American Horror Story recap: Humbug
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. But he's a devil-lovin' psycho who just hates the 'Unholy Night' of Christmas. Sorry.
American Horror Story
- TV Show
How does The Devil celebrate Christmas? With parties and presents, Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” and Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. In other words: Pretty much like anyone else who celebrates Christmas. Which is a scary thought to consider. Hell’s Jingle Bells! The Lady Lucifer of American Horror Story is even a big believer in Santa Claus… although Ian McShane’s twisted, twinkle-eyed devil wasn’t quite the jolly old St. Nick of commercially burnished legend. Parents, do not let your children sit on this Santa’s lap.
His name was Lee, and he was a tenaciously demented mad man with a faintly Les Miz origin story. Once, he was just a petty criminal who made the mistake of being poor and hungry during the Advent season. Incapable of waiting patiently for provision like the other Lilies in the Field, the neo-American Jean Valjean was busted for shoplifting a loaf of bread. One night during his brief stint in jail, Lee was raped of his “dignity, self-esteem, and most importantly, [his] Christmas spirit” when five fellow felons decided to make him their ho-ho-ho-ho-ho. Now, If Victor Hugo really did write this tale, Lee Miserables would have shook off this horror, picked himself up by his bootstraps, and become a saintly wealthy proto-Bruce Wayne do-gooder, friend to the oppressed and dispossessed. But this is American Horror Story, and so Lee snapped Joker crazy and became a homicidal psycho with some pretty reasonable complaints about our fallen, unfair, effed-up world. And so victims become victimizers become revolutionaries become despots. Sing it with as we storm the Briarcliff barricades! RED! The blood of angry men! BLACK! The dark of ages paaaaaaaaaast!
Nothing infuriated Lee more than Christmas, and nothing about Christmas made him madder than Santa Claus. Everything about the cultural icon offended him… although the more he pissed on Santa, the more you wondered if this faithless Job was confusing Santa for someone else. On the evening of December 19, 1962, Lee, sprung from jail, eavesdropped from the shadows on a supermarket Santa promising to bring a boy a coonskin cap on Christmas, as long as the wannabe Davey Crockett wasn’t on the naughty list come 12/25, aka Judgment Day. Be good, get rewarded. Bad? Well, you can blame yourself for the consequences. Lee bristled at Santa’s works-oriented prosperity theology and pitiless turn-or-burn gospel: “It’s never your fault. It’s all about ‘the list.’ Some kid doesn’t get what they want, but you can’t blame Santa. Really nifty win-win you’ve set up for yourself there.” When the manly mope playing the Cumberland Grocery St. Nick whined for some slack – he only took the gig to get away from his nagging wife – Lee shot the big phony dead, then swiped his suit and murdered 14 more people, choosing his victims by the extravagance of their outdoor Christmas displays. (“Who are you trying to impress, anyway?”) He was apprehended, deemed nuts, and sent to Briarcliff Manor Sanatorium. Sister Jude was determined to make sure he’d rot for eternity…
Until Sister Mary descended into his batty hellhole and lit up with hope. She presented him a suit of power and a license to kill. And she gave him a heroic mission. You will be the Bane to my [SPOILER OMITTED]! You will be a Dark Knight in Her Satanic Majesty’s Secret Service! Together, we shall make the Sky-Bully fall! (Or just Frank. Don’t worry. I have a ladder.) What I’m trying to say is: Psycho-Lee with your Santa suit so bright, won’t you slay for me tonight?
Most “very special Christmas episodes” of the secular stripe define the spirit of the holiday by universal human values. Peacemaking. Goodwill toward men. Family, family, family. (AND PRESENTS!) Those who preach “the reason for the season” say Christmas is about a promise that God after the fall of man in the Garden of Eden to rescue sin-stained humanity from death and despair — a promise that Christians believe he fulfilled via the birth of Jesus almost 2012 years ago. “Unholy Night” said Bah! Humbug! to all that. Not in the way we use the “humbug” today (“You mean old party-pooper!”), but in the P.T. Barnum-defined way that Scrooge used the word to dismiss the spiritual world as a trick, as a hoax, as complete and total bulls—t, regardless of intent and purpose. Do you tell your children that Santa Claus is real? Then you, my friend, are practicing humbug. And you best steer clear of Lee. “None of it makes much sense, does it?” said Lee to Little Suzy. “Shimmying down chimneys. Every good Christian house in one night. And they call me crazy!” Then he killed Suzy’s mom and dad. (And Suzy, too? Unclear.) The thematic notes that “Unholy Night” rang hard and loud like a Salvation Army bell: Broken promises, hypocrisy, deceit. And like previous episodes this season, the story indicted those who fail to grapple and deal honestly and fairly with the injustice. Indeed, the (innocent?) fantasy of Santa Claus was positioned as just one more way in which we run away from the terror and terrible “Santas” of the world, and thus shirk our responsibility to the family of man. “You know the difference between that Santa Claus and me?” said the shaved-face Lee to Suzy’s parents. “He only comes once a year.” It was a naughty pun that doubled as some kind of Kevin Spacey-in-Seven/Rorschach-in-Watchmen statement about human nature and the state of the world. Yes: Super-duper cynical. P.T. Barnum himself warned that cost of too much humbug in the world is exactly that: The cynical belief that everything is humbug, that nothing and no one can be trusted, all is meaningless. Still, “Unholy Night” dramatized a valid point: Christmas might seem a lot less crazy if everyone acted more Christmas-y every day of the year… including the ones who believe in it the most.
Yeah, I know: “Bah, humbug” to me, too.
NEXT: How General Electric Sold Christmas
“This country’s turn toward unadulterated blasphemy frightens me. It worries me deeply. That’s how The Devil works. Bit by bit by bit, he turns our eyes away from God.” — Sister Jude, bemoaning the pernicious demonic influence of Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.
“Thank you. I’ve had these ideas for awhile.” – The Devil
Sister Mary, the new Lion Queen of Birarcliff’s Island of Misfit Toys, spent much of “Unholy Night” doing what every new leader must do when they seize power: Purge enemies, dodge assassination attempts, and execute loyalty tests. She silenced Frank, who revealed admirable character as he struggled with guilt over accidentally killing Grace and resolved to spill everything to the authorities. She survived Sister Jude, who snuck into The Asylum and nearly succeeded at slitting Sister Mary’s throat. And she secured Dr. Arthur Arden’s subservient fidelity after the innocence obsessed Nazi took his own shot at testing her.
But the many diabolical agendas of Sister Mary didn’t stop there. She also threw a Christmas party for the Briarcliff unfortunates, a wickedly ironic affair that pissed that sought to sly commemorate if not formalize the transformation of the Advent season into a secular Festivus. This would be no “Silent Night” birthday bash for Jesus, the fulfillment of God’s promise to save us all from Satan’s power and rescue us from Shachath’s annihilating kiss. No, Sister Mary said their poppy-fizzy-funtime Common Room shindig would culminate with a different form of idol worship: They would gather around the television and watch NBC’s inaugural broadcast of the Rankin-Bass stop-motion classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
(What Sister Mary didn’t tell the inmates (or us) as that the first airing of this Christmas airing was itself an act of corporate evangelism. The show was presented as part of “General Electric’s Fantasy Hour,” and the commercial content was comprised of comical animated interstitials in which Santa’s elves pitched an assortment of GE products as Christmas gifts. Rudolph was the big bang of the Christmas cartoon tradition: One year later saw the debut of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which took a shot at the commercialization of Christmas, and even had Linus clarify the “true meaning of Christmas” by quoting King James scripture. Funny: Charles Schulz’s animated homily was actually created as… an advertising vehicle for Coca-Cola, the company that is arguably most responsible for turning Santa Claus into a cultural icon/marketing tool. Strange bedfellows and all that.)
All of this was lost on The Asylum’s witless wretches. They were just happy for the holiday cheer, no matter what the form, especially since they weren’t expecting to get anything at all. Sister Jude had canceled Christmas forever in the wake of the previous year’s event, which itself was a bit of Banrumesque Humbug: It was conceived as publicity stunt/photo-op, intended to assure the public that Briarcliff was doing its part in the war on everyday terror by keeping the likes of Lee locked up and hidden away, “shackled and under control.” But “Santa” refused to be put on display like a public square Nativity scene: “I don’t want to be any part of your damn lie!” Lee found a way to make the gambit backfire on Sister Jude by going Hannibal Lecter on another inmate and chewing off his nose, just as the newspaper shutterbug was setting up his camera. CHOMP! SPIT! SNAP! FLASH!
NEXT: O, Christmas tree! O Christmas tree!/How Satanic are your branches?
So the patients-prisoners didn’t really object too much when Sister Mary pitched them on her unusual approach to holiday decorating. Because Sister Jude had thrown away all the Christmas ornaments, Sister Mary suggested they adorn the branches with meaningful personal mementos. Objects like… dentures and colostomy bags, bags of pills and rubber gloves. Once again, the show created provocative layers of meaning with its mix of images, words and music: As Sister Mary cut ribbons out of a one woman’s hair – robbing her of her glamour (and her dignity and self-esteem) – she commended Briarcliff’s disenfranchised souls for “making a sacrifice for the greater good. That’s the spirit of Christmas.” On the record player: “Here Comes Santa Claus” by a young Willie Nelson: Peace on earth will come to all if we just follow the light/So let’s give thanks to the Lord above for Santa Claus comes to night. I’m pretty sure there was nothing sincere about this scene. It was if Sister Mary had duped the inmates of The Asylum into participating in a Marxist performance art piece. Christmas As Opiate Of The Masses. Additionally, the song choice was one of many ways in which “Unholy Night” dramatized how Christmas has become a nutty Chex Mix of conflicting, competing, but sometimes complimentary symbols. Can Santa and Jesus co-exist? Doesn’t Jesus hurt his credibility as a real, historical entity by associating so freely with the fantasy/lie of Santa? Sure, the messiah hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes, but good lord, Son of Man: Have some standards! Protect your brand, for God’s sake!
And how to decode Sister Mary’s horror show tannenbaum? [Cue the throwing of Web-harvested pseudo-intellectual ideas against the wall and hoping they stick.] A Christmas tree, among, Christians, is a symbol of life and rebirth. But it was also a symbol that Christians appropriated from certain pagan traditions in which trees were used to ward away evil spirits during the winter months, when demons were said to be most active. Seen from this perspective, The Devil’s monument to X-Mas – a product of human sacrifice; festooned with reminders frailty and mortality – took the Christ and the ancient superstition out of the equation to create… a lifeless fir tree Frankenstein, a lumbering ode to death. But more than anything, I think the true meaning of Sister Mary’s private joke Christmas tree was that it’s personal. It doesn’t make any sense to anyone else but her. In this way, Satan’s Christmas tree is no different than anyone else’s. Except mine. I’ve been hanging colostomy bags for years. Freakin’ copycat.
(Those were all my ideas, not sticking and sliding down the wall.)
In an interesting twist, the man who should have been most appalled by Sister Mary’s tree was the one character most dazzled by it. But then, Monsignor Timothy has always been an open to challenging new ideas, no matter where they come from (unfortunately), and even if they made him look pretentiously silly, like certain entertainment journalists who write overblown recaps of TV shows. (There must be more than one. Please be more than one!) “What a triumph! It reminds me of Marcel Duchamp and the school of found object art. So forward thinking!” said Monsignor Timothy, who failed to see any heretical f— you to his faith in Sister Mary’s fir, nor any irony of likening a so-called Christmas tree (pagan debris, claimed and revitalized by Christians) to Duchamp’s po-mo anti-art Ready-Mades, which mischievously tweaked sacred cows and subverted lofty assumptions about high art, like the museum as sacred space or the creator as source of meaning.
“Thank you, monsignor,” said Sister Mary. “I’ve had these ideas for awhile.” Rimshot!
A Price Below Rubies. By contrast, the man you’d think might have best appreciated the subversive subtext of Sister Mary’s shenanigans (not to mention the Holocaust allusions) didn’t care for it at all. Dr. Arden beheld the spectacle of The Devil’s degrading form of holiday decorating and walked out of the Common Room, sad-faced and slumped. He later explained to Sister Mary that he always enjoyed Christmas as a boy. Those celebrations were among his most cherished memories of childhood. In a subsequent scene, Arden elaborated that despite his unbelieving atheism, he was big believer in Innocence, and consumed it whenever and wherever he could find it. See: Fair virgin Miss Eunice, whose devilish desecration just broke his tiny little anti-semitic misogynistic Commie-hating godless heart.
And so it went that Dr. Arden tried to liberate his Madonna from The Devil’s defiling clutches with a peculiar, perverse act of grace: A gift of priceless ruby earrings… salvaged/stolen from the feces of a proud, wealthy Jewish woman who had smuggled them into a concentration camp and kept them hidden by eating them and crapping them, eating them and crapping them, each and every day. After she died from this self-destructive practice, Arden took the jewelry, with the intention of one day giving them to a woman that would be his wife. Sister Mart went crazy-wild for the Nazi’s plundered bling – “Rubies are the most glamorous of all! They really bring out the rose in my cheeks!” — and Arden was repulsed. The rubies had been a test. She failed. “I so dearly hoped you would throw them back in my face! That you couldn’t bring yourself to touch those s—t stained earrings,” said Arden. “I was hoping there would be a glimmer of horror, a glimmer if that precious girl who was too afraid of taking a bite of my candy apple.” Sister Mary got in his face, called him pathetic, and challenged him to fall in line like a good little stormtrooper. “You’re either with me or you’re against me,” she hissed. “And if you’re against me, then even God can’t help you.” Sorry Arden, but Sister Mary is Satan’s Proverbs 31 woman, not yours. (“Who can find an excellent and capable wife? For she is more precious than rubies.”)
NEXT: I CAN’T STAND IT! I KNOW YOU PLANNED IT! I’M GONNA TO SET IT STRAIGHT, THIS WATERGATE! LORD, I CAN’T STAND ROCKIN’ WHEN I’M IN THIS PLACE, BECAUSE I FEEL DISGRACE BECAUSE YOU’RE ALL IN MY FACE! BUT MAKE NO MISTAKES AND SWITCH UP MY CHANNEL; I’M BUDDY RICH WHEN I FLY OFF THE HANDLE! WHAT COULD IT BE? IT’S A MIRAGE! YOU’RE SCHEMING ON A THING THAT’S…
SABOTAGE! Dr. Arden seemed compelled to take down Sister Mary before she did any further damage to herself or Briarcliff. And when he sought Sister Jude, his arch-nemesis, for assistance, I confess I totally fell for his lines and lies. “You’re right. I don’t believe in God. But I do believe in evil. I have seen it. Up close and personal,” said Arden. “That’s why her purity meant so much to me. She had this light in her. And that light has gone out. Please — and that’s not a word I use often – please, help me.” Hook. Line. Sinker. What can I say? Like Sister Jude, I’m a sucker for redemption narratives. I was also enamored by the marvelous metaphor of their team-up. The man of science! The woman of faith! Putting an end to partisan rancor and teaming up to stop Briarcliff from tumbling
off the fiscal cliff into the abyss! Together: Viva La Restoration! Sister Jude was much more skeptical, but she had no choice: Arden was her best chance at getting another shot at Sister Mary… as well as save the Briarcliff Christmas from idolatrous horror show of Rudolph the Red Nosed Blasphemist!
But it was a trap. After bringing Sister Jude into The Asylum via the death chute, Dr. Arden brought her up the Stairway to Heaven and back to her old office, and left her to wait for Sister Mary, so she could liberate the poor girl’s captive soul by murdering her. Which is really kind of twisted, the more I think about it. Sister Jude girded her soul for the final battle with prayer. She heard the door open and prepared to face Satan. Instead, she saw “Santa Claus,” dressed to kill. Dr. Arden was never on her side — he was setting her up for execution. His loyalty proven, Sister Mary rewarded Arden with an affectionate stroke of the cheek. Arden’s eyes popped wide. A Christmas miracle! But when they began to hear Lee beating and beating and beating on Sister Jude, Arden got queasy. He deemed the brutality tedious and decamped to his dungeon of despair, dreaming of better, whiter Christmases from long, long ago.
Before we chronicle the loaded, multi-dimensional scuffle between Lee and Judy (Secular vs. Sacred! The mercenary of Satan/Science vs. The soldier of God! “Santa Claus” vs. “The Bride of Christ!” Irony vs. Irony!), a word about the examples of heroism – admirable, decidedly humanistic heroism – that provided some dim hope amid the darkness. Frank, who wanted to “do right by Grace” and bring her justice by going to the cops and telling them everything at the risk of personal and professional cost. He told Arden, “I’m ready to accept the consequences of my actions.” Lana, who realized that Sister Mary had broken her promise to go to the cops, who could have bolted from Briarcliff but stayed to help free Kit Walker, who continued to live up to his Christ-bearing name by saving Lana from Dr. Oliver Thredson – and who stopped her from killing him and damning her own soul with Bloody Face evil. For the moment, at least. (Yes, I am giving Bloody Face some short shift this week. More, next.)
And then there was Sister Jude. At first, I found it weird to the point of distraction to see her back in the habit in the wake of what has happened over the past couple weeks. (I also really need a status update on her Pittsburgh transfer. That’s still happening, yes? When?) To be honest, I really don’t know how much I trust Judy’s re-embrace of faith — a faith which I’m not sure she ever really had. Maybe she’s still just play-acting a nun, albeit this time toward selfless, humanistic ends? And yet, she insisted she was a new woman. (“Look at me!” the lady protesteth. “Don’t I look different I’m not running anymore!”) And she certainly walked her talk by trying to redeem Sister Mary and the fallen Briarcliff culture. In short: She was the spirit of Christmas, made incarnate. Time will tell how authentic, how true.
This week, at least, she enjoyed a victory. “Santa” got some violent licks, scored some lascivious quips. From Lee’s holey yet not wholly unreasonable perspective, Sister Jude deserved to be bedeviled: She had been brutal to him in Briarcliff, and such, she was part and parcel of the oppressive, corrupt society that took away his dignity, self-esteem and spirit, that made him into a monster. “There is no God, but there is a ‘Santa Claus!’” he roared as he whipped his persecutor with her own canes. But Sister Jude got the last jab, if not a final word. She allowed him to come in close for a kiss in advance of worse, then rammed a letter opener into his neck. Down went old St. Nick…
But in the scrum, Judy Martin had once again lost her habit. She also had a blood all over her hands. We left her alone and frazzled, struggling for words, trying to figure out her next move, wondering anew what she had become…
Meanwhile, somewhere far below the Stairway to Heaven, Lana was hiding Bloody Face, bound and gagged, in an old Briarcliff junk room, and she seemed to be locking herself in there with him. “One day, I will bury you!” she spat as the episode cut to black. How long Lana will be able to wait? What horrors are about to occur in this room in the episodes to come? And who will inflict upon what onto whom? Is Lana carrying a Thredson-sired Dylan McDermott in her womb as so many are speculating? And Hark! you angel aliens! Where the hell did you take Grace’s dead body? So much to look forward to; so much about this episode to talk about now. The message board is yours.
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.