Is American Horror Story: Apocalypse excellent or exasperating? EW critics debate
FX's horror anthology franchise just reached its midseason, and two longtime AHS viewers clash on its crossover charms
The eighth season of American Horror Story launched last month with nuclear armageddon. But Apocalypse‘s apocalypse was only the beginning, as the star-studded horror anthology took a hard-left turn into a long-promised merging of characters from earlier seasons of the FX anthology. EW television critics Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich discussed the season in the wake of the fifth episode, “Boy Wonder.”
DARREN: The opening scene of Apocalypse completely grabbed me. It was hilarious watching the narcissistic denizens of Los Angeles react to a nuclear attack. And it was very cathartic, Kristen, speaking as a narcissistic denizen of Los Angeles who spent most of summer 2017 waiting patiently for the president’s nickname diplomacy to turn my neighborhood into a radioactive wasteland. “Where will the show go from here???” I pondered, as a few lucky survivors (Joan Collins!) flew away from the ruins of civilization.
Answer: Nowhere, fast. Apocalypse revealed itself, initially, as the tale of a bunker full of deplorables. The characters were boring, especially cute young lovers Whathsisface and Whoshername. The decision to dress everyone in vaguely Edwardian clothing was garish without being campy, more twee than fun. By episode 3, I was already tired of Sarah Paulson’s cane-tapping Wilhemina Venable — and everyone else, too. “I just want everyone onscreen to die,” I definitely said out loud. AND THEN THEY ALL DID! American Horror Story has always trafficked in pull-the-burning-rug-out-from-under-you twists, but there was a something extra special in the self-immolating blood-vomit montage that killed off 91 percent of the cast. Wilhemina herself was shot by her sidekick Miriam (Kathy Bates), who was an android, and she was an android built by the Antichrist? None of which was half as crazy as the sudden arrival of another Sarah Paulson: Cordelia, the headmistress witch from American Horror Story: Coven, whose arrival changed the whole narrative course of the season.
Cool! Except that now, after a very long two-episode flashback full of resurrection cameos and hysterical canon and so many more utterances of the phrase “Seven Wonders” than we ever needed to hear, my eyes are glazing over again. Kristen, earlier this year you wrote a great piece considering the State of Ryan Murphy, pondering whether the all-star auteur should consider focusing his energies away from the decadence of AHS to the tricky humanity of American Crime Story. How do you feel about this new season? Has it shifted your perspective on the funny-scary franchise, or confirmed all your worst fears?
KRISTEN: Leave it to the witches of Coven to perform an act of critical transmutation — suddenly, Darren, I’m the one about to sing AHS’s praises while you are left underwhelmed! As you pointed out, I gave up on AHS several seasons ago, when it seemed to become an exercise in shocking, soulless, sex gore, but the prospect of a Coven/Murder House crossover was enough to lure me back one last time. And I suspect that was the point: As we’ve slack-chatted about before, this season of AHS seems like Ryan Murphy’s grand going-away gift to FX before he heads off to Netflix to work his dramatic magic in a gold-plated office, or whatever.
But yes, we had to wade through some grimly boring nonsense to get there. I would have given up after episode one if it weren’t for the appearance of a bewigged Cody Fern in the final minutes. (After his Emmy-worthy performance in The Assassination of Gianni Versace, I will follow this young man anywhere.) And man, I’m so glad I stuck it out, because once the writers dispatched all the boring characters with that episode three massacre, Apocalypse became the television equivalent of a classic-rock supergroup playing all your favorites in their farewell arena tour. Look, it’s Emma Roberts’ mean girl Madison, back from the dead! (And how perfect is it that her version of hell was folding towels in a big box store?) There’s Frances Conroy, in her Ronald McDonald fright wig and oversized glasses, playing to the rafters as Coven’s kooky sophisticate Myrtle! It’s a delight to see so many members of Murphy’s repertory dream team playing the warlocks challenging Cordelia and Co. for Supreme-ecy: Cheyenne Jackson; Jon Jon Briones, who was so brilliant as Modesto Cunanan in Versace; and Pose’s Billy Porter, camping it up as a warlock named Behold Chablis(!). Even Leslie Grossman, so deliciously bitchy as Coco the gluten-sensing witch, is a longtime Murphy favorite: She got her start as the deliciously bitchy Mary Cherry in his short-lived cult dramedy Popular.
Now that we’re halfway through the season, it looks like Apocalypse is about to deliver what we were promised all along: Coven vs. Murder House. (You better believe I yelped with glee upon seeing that infamous red-brick façade in the previews for next week’s episode.) Even if the primary pleasures of Apocalypse turn out to be based in pure nostalgia, I’m okay with that — weirdly enough, I really missed loving this show. Does the promise of a return to Murder House — and an appearance by Jessica Lange — excite you, Darren, or do you think the season is, much like Billy Eichner’s cancer-riddled Mad Max warrior, beyond all hope?
DARREN: I love your description of Apocalypse as a supergroup, Kristen. The sheer number of Ryan Murphy familiars onscreen together in episode 5 gives this season an almost handmade, class-reunion quality. It really does feel like a great TV showman saying farewell to one of his own eras: A personal artistic Apocalypse for Cable Superproducer Ryan Murphy. The pure amount of talent onscreen gives me hope. Stevie Nicks singing “Gypsy” accompanied by B.D. Wong on piano? I can’t write enough exclamation points! Joan Collins descending into classy cannibalism? Resurrect her, witches, resurrect her!
And it’s interesting that you peg the essential appeal of this season as nostalgia. I’ve watched almost every other season, and Apocalypse actually reminds me the most of Hotel, a death-comedy of sheer excess, mashing vampire kids with druggy ghosts plus serial killers and ambient Gaga-ism. Hotel was frequently pointless, but it had an unforgettable kitchen-sink quality, with enough production design to pay for all seventy-three CW superheroes. I guess my hope for Apocalypse is that it achieves those heights of lush absurdity. I would also accept “characters I care about in a story that tantalizes me,” but I worry AHS ditched that goal somewhere around Freak Show. For me, there’s actually something a bit off-putting about all the onscreen reunions, these distinct people flattened into superteam gestures. Taissa Farmiga was great as everygal Zoe on Coven, where she had a complicated frenemy relationship with Madison — but on Apocalypse they’re just more compatriots on Team Witch.
Maybe that just comes with the epic-crossover territory. And if we’re comparing Apocalypse to, like, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice — well damn, then I have to once again tip my hat to Murphy et al. for conjuring up a brazen new horror-camp pop mythology. But this season’s journey to old haunts mainly reminds me of long-ago higher heights. Murder House was kooky-crazy, but it told a real story about a modern family devouring itself. The wonderful, wonderful Asylum mashed aliens and Satans and secret Nazis into a blistering tale of American repression. This is a dangerous question to ask on such a twisty season, Kristen, but where do you think Apocalypse is going? And, more to the point, what do you want from this franchise, this year and in the theoretical years to come?
KRISTEN: You are completely right about the “characters I care about” point — I wholeheartedly concede that AHS is no longer interested in, you know, just telling good old-fashioned stories. But I do think Apocalypse is meandering its way toward a timely point: Specifically whether years of male domination will ultimately destroy our world as we know it. Witness Myrtle’s horror at the idea of allowing Fern’s Michael Langdon become the first male Supreme: “Have we learned nothing from Atilla the Hun? Herod the great? Mark Zuckerberg?!?” (Side note: This season is really funny!) While I’m not sure what Murder House has to do with it, I’m hoping Apocalypse builds to a witch vs. warlock vs. Demon Cody Fern showdown that establishes a Coven-based matriarchy and maybe even allows Earth to rise from its ashy grave.
As for future seasons… Barring an Asylum sequel (Lana Winters: Nazi Hunter?), I just hope that Murphy and Co. remember how much fun they had with Apocalypse, and bring a little bit of that playfulness and humor to whatever nightmare scenarios they concoct next.
Kristen’s Grade: B+
Darren’s Grade: C
American Horror Story: Apocalypse