Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk sure do love them some secrets 'n' shame. The first installment of American Horror Story was a sort of revelatory study in how bizarre television can get, with its plates of brains and unabashedly over-the-top rubber suit rapes and “weep-sturbating”; it was campy while retaining its fright factor, psychologically fascinating (Jessica Lange’s relationship with her daughter Addy, Violet’s with heartthrob sociopath Tate, Frances Conroy’s shape-shifting), and unpredictable in a brain-throbbing and riveting way. At the center of this zillion-character creep show were the Harmons, a couple whose secrets were less supernatural but made them no less fragile when they were faced with the prospect of having them exposed. I thought — and judging by last night’s American Horror Story: Asylum premiere, I may have been right — that this construct would be hard to top. A mental institution is scary in a much less exciting way than a chunk of bad, un-sellable real estate.
The horror genre’s insane asylum is a world unto itself, a place we’ve become too familiar with when we’re being told a chill-inducing story. Anyone who claims to be sane is not sane. Everyone is lying. Even if you pretend to be playing cards alone at a table by the window, you will be beaten senseless for causing trouble. One of the orderlies is a sadist. Actually, all of them are, but one of them is a murderous sadist and maybe even a cannibal. If you fall in love in the fictitious loony bin, your loved one will be murdered or put into an electroshock coma. Your family and friends won’t let you out because they believe your doctor’s story that you are a danger to society, the food is borderline poisonous, and the field trips are no fun. Someone will die on the field trip. They will try to escape over a fence and be hit by a van or get caught by a nurse who will screw with their dosage until it’s toxic and cackle at the nuts as they weep and beat their poor nutty heads on the bars on the window panes. Everything can be written off as a Lithium dream sequence or hallucination, which is lamesville. Then again, it’s a great opportunity to play with secrets and shame, shame being inherent in a psychiatric ward microcosm of power dynamics and backless gowns, and secrets (in the form of lies) being one of the hallmarks of forced institutionalization. And though the first episode of American Horror Story: Asylum falls into some predictable traps and turns the camp dial up way past 11, it hints at some relevant themes (marriage equality, the secret sexy life of nuns) and delivers a Jessica Lange–Lovers' Deluxe Pizza in the form of a scene where she peels off her nun’s habit to reveal a red negligee and rubs her clavicles with perfume oil before sitting down to some sensuous coq au vin. I will order this pizza again.
The premiere opens with scenes shot in the ugliest music video style imaginable, featuring Leo (Adam Levine) and his thuper thexy new wife taking a honeymoon scrumpfest through the shuttered Briarcliff Manor. The purpose of their visit is to have sex in locations adjacent to piles of spooky old sneakers and for us to have footage of Adam Levine licking his fingers for foreplay to make into GIFs to last a lifetime. The history of the institution is explained as it having once been a tuberculosis hospital, then a haven for the criminally insane. Some graffiti says FUN!, but nuthouse graffiti is almost always sarcastic. Adam Levine receives oral sex as he sticks his arm into a hole in the wall, because arms got to get theirs too. Unfortunately his arm is ripped from his body, and now he will never be able to push his button on The Voice with it again and everyone will have to be on Team Blake by default.
Suddenly, the blow job time machine sends us back to 1964, where we see last season’s Tate (Evan Peters), now known as Kit Walker, having a rip-roaring time finishing up at a gas station. Kit seems like a nice enough guy, because he’s grooving to the oldies, but then a crew of his friends-not-real-friends show up to stand in a huddle and be generally menacing. When one of them grabs a chocolate and stares deep into Kit’s eyes saying, “Mmm, chocolate,” you know something really racist is about to happen, and it sort of does (though not by the hand of the creepy friend, unless he went home and changed into an outfit of bright white magnetic light), because Kit is newly married to a black woman named Alma (Britne Oldford), who is busy being his secret housewife who merrily welcomes him home and wears the kind of face that says “Let’s have sex one more time before somebody murders the hell out of me.” It is now clear that this series will feature a direct horniness-to-violence relationship, the old lust-and-punishment thing that just seems so stale at this point. At least Rosemary Woodhouse got eight months of peace between her roll in the hay and being hassled by Satan. Just as Alma saunters from the bed to the kitchen to fix dinner, a light appears in the driveway that compels Kit to yell to her to stay where she is. Ominously and predictably, there is no answer. Ominously and unpredictably (at least), Kit is sucked onto his ceiling by a blinding glare and loud booming noise, then thrown to the ground.
Back at Briarcliff, a pretty reporter named Lana (Sarah Paulson) is scaling the steps when she’s approached by a girl with microcephaly holding a thorny flower, which pricks her. That counts as sex. Bad news for Lana! A nun, Sister Mary Eunice, appears (Lily Rabe) to usher the girl away, warning that she’s at Briarcliff because she drowned her sister’s baby and “sliced her ears off” (which is much worse in reverse order). Lana is writing a story on the asylum’s bakery, she claims, and enters Briarcliff to see Sister Jude (Lange) shaving Shelly’s (Chloe Sevigny) head. Shelly doesn’t care, she’s been down that road before. You can’t un-hot Chloe, so don’t even try. Sister Jude leads Lana into her office and explains that Shelly is a nymphomaniac, that mental illness is a fashionable term for sin, and extols the three p’s of Briarcliff: productivity, prayer, and purification.
Lana drops the molasses-bread fašade of her fake interview and jumps on Sister J to give her details about the new inmate, Bloody Face. The Sister is angered because brown bread is a hot-button issue that deserves a little press, but despite her grousing we find ourselves on the steps of the asylum to see Bloody Face’s arrival — and wouldn’t you know it, it’s Kit, who is doing a hard sell on his story that aliens or monsters killed his wife (maybe it was the one-armed man, Adam Levine!). Sister Jude reminds him that all monsters are human, but then renounces her credibility by asking if his wife’s “dark meat slid off the bone.” Once on the ward, Kit deflects Shelly’s advances and meets Grace, a French woman accused of chopping up her family (appealing; I can’t imagine Bloody Face is popular with in-laws). She didn’t do it and isn’t insane, she says, which means, of course, that she’s the battiest one in there or she doesn’t exist and Kit is in A Beautiful Mind.
Meanwhile, Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) is evilly inspecting potted flowers and raving about the power of science, so it’s obvious he’s a cannibal or the resident Dr. Frankenstein. Sister Jude confronts him about a missing patient, Willie, who is another in a series of patients who have disappeared. Dr. Arden evasively explains that the patients have died and been cremated, which Sister Jude ain’t buying, and plus she always wins against the “patriarchal male.” Apparently that’s how nuns thought in 1964. Very common, these progressive nuns of the 60’s. Lana is back at home with her girlfriend Eva (Clea Duvall) smoking reefer with the blinds open. The blinds close, however, when the two kiss, because Eva is a teacher and her sexuality, she fears, would ruin her if it were exposed.
Speaking of exposed, we now cut to Sister Jude slicing onions for a very sexy dish of coq au vin while perfuming herself liberally; this is in honor of Monsignor Timothy (Joseph Fiennes), the Father Intintola to her Carmela Soprano. Sister Jude wants to know who hired creepy Dr. Arden, and the Monsignor tells her that he was approved by a judge — what, do you think he murders people for sport and uses their flesh as fertilizer for his plants or something? Come off it, sister! Sister Jude gradually works herself into a sexy frenzy and disrobes to reveal a very nice, skimpy nightie. Sadly, it’s only in her repressed noggin, or maybe not sadly because this means she isn’t about to die. She has control, and her secret desires will keep her alive for (I hope) the whole season. When she bones that priest, I am going to be very concerned.
Sister Mary Eunice, who is set up as a meek sycophant, is doing somebody else’s bidding (Dr. Arden, ding-ding-ding!) by bringing buckets of meat (missing inmates? Maybe?) into the woods to feed to demons/animals/growling things when Lana, who has sneaked onto the property, catches her. Because feeding time is scary time, Lana and Mary Eunice run back into the asylum, where Mary Eunice has a very nice secret tunnel set up to hide from all the scaries. Lana blackmails Mary Eunice into letting her case the joint, dumbly setting off to poke around because she just finished reading the newest Nancy Drew book (not really) (but probably); in this case it’s Nancy Drew and the Poo-Hurling Masturbating Prisoners of Briarcliff. Mary Eunice and Lana stroll through the gauntlet of imprisoned patients, peeking at an orderly boning Shelly, before Lana has to hide in an empty cell. Once she resumes her spying, she’s thwacked in the head. Caught!
In another part of the ward, Arden has captured Tate, who was innocently trying to eat a bowl of scrambled gray eggs (or similar) in his cell, delivered by that nice not-crazy French family-murderer, and has him strapped to a table. “This is my time,” says Arden, “the time of science.” Oh, neat, so what are you going to do during your time? How about poking at Kit and then removing a hard nodule in his neck, which turns out to be a SanDisk that immediately grows insect legs while surrounded by your jars of brains? The devil, Arden tells Kit, lives in the occipital lobes. Cromwell is having a lot of fun here. I like it. Cut to Sister Jude berating Mary Eunice for breaking rank, and Sister Mary Eunice sniveling as Lange taunts her. She begs to be beaten with a big, big cane, offering up her bare butt and imploring Jude to punish her. This scene hearkened back to some vintage Season 1 perversion, which I enjoyed.
In the next scene, we find that Lana has been caught and is strapped down, at the mercy of Sister Jude, who is still so upset that this couldn’t all have been just a simple matter of molasses bread that she goes to the house Eva and Lana share to threaten to expose their relationship if Eva doesn’t sign Lana’s commitment papers (not that she has any authority to, being just a secret girlfriend, but Lana’s parents are estranged from her and hey, why not just be a dick about the whole thing, Sister Jude; also, way to comment on gay marriage — I thought this was nicely done). Eva is reluctant, but apparently she’s a very devoted teacher and a less devoted girlfriend, so she signs. Because a nun’s work is never done, Jude then barges into a suspicious cell in which Arden occasionally performs his misdeeds to find him disinfecting the walls. If she hadn’t been busy ruining lives, she’d probably have found "I HEART SCIENCE" scrawled everywhere in blood and entrails, but we’ll never know.
Because everything must be wrapped up in a nice little bow even if nobody gives even the tiniest little whispery hoot about Leo and his missing arm, the episode ends with Levine bleeding to death on the dirty, condemned floor as his wife runs to get help. Unfortunately, she finds none, and runs smack dab into Bloody Face, this time looking less like Kit and more like, well, Bloody Face. I assume these two are dead now, so I think the season will improve as we delve deeper into the past of Briarcliff, before it was just a shoe museum and orgy hut. The most intriguing characters so far have got to be Dr. Arden, the Sisters, and Monsignor Timothy. As long as we don’t have to endure too many scenes of people fake-shooting Dixie cups full of meds and then shuddering on the cement floors, I’ll remain an optimist. Go ahead, AHSA. Beat me with a bigger cane.