracting them from the movie! – we cut back to the screen, where Nero is Bond-villain conspiring to pin his failures and corruption on the Christian minority and manipulate the pagan majority into destroying them. We then cut back to Thredson, who is fretting the implication of his discovery — Bloody Face is still at large – and cynically assuming that telling the cops would be pointless. Re-opening the case and digging deeper for the truth would mean igniting a new round of destabilizing panic, not to mention admitting they were wrong to arrest Kit Walker. Lana asks Thredson is he still thinks Kit is guilty. Thredson says he isn’t sure anymore. Wanting to track down Wendy and save her, if possible, Lana realizes she needs to escape, ASAP. As she does, we cut back to the screen, and see one of the scenes that was removed from The Sign of the Cross after The Production Code went into effect in 1936: Claudette Colbert bathing topless in a tub of ass’s milk, beckoning another woman to join her, wink-wink, nudge-nudge. (“You’re a butterfly with the sting of a wasp,” Colbert flirts. “Take off your clothes and get in here and tell me all about it!”) Lana excuses herself, telling Thredson: “It’s really not appropriate for me to be seeing this, considering my ‘condition.’ Sister Jude will understand.” So do we. Lana sneaks past Frank, who’s too busy leering at the girl-on-girl action to notice, anyway. (I find it funny — if weird — that the archdiocese lent Sister Jude a pre-Code, uncensored copy of The Sign of The Cross.)
The interplay between Lana-Thredson and The Cross forges an implicit link between the now dominant Christian-Catholic culture and the Others it demonizes/marginalizes. Equality and justice for all requires institutions and individuals to become enlightened and empathetic, and to repent and atone as needed. Sister Jude seems spiraling toward such an opportunity as she descends into the darkened woman’s ward to search for The Mexican. Instead, she finds something else in this subterranean shadow world — an alien. An ugly, gray-faced alien. A face-to-face, mind-blowing, paradigm-rocking close encounter with an archetypal Other. There are other meanings here, too. The alien could be projection of Sister Jude’s guilt, or the manifestation of her monstrous control freak tendencies. Regardless, here is a chance for Sister Jude to heroically enter that innermost cave and grow, change, all that redemptive-transformative blah blah blah. Instead, she screams, and faints away. It’s total Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader/Dagobah. “The caaaave… remember your failure in the caaaave.”
What to do if you’re victimized by The Man and The Man won’t change? Well, there’s irreverent, violent overthrow. See: Dr. Arden toppling the Virgin Mary statue. And there’s also escape, which is surely justifiable, especially if you’re trying to save your girlfriend from getting flayed by a serial killer. And so Kit and Grace try to escape. They are helped and joined by Lana, who knows the way out, and by the sacrifice of Shelley. Needing to elude Karl the Orderly, Shelly offers to provide a distraction. She hopes they can wait for her. She understands if they can’t. And yet, Shelley reminds them that if they do get away, they have a responsibility to those left behind. And so the unlikely Christ gives Lana a great commandment: Write the expose that ‘blows the lid” off the corruption in The Asylum. “Don’t forget me!” she says, then scoots off the blow Karl away.
But there won’t be a happy ending. For anyone. Even Sister Mary. We see her lean forward excitedly as The Sign of The Cross gets to the part where all the Christians die. The snippet we see is interesting: It begins with another censored bit – a Christian woman tied to spit in a gladiator arena, about to get eaten by a bunch of crocodiles – then moves into another scene in which a group of captive Christians decides to willingly go to their deaths, as if it represents some kind of defiance, and convinced that death is but “a happy deliverance” into the everlasting light of heaven. And so they trudge up the steps into the arena… and it’s at that moment that Frank alerts Sister Mary to the fact that a number of inmates are missing, as is Sister Jude. Sister Mary is put-out by the interruption. “Now? But the Christians are about to be eaten!” Nonetheless, the She-Devil pulls herself away, and so she is denied the spectacle of bloodletting.
Meanwhile, the tenuous alliance of Kit, Grace and Lana is falling apart. Mirroring the Christians in the film walking the tunnel into the arena, we see the trio travel the death chute. It brings them out of the Briarcliff hellhole into the woods. Freedom! They exult in the rain, Shawshank Redemption style. But then Grace betrays her name. She tells Lana that she still can’t trust Lana, that she can’t forgive or forget last week’s treachery. She tells Lana that once they get beyond the woods and to the road, they part ways. Forever. Kit looks at Lana with apologetic eyes, then sides with Grace. That’s when they encounter Dr. Adren’s mutant cannibal monsters, hideous with boils and sores. They play the role of the trio’s own fears made manifest – of the world; of each other – and there’s no dodging them. They have no choice: They have to retreat back into The Asylum. Back into the death chute they go, their latest escape episode another bust. Again, Ms. Nin: Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish it’s source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.
And then, there’s Shelley. She neutralizes Karl, but then she runs into Dr. Arden, and he’s in a foul, foul mood. To be clear, the mad scientist’s attack on the Virgin Mary was no heroic deed. His lipstick desecration of the idol — perverting the statue into a model of his sick Madonna/whore complex — was his own Cave encounter gone wrong. It may have provided catharsis, but no change. If anything, the simulation of misogyny seems to have hopped him up for the real thing, and Shelley represents the sum of his fear and loathing of female sexuality. In his eyes, she’s a monster. Damaged and deviant; the toxic influence that soiled his pure, innocent Sister Mary. He drags Shelley into the lab, tries to force himself on her. She cries “Rape!” He laughs. But then he can’t get it up — Sister Mary’s hex? — and now it’s Shelley who’s laughing. Bad move. Arden completes his devolution into caveman by cracking her over the head with a paperweight. When Shelley wakes up, she finds that Arden has cooled off considerably… because he found a different way to purge his he-man woman-hating ya-yas by dismembering her legs. Her dream of liberation, cut off at the knees. And she screams.
Just as sad is the denouement with Sister Jude. Sister Mary finds the boss sleeping in a cell and wakes her up. Sister Jude asks if she saw the gray-face alien thing, but when Sister Mary looks baffled by the question, Sister Jude drops it. She’s decided to forget about it. About everything. The bizarre business with The Little Girl, the monster, her relapse — best just to bottle it up and deny, deny, deny. She’s equally soured on the new policy of “compassion” and “positive reinforcement” for the inmates, especially with three of them now missing: The Mexican, Shelley and Pepper (who simply had to go to the bathroom). She blows into the Common Room and shuts down the film and declares a permanent end to movie nights. She doesn’t take any personal responsibility. Instead, she blames “the three scufflers who abused my goodwill” by trying to escape. Cut to: Kit, Grace and Lana — all wet — sitting and shivering in their soaked clothes and muddy shoes. They wonder if she’s referring to them. She’s not. “A sex crazed deviant, The Mexican, and a pinhead won’t get far in the storm.”
Three innocents; three victims; three convenient scapegoats for all of Sister Judy’s problems. As she struts out of the room, she adds: “I hope they all drown.” And so it goes.
No escape from The Asylum. No happy deliverance. No easy exit from the problems of the world. What to do? What. To. Do.
American Horror Story
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.