It’s a brand new season of American Horror Story, and this time, we’re beginning at the end — of the world! But unlike those other shows that take place in the post-apocalypse, we shan’t be seeing any lurking zombies, roving cannibal gangs, or [shudders] cargo pants in this hour of television. In Ryan Murphy’s world, even the end of all things comes correct… and wearing enough purple velvet to make the apocalypse look like the world’s greatest Prince tribute show.
The writers waste no time when it comes to setting the earth on fire: the missile that obliterates Los Angeles hits before the title credits even roll. The only survivors are a motley crew of west-coasters led by Coco St. Pierre Vanderbilt (Leslie Grossman), an aspiring Instagram celebrity who flees the incoming horror with her assistant, her hairdresser, and his Hollywood grande dame granny, after her own family can’t make it to their reservation in a shelter for the superrich. (Billy Eichner turns up as Coco’s husband just long enough to get left behind, stuck in traffic as chaos erupts and the bomb closes in. His last words: “You bitch!”)
Cue the scritch-scritch and thump-thump of the credits, this time a candlelit tableau of slithering snakes and horned beasts. Something wicked this way comes.
Then we’re back, and back in time: Forty minutes before the bomb, in a California suburb. High school senior Timothy gets some good news (he’s been accepted at UCLA!), followed by some bad news (whoops, it’s the end of the world!), followed by a surprise invasion by armored members of a mysterious group called The Cooperative. Timothy possesses rare genetic gifts that make him a desirable survivor — but only him. He’s whisked away from his family as the bombs close in, locked up underground with one other girl, Emily, who is also a presumably perfect genetic specimen. And that’s how the world ends: all of a sudden, in a blaze of fire, with no time for anyone to say a decent goodbye.
Fortunately, we don’t dwell on it. (The end of the world is such a bummer, right?)
Two weeks later, Timothy and Emily arrive at the sanctuary: an underground castle in a nuclear hellscape where everything is obscured by a thick, poisonous fog. They’re greeted by black-clad figures in biohazard suits — the outerwear here is very Derelicte-meets-Star-Wars — and then brought indoors to meet their hostess, the fabulously stern Wilhemina Venable. She walks with a cane and dresses like Dracula, and she runs down the rules of the house: No going outside, and no unauthorized copulation, unless you want to be taken out in the Death Fog and shot. (A pair of unfortunate teenagers seen being executed in the previous scene prove the seriousness of the rule.) Also, there’s a dress code at dinner and a strict caste system: the workers wear gray, the elites wear purple. Lots and lots of purple. Dear lord, they look fabulous.
But because this is American Horror Story, the post-apocalypse isn’t all candlelit dinners and crushed velvet cravats in a delicious shade of eggplant. Wilhemina Venable rules the roost with an iron fist, assisted by military gal Mead (Kathy Bates in a baller pixie faux-hawk). (Sidenote: I’m calling dibs on Venable & Mead right now as a brand name for my new artisanal bee balm business. Kickstarter, here I come!) The horror of the situation becomes instantly clear when Mead descends on the dinner table with a crackling Geiger counter, declaring that one of the guests must be contaminated.
“Someone went outside and touched something dirty,” she croons and plucks the culprits from the table: Stu and Gallant, both of whom protest their innocence all the way out. And what do you do with dirty boys? You scrub ’em raw, of course — and yes, there’s a distinct S&M vibe in play as the camera pans over the men’s chemically abraded butts and then draws back as they collapse, sobbing, on the tile floor. Gallant passes the next Geiger test. Stu doesn’t. RIP, Stu. We didn’t know you very well, but you looked lovely in purple.
Cut to Venable and Mead in private, where everything becomes clear: they’re playing dress-up in the guests’ purple clothes, giggling over the contamination (and execution!) they just staged for funzies. The best part? The Cooperative has no idea what they’re up to.
“I’m not embarrassed to say it gives me a tingle!” Venable cackles. That’s right, survivors: it’s out of the frying pan, and into the underground lair of two sadist dominatrixes with no mercy… and no oversight. Oh, and they also turn poor Stu into, um, stew. (Of course, if this show was going to indulge in one apocalypse trope, it would be pun-based cannibalism.)
After the Stu-stew incident, there’s a brief moment of elation where the group imagines they’ll be rescued. But it’s a false alarm: suddenly, we’re eighteen months post-apocalypse and nothing much has changed, except that their meal cubes are a lot smaller, Timothy and Emily have begun a (chaste but passionate) love affair, and everyone is about as miserable as you’d expect after a year and a half underground eating vitamin molds with the same hideous people. Something’s gotta give — which is when an alarm blares a warning again. The grounds of the sanctuary have been breached; at the gates, a carriage drawn by dark horses appears.
The man who emerges is all dressed and masked, but his Cooperative ID should send a frisson down your spine. The name on the card? Michael Langdon. Inside, the visitor removes his biohazard hood to reveal a smooth face, long hair, eerie pale eyes… and a new plan. He’s here to examine the survivors, and perhaps, to bring them onward to a new, safer, more secure outpost. That is if they’re worthy — and there’s no doubt that he’ll put them to the most brutal tests to find out. But that’s for later; right now, we have more pressing concerns. If this is Michael Langdon, all grown up, then where’s Constance? Did she survive? Is she safe? Damn it, American Horror Story! Where is our queen?!