American Horror Story recap: Change You Can't Believe In
The monsters of The Asylum try to redeem themselves (or pretend to) in an episode filled with cliffhangers and one nasty coat hanger
Johnny Morgan needed to change. He was a walking, talking mistake of a man, and he desperately needed correction. He had “impulses,” you see. Unbearable, bewildering urges. They’d been there all of his misbegotten, unwanted life, from his foster home childhood back in the day to his wayward adulthood here in the new century present. In the beginning, Johnny only wanted to peel the flesh off deceased animals. But then he realized there’s more than one way to skin a dead cat. You can skin living cats, too. Also? You can kill them. It was scary, at first. Then… amazing. And yet, the dark passenger that squatted in his head and burned with abominable desires could not be sated, and the quest for relief and fulfillment eluded him. (If only this proto-Dexter had a clever father to redirect his psychotic energies toward ironic good!)
And so misfit Johnny grew up lost and loopy. One day, while serving time in the clink for armed robbery, Johnny worked the prison computer and searched his genealogy, hoping to learn the origins of his monstrosity. Shocking revelation! Johnny discovered he was a Thredson. He was the son of Bloody Face. Whoa. Now that explained a lot. (And implied a lot, too. Specifically: That Dr. Oliver Thredson’s crimes circa 1964 were, at some point, exposed.) Johnny got out of jail and shacked up in his damned daddy’s old place and took up his father’s mantle. Alas, his first pass at removing a lass of her epidermal outerwear didn’t go so well. (R.I.P. Teresa the Horror Freak? Dead from Johnny’s clumsy flaying? Unclear.) He needed more skill with the knife. He needed… medical school.
Oh, but who was he kidding? He’d never live up to his legendary pappy. It was his madness to even try. All the more reason to be purged of the perverse wants that were driving him batty. And so he sought help from a qualified professional capable of rehabbing his mind and saving his soul.
Johnny went to a Penny Saver hypnotist.
Seriously: Why suffer and submit to the hard work of knowing thyself and the hard time of soul care when you can opt for cheap and easy, expedient and immediate? Change you can believe in is important, but times are tight, and that scary fiscal cliff keeps getting closer and closer and closer…
But even Little Miss Mesmerist had to admit that her approach to behavior modification wasn’t a sufficient remedy for Johnny Roger’s plight. Allow me to elaborate by imagining her internal monologue:
Dude. Who do you think I am? Freakin’ Freud? YOU FOUND ME IN THE PENNY SAVER. I treat smoking addictions and eating disorders by planting post-hypnotic suggestions in the topsoil of your psyche. That’s why this show gave me the name “Dr. Gardner.” Or not. I don’t know. The point, Johnny, is that I am a metaphor for quick fix culture and superficial change. I am only concerned with outward appearances. Hence, one of several possible meanings for the African mask that this episode has conspicuously placed it on my desk. In certain African cultures from which this mask might hail (or not) (like I know for sure!), wearing this ceremonial totem thingie isn’t about hiding identity, but shedding your façade to become spirit. (As a side note, we might wonder if this is a clue to the endgame of this season of American Horror Story: Is The Asylum but a zeitgeist hatchery that will give birth to the spirit of the new age that will embed in the brain and govern actions and shape perspectives like a proverbial post-hypnotic suggestion? And if so: What shall it be? But I digress. Within a digression! Funny me!) From our parochial perspective, this mask is an example of so-called “primitive art,” which had a profound influence on Western art, for it inspired the likes of Picasso and Matisse and more to develop new, more expressive forms of visual representation like cubism and fauvism that eschewed the aesthetics of realism to pursue deeper, spiritual truths. Or so Wikipedia tells me. And to be clear: I exist in ironic relationship to the meaning of Screw cubism! Screw profound, systemic change! Which is all to say: I can’t rehabilitate your psychotic sadistic misogyny. Sorry.
Also, would you mind too much if I called the police?
NEXT: A lot less italic type.
So Johnny killed her. And then the woman who found her. And so on, and so, and so on… and in this way, the legacy of a botched revolution endures. It was nice to meet you, Mr. Rogers. We look forward to returning to your not-so beautiful neighborhood in a future episode. But for now, we must hop the trolley to your spawning ground (or somewhere nearby), a land of make-believe and ready-make, and to fateful moment in the early days of your existence, a kinda-sorta miraculous event we shall call…
The Unabortable Conception. “The Coat Hanger” wanted us to believe that Johnny Rogers was born to Lana Winters, and was seeded when Oliver Thredson raped her a few episodes ago. I see no reason at present to doubt this, although I am totally open to a twist in coming episodes. I would prefer a twist: This would be the second time in two season that AHS has played this card. See: The Rubber Man rape of Vivien Harmon, who subsequently pushed out Ghost Tate’s Anti-Christ child. Not sure I want AHS repeating this motif. Not unless they can make it awesome.
Lana Winters got the “bad news” of the pregnancy from Sister Mary, who razzed her with the “good news” that at least she had conquered her “sexual perversion,” and teased her further by telling her a story about Aunt Celeste and her “Drano Margaritas” cures for unwanted knock-ups. (“It’s what she gave my slutty cousin Molly when she got preggers by Billy Porter.”) But such remedies weren’t in keeping with Briarcliff policy, which left no room for a woman to choose: Lana would be forced to bring the life to term. Afterward, the baby – likely to be born “cuckoo,” the Sister warned – would be relocated to Sister Ursula’s Home For Lost Children.
“You’re worse than Sister Jude. You’re a sadist,” Lana told Sister Mary, who did indeed shows signs of going a little power mad in this episode. (Whatever you do: Don’t sass her. And knock before entering, whydon’tcha!) “Calm down, Mommy, or it’s going to be a very long nine months,” said Sister Mary. “We don’t want to have to restrain you. Do we?” Nine months bolted to a mattress? In a society without choice? Is there really a difference?
There was no way in tarnation that Lana was going to let some Bloody Face-fertilized ovum have its way with her. And so Lana decided to correct this mistake herself, by any means necessary. She acquired a coat hanger and self-administered an abortion in the dark of her cell. The stylized fuzz-out didn’t do much to alleviate the painfulness of that image. Ugh. (I don’t know much about this kind of thing, so I don’t know how realistic it was for Lana to be so spritely and altogether physically functional after doing what she did to herself. “It wasn’t that bad,” she told Thredson. I’ll take her word for it.)
Lana wasn’t done putting an end to unwanted life. She wanted to terminate Oliver Thredson, too. Kit Walker argued otherwise. He needed the monster that framed him for the Bloody Face murders to clear his name in court. They compromised and conspired. Lana would go to Thredson. She would get him talking about the murders while Kit hid in the shadows, recording the confessions with Dr. Thredson’s briefcase tape recorder. It was a nifty plan – and it worked. Lana loosed Thredson’s tongue by telling him that she was carrying his child (oh, how happy Oliver was to know his substitute mommy was going to make him a daddy!), and by also telling him – and showing him – that she intended to the pregnancy, right there, right then, on the spot, with her coat hanger. Thredson freaked. He begged her to keep the baby. He promised to change and become a good man and great father to the child. Lana scoffed. You? A born again stand-up guy? “You’re a sociopath,” she hissed. “You can’t be honest with anybody.” Thredson: Yes I can! Lana: No you can’t. Thredson: Yes I can! Lana: No you can’t. Thredson: Yes I can! Lana: No you can’t. Thredson: Yes I can! Lana: No you can’t. Thredson: Yes I can! Lana: No you can’t. Thredson: Yes I can! Lana: No you can’t. Thredson: Yes I can! Lana: No you can’t. Thredson: Yes I can! Lana: No you can’t. Thredson: Yes I can! Lana: No you can’t. Thredson: Yes I can! Lana: No you can’t. Thredson: Yes I can! Lana: No you can’t. Thredson: Yes I can! Lana: PROVE IT.
And so Thredson answered Lana’s conspicuous questions about the women he skinned and murdered. Donna Burton. Why her? “Her skin… was fuzzy, like a peach. And I wanted to feel it.” And so you skinned her alive? “Yes.” Allison Rydell? “She was a secretary, at my dentist’s office. I always liked her. I put her to sleep first but she kept talking to me. I was so confused.” And what about Lana’s true love? What about Wendy? Here, Thredson decided to give an answer that implied guilt, but seemed more about hurting Lana. “She never loved you,” said Thredson, eyes glinting cruel. “She locked you away.” Lana’s eyes flashed with pain. But the smirk on Thredson’s face suddenly faded when he heard his confessions played back to him and saw Kit Walker hiding behind towers of boxes with the tape recorder. Thredson fumed. Tricked! Betrayed! Beaten at his own unfair game! Lana couldn’t care less. She hurt him back for the Lana crack by giving him (and us) the play-by-play of her abortion, from the first trickle of a blood to the spill of mess. Then she got in his face and told him she’d be back later with a knife to slit his throat, nice and easy. “I always wanted to know what it was like inside the mind of a killer,” she spat. “Now I know.”
Lana felt triumphant. Then came the complications. She tried to swipe a knife from the kitchen so she could slice Oliver Thredson’s neck, but an orderly busted her. She went back to her cell and modified the coat hanger into a shiv. She went to the supply closet to pulp Thredson into a sloppy joe – but Bloody Face was gone. He had slipped his bonds and escaped. Lana panicked. She went hunting for him – although we worried that he was hunting her – and instead bumped into Sister Mary. The nasty nun disarmed Lana, then blew her away with a newsflash: The abortion didn’t take. “Praise God, your attempt at murdering this child was unsuccessful,” she said.
Lana: Dumbstruck. “You couldn’t possibly know that.”
Sister Mary leaned in close. “Oh, but I do. And I know something else,” she said. “It’s a boy.”
Choke Me In My Shallow Baptismal Water Before I Get Too Deep. Last week, a hypocrite nun defeated a corrupt Kris Kringle, and the true meaning of Christmas was affirmed. Maybe. This week, Santa got his revenge, and he did it by beating the Christians with their own game. That’s right: Lee Emerson survived his skirmish with Sister Jude, and to the surprise of everyone at Briarcliff, he seemed born again in the wake of his near death experience. No one considered he could be faking his redemption. No one stopped to consider – or wanted to consider – that the appearance of goodness is one of the easiest cons to pull, least of all Monsignor Timothy.
Fittingly, Lee launched his scam during a private grand jury hearing into Sister Jude’s recent behavior, an inquiry full of lies and deceit. Since the events of last episode, Judy had been incarcerated at Briarcliff for stabbing Lee in the neck… and for slashing Frank McCann. Yep: She’d been framed for his murder. Locked up and fastened to a bed under the pretense of injuries sustained during her fight with Lee that required her to be immobilized, Sister Jude awaited word of her fate. One by one by one, The Asylum’s power players – Monsignor Timothy, Dr. Arthur Arden, and Sister Mary, an axis of evil desperate to secure their positions and their shameful secrets – sat before a Church official and portrayed Judy Martin as a lost soul who had gone mad from (get this) paranoid conspiracy theories. (Except she was right!) They were counting on Lee’s testimony of abuse suffered at Sister Jude’s hands to be the coup de grace.
NEXT: We’ll crucify the insincere tonight! /We’ll make things right, we’ll feel it all tonight!
The magistrate wasn’t inclined to believe the word of a mass murderer who had dodged the death penalty by hiding behind an insanity defense. But Lee bolstered his credibility by taking full responsibility for his murders (at least he sent them to Heaven!), and more showing amazing grace toward Sister Jude. “I can’t hate Sister Jude for what she did to me,” said Lee. “But I can try to forgive her, and I can try to carry on in my own personal road to true redemption, so one day, when I enter the gates of Heaven, I can apologize, personally, to each of those 18 people I sent there before me.” The judge bought it. And with that, Sister Jude was sentenced to life imprisonment within Briarcliff, and stripped of her position within The Church. Sister Judy ceased to be. Judy Martin was now, as ever, just Judy Martin.
Monsignor Timothy was particularly (dumb)struck by Lee’s proverbial Pauline conversion. He also saw a change he wanted to believe, especially since it affirmed his faith and presented an opportunity. In Lee, the earnest saver of souls saw proof of God’s power. In Lee, the craven careerist saw a success story that would burnish his papal resume. “You could be my miracle, Lee,” said the Monsignor. “If I could turn a man like you to toward Christ, imagine the reforms I can make on a national scale, not just mental health. Believe me, if I could ascend to the highest ranks of The Church, I would not back down from the fight. I just want to make a difference in the world.”
In Lee’s shifty noodle, wheels turned.
We assumed the worst when Monsignor Timothy brought his experimental redemption project into Judy’s room so the seemingly saintly Santa could tell his former jailor, abuser and would-be executioner that he forgave her. In a flashback, we saw a moment from a year earlier when Lee made it loud and crudely clear that he didn’t think much of her redemption tactics (especially since they involved keeping him restrained and isolated). Now, a year later, their positions reversed, with Lee looming above the bolted down Judy, it seemed Lee had the opportunity to do… something. Something vengeful. Something violently nasty. Something that would involve teeth, given past precedent (see: The Christmas Party Nose Chomp Debacle) and since his hands were cuffed. But no: “I forgive you,” he said, and kissed her on the forehead. He turned and shuffled humbly out the door, hands folded as if in perpetual prayer, reeking of disingenuousness that apparently only Judy Martin could detect. She was quite familiar with the scent, having worn it like a habit for years…
The truth was, Sister Nun wasn’t Lee’s target. The fulfillment of his insidious plan for vengeance/escape came when Monsignor Timothy baptized him in The Asylum’s chapel. The priest issued the sacrament, cleansing Lee’s soul for all time in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen. Lee was now, officially, a new creation and a new citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, and he celebrated by proving to the Monsignor that… nothing had changed. Certainly not him. The Lecter lights in Lee’s eyes suddenly ignited. He grabbed the priest by the collar and stuffed his head under the water, exulting in his unrepentant Bad Santa rage, every fiber of his furious being singing with the force of 10,000 maniacs.
But Lee Emerson, the psychotic scourge of humbug, wasn’t finished with Monsignor Timothy yet. No, a grand symbolic gesture needed to be made out of this corrupt man of faith’s defeat. In the last moment of “The Coat Hanger,” we found the priest hoisted by his own petard, so to speak: Lee had nailed Timothy to the chapel’s cross. Psycho Santa had even dressed Timothy to resemble the crucified Christ. I didn’t find the image too heretical. Monsignor Timothy was a horrible man. He murdered Shelley. He harbored a Nazi war criminal to profit from the science. He railroaded Sister Jude. He was a criminal – and lest we forget, the cross was an instrument used to execute criminals. Still, given the concerns of American Horror Story, it’s hard not to read subversive intent in this shocking spectacle: Howard wasn’t just paying for his sins, but for everything he represents, from rotten patriarchs to spiritual hypocrisy to the perceived failings and fraud of The Church. As Monsignor Timothy suffered upon the cross, an angel of the Lord attended to him. Except this was no ordinary angel. It was Shachath, the femme fatale of Death. “I’m here,” presenting herself as a proverbial instrument of deadly liberation – a coat hanger, if you will. We will have to wait until the New Year to see what choice the Monsignor made.
NEXT: Close Encounters of The Gracious Kind
Born Again. Down in the dungeon of despair, a more authentic if equally improbable conversion story was taking place. While investigating the disappearance of Grace’s corpse in the death chute, Dr. Arthur Arden found footprints of a creature that he believed could not be of this world. In other words: An extra-terrestrial. He concluded that Kit Walker’s claims of alien abduction weren’t altogether nuts. A course of action formed in his mind.
The Nazi war criminal found Kit just as the young man was stashing the recording of Thredson’s confession under a tub in the hydrotherapy room. (We were left to wonder if Dr. Arden witnessed Walker’s clandestine work and now possesses the tape.) He brought Kit into his office, poured him some Scotch, and professed his faith in little gray men of superior intellect and technology. He also presented a hypothesis inspired by the fact that these unidentified entities with their strangelove fingers had abducted the women in Kit’s life — Alma and Grace – almost immediately after he had had sex with each. Arden’s big idea? “They’re experimenting. Probably refining some form of Eugenics.” Interpretation: The E.T.s want Kit Walker to procreate and reproduce, perhaps for similar reasons that Dr. Arden has been conducting his own creepy-criminal experiments: To cultivate and better a stronger, better kind of human being. (BTW, I am sticking with my theory, now more than ever: Kit Walker is a starman, but doesn’t know it.)
Dr. Arden wanted to meet these otherworldly entities. Compare notes on growing genetically modified plants or cultivating atomic holocaust-proof zombie superman or something. He believed he could manipulate the aliens into paying a visit by threatening Kit: “A good scientist always protects his subject.” Kit asked if this was Dr. Arden’s fancy way of saying that he wanted to kill him. “No, Mr. Walker. I want to almost kill you.” (One of the night’s best, funniest lines.) The plan: Dr. Arden would inject a drug into Kit’s heart that would produce the appearance of death. Then, after concluding his business with the aliens, he would inject another drug into Kit’s heart that would bring him back too full life. Kit rolled with it. It wasn’t like he had any other option. And besides: Dr. Arden made it clear that he didn’t have a choice, either. If it helped get Alma back, why not? (How sad was it to hear him to confess and say of his wife, “I’d almost forgotten her.”
That night, Dr. Arden went Pulp Fiction on Kit’s chest by driving a needle into his sternum. (“This is going to hurt,” he said helpfully, and with a glimmer of sadistic relish.) The electrical flashes and zzzzark! that accompany alien visitation manifested almost immediately. Arden tracked the source of the phenomenon to a cell, where he beheld a sight that spat in the face of his scientific orientation, something you could call a miracle. But it wasn’t an alien. It was Grace. She was alive and naked as the day she was born. She also wasn’t alone. She was with Pepper, who hadn’t been seen since the Nor’easter. Pepper, who was once mentally addled and verbally challenged, but was now clearly bright and articulate. Someone or something had fixed her. Oh, and one more thing? Grace was pregnant. Like, swollen-womb-about-to-pop pregnant. Will Kit Walker die? How was Grave revived? What’s the significance of the baby growing inside her? What if it’s Grace who brings the scion of Bloody Face into the world, not Lana? So many questions – all of them also to be answered after the New Year. Cliffhanger!
Revolution? In an episode so cynical about redemption, “The Coat Hanger” contained one example of change you can believe in. It was, perhaps, the show’s prescription for change. It happened during Judy Martin’s first trip to the Common Room as a patient, as a defrocked nun, as “just” Judy Martin. As she searched for a place to sit, looking haggard and ghostly and most unglamorous, the unfortunates she used the rule and the underlings she used to boss twitched uncomfortably in her presence or shot her with contemptuous eye darts. Judy felt exposed and judged, and she knew she deserved it.
Judy spotted Lana Winters smoking at a card table scattered with checker pieces. There was an empty chair next to her. Judy took it. The pathetic sight of her former jailer, now fallen, took Lana aback: “What happened to you?” Judy replied, “Nothing I didn’t do to you.” (Was she implying that she had been put through the electroshock ringer, too?) (At least she didn’t have to suffer the indignity of Tumescence Touch Therapy.)
Judy wasn’t so humbled that she couldn’t ask for – and even demand – a smoke. “Goddammit, give me a cigarette, I earned it,” she said. She plucked off the filter and accepted a light from Lana. She thanked her, and then tried to apologize for what she had done to her. Judy didn’t itemize the sins, but if they included all the wrongs done unto Lana within The Asylum, she would be taking responsibility for taking away Lana’s freedom, stripping away her identity, punishing her for her sexuality (Wendy, too!), and trying to stop her from righting the wrongs of society by exposing the corruption of Briarcliff culture. Oh, and the electroshock thing. And all those mean, cruel “Lana Banana” cracks! (So hurtful!) “I’m truly sorry for what I did to you,” she said. “What I did to you was more than just wrong. It was immoral.”
“It was criminal,” Lana clarified/added.
Judy nodded, shamed. She told Lana she didn’t expect forgiveness. She told Lana she was determined to atone. She told Lana she was going to get her out of Briarcliff. Lana didn’t believe her, for lots of obvious reasons, and also because somewhere along the way over the past couple episodes, she lost a lot of faith in humankind. Psycho shrinks and road rage drivers and power-mad nuns – plus marginalization, oppression, and phony or betrayed promises of justice — will do that to you. And caning. “I don’t trust you,” she said. “Or anyone. Or anything.”
“Well, I’m going to earn your trust,” said Judy. “Things are going to change around here.”
Judy stood up and went to the phonograph. “Dominique” by The Singing Nun was playing, as usual, per the rule of (grating, ridiculous, brainwashy) order established by Judy herself back when she was in the habit. She pushed away the needle, picked up the record, and smashed it to pieces. It was as if Nurse Ratched had been born again as Randall P. McMurphy. The reaction of the other inmates: Claps and cheers from many, but shock and fear from others. Revolution – even if wanted by all – can be jarring and scary that way.
Judy returned to her chair and continued to smoke. Lana – cooly impressed; not completely convinced but capable of appreciating meaningful symbolic acts when she saw one – could only think of one thing to say.
“Well, hot damn.”
It was a start. We’ll see how far it gets them when American Horror Story returns from a three week respite on January 2. Yes, even the most Satanic show on television is reverent enough to take a holiday break. I wish you and yours glad tidings of great joy. And remember: If you wake up in the middle of the night between now and Christmas, and you catch a clean shaven Santa playing with your toy train underneath the Christmas tree?
RUN LIKE LIVING HELL.