Last night’s episode of American Horror Story: Asylum wasn’t my favorite, though it did feature Deadwood’s excellent Ian McShane as a psycho, serial-killing Santa and dentures as Christmas tree ornaments. I guess it was time for an episodic bridge, an installment with dialogue set to soap-opera music (and an instrumental of the creepiest carol, “Hark How the Bells”), but it seemed a little bit on the nose compared to weeks past. The good news, however, is that Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) and Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) now both know that the devil is occupying Satan Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), and Sister Jude, fresh off the revelation that she didn’t accidentally kill anyone 15 years prior, seems to be taking it upon herself to cast that demon out. Merry Christmassacre, everyone!
We open on a circa-1962 nightshift Santa ringing his donation bell outside the supermarket. A kid gives Santa a buck and gets a candy cane in return and, after he departs, a dark figure (Lee Emerson, played by McShane) starts laying into Santa about the politics of the naughty/nice list and then shoots him in the head a few times. (The first seems fatal, but he keeps going, just so you know he’s not messing around.) Emerson steals Santa’s polyester avatar and heads on over to some poor family’s house to chat with a footie-pajama’d young lady named Susie (they’re always named Susie; she speaks in cutesy r-less baby language) and strap her parents to a chair with Christmas lights at gunpoint. He doesn’t want the five grand sitting in a safe upstairs, he’d rather rape Mom and Dad (“You know the difference between […] Santa Claus and me? He only comes once a year”) and “[finishes his] list.”
His list is short: Who dies first? That’s not a list; it’s a question, and his victims don’t get to choose (“You know what? I’m not feeling very Christmasy” — Dad gets it, followed by Mom) but whatever. We later learn that Emerson’s body toll was 18, so you can only assume that Susie never got her train set (luckily, we’re spared; footie-pajama carnage is taking things way too far).
At Briarcliff, Satan Mary Eunice is strolling around looking bored, waving her finger around to “Here Comes Santa Claus” as the patients do the Thorazine shuffle. She blows her out-of-tune whistle and announces that “Christmas is back” after Sister Jude nixed the holiday last year. Hey, that’s nice of you, Satan Mary! She lines everybody up to replace the ornaments Jude disposed of with improvisational trinkets, like Mr. Deakins’s dentures, locks of patients’ hair tied with bows, and an inflated surgical glove. Nobody seems to mind the haircut very much, and I'm insufficiently creeped by this. That’s not evil; it’s borderline Etsy. Dr. Arden, however, waltzes in the door and looks downright scandalized by Satan chopping at split ends — surely he’s seen worse as a Nazi! Get real!
Frank the guard is busy praying over Grace’s corpse (Lizzie Brochere) and feeling more than a little guilty for shooting her when he was aiming at Kit (Evan Peters) and/or the hunchbacked Rasper. It doesn’t help that he hallucinates Grace’s eyes flying open to stare at him accusingly. He gives the dead body his word that he’s “gonna make things right” just as Arden busts in the door, which seems to be his specialty, and tells the doctor that he wants to go to the police and confess. Arden says he’ll see what he can do, and then stares off into outer space so we know that he’ll only see what he can do to shut this man up for good.
Meanwhile, Satan Mary is gazing into a roaring fire, listening to some relaxing carols, when Sister Jude creeps up on her to press a blade to her throat. Sister Jude tells Satan Mary that she’s figured out how the devil is moving “freely among the sacred icons” like crucifixes and holy focaccia: It’s because he’s enshrouded in Sister Mary Eunice’s formerly pure and innocent body, which is apparently made of some sort of sacred nice-girl Teflon. “What if I were to slit this soft throat and release her soul into heaven?” wonders Sister Jude, and Satan Mary posits that maybe then the devil would leap into Jude’s body instead. Satan Mary uses her telekinetic powers to open Jude’s wardrobe o’ canes and send them hurtling at the nun’s back, and then makes the Christmas music record explode over her head, less for danger and more for dramatic effect. Satan is a diva.
Arden, the busiest man in town, shows up at the door and, at Satan Mary’s request, calls security to escort Sister Jude out, slipping Satan Mary the blade that he presumably confiscated from Jude. Arden also spills the beans about Frank’s wish to confess to the shooting, and Satan Mary says she’s got it under control. But first, she has an errand to run, popping by the solitary cell of Emerson, who now looks like the Ancient Mariner with a long and dirty beard from a year spent mostly neglected in there. Satan comes bearing a box with a bow, which turns out to be a Santa suit. It should have been presented with a trigger warning, apparently, because we flash back to the previous Christmas when Emerson was allowed to wander semi-free (handcuffs) on the ward. A photographer from The Gazette was due to take a holiday photo of the inmates enjoying a bag of chestnuts. Emerson opines to Jude that he’d rather not be in cuffs and calls her out on the photo shoot propaganda, but Jude sagely responds that he killed, like, five families in one night, plus the picture is to “remind the public that without Briarcliff, you would be out there living among them.” Fair argument.
Before Sister Jude discovered that her hit-and-run victim was still alive, all anybody had to do was suggest that she was harboring any guilt, and you’d see the steel venetian blinds close behind her eyeballs; a year later, absolved of her crime, she’s a completely different woman — one might almost call her good, especially when compared to the revolving door of sociopaths on this show. At first, I was afraid that the way her character gets stretched around like Gumby was a little haphazard, but I buy it now. Anyway, an orderly in a Santa hat and beard starts handing out goodies to the patients (Jude really hates the commercialized aspect of Christmas, but after all, Frank tells her, “Saint Nicholas was a saint”), and the sight of him compels Emerson to bite his face off just as the photographer’s flashbulbs start zapping. I guess that’s a good enough reason to wipe Christmas off the calendar at the asylum.
Now we’re back in Emerson’s cell as he sanely grumbles that maybe he’d better not socialize this time of year. Satan is persuasive, however, plus she knows that Emerson’s a Grinch because he was raped in prison while serving time for theft (a loaf of bread for Santa Valjean) by five guards, the first of whom took his virginity and the rest of whom killed his holly jollies forever. This scene got redundantly explainy, so suffice it to say that red suits with faux polar bear fur trim make Psycho Santa feel murderously jazzy, and now he has one. Plus he’s been growing a robust beard to complete the look.
Satan Mary, by the way, seems to really dig Christmas and its tunes; she smugly retreats to her office to put her dogs up on the desk, have a smoke, and chat with Arden. Lily Rabe is such a fun Satan — maybe the only devil to ever call things “adorable.” She only ever got tangerines and socks for Christmas, but what about Arden? Did he “celebrate Christmas in [his] Nazi household?” Oh, sure, Nazis knew how to make Christmas some of Arden’s fondest childhood memories. Arden comes bearing a gift for Satan, ruby earrings (not, as Satan feared, Tabu perfume) that really wow the lord of the underworld. “Rubies are the most glamorous of all,” she says. I suppose I'll suspend my disbelief that Satan can’t get her hands on whatever earrings she wants, or at least shoplift them using her X-ray super-power eyes. These rubies have an unfortunate history, though, considering the fact that they once belonged to a prisoner in Arden’s concentration camp who would eat and then BM them (“She was in there, on her hands and knees, picking through her own feces” — thank you, Dr. Dinner Killer) every day to hide the earrings from the Nazis until they ruptured her stomach and killed her. I guess that’s why I’ve only ever tried this with Faberge eggs and my finest mood rings from Claire’s Accessories.
Satan doesn’t give a hoot about her jewelry’s past life, though, because they really “bring out the rose in my cheeks,” which infuriates Arden because giving her the earrings was some sort of bizarre hypocritical test to see if any trace of the old Sister Mary existed within Satan Mary — he hoped she’d toss them back in his face, that she “ couldn't bring herself to touch those shit-stained earrings.” Satan correctly points out the fact that Dr. Arden’s “no angel either”: I mean, come on, bro. You took those earrings from a person you were torturing while you were a Nazi. She also tells him that if he’s against her, even God can’t help him, though I’m not sure God would want to help Dr. Arden anyway.
Now, who feels like vomiting some Cream of Wheat into a cereal bowl? Lana (Sarah Paulson) does, and not because Briarcliff’s cook forgets to wash his hands (oh my god, stop! Why is it that this is the grossest, worst thing in an episode that also involves face-eating? Spread out the scatological references over two episodes at least, please!). She’s just upset, waiting for Satan Mary to call the police to report Thredson for kidnapping and attempting to Bloody Face her and slurp up all of her colostrum. In the bed next to her, Kit is sleep-mumbling, so we know the two will reunite as soon as the ministering nun goes away to dump out Lana’s barf bowl.
Speaking of nuns (and in these recaps we always are), Sister Jude is meeting with the Mother Superior, extremely agitated and looking for a way back into Briarcliff. Sister Jude’s so worked up that she hits Mother Superior with a lot of half-baked but impassioned arguments about how she’s a soldier in God’s army, she hates “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and how the devil chips away at humanity (particularly Satan Mary Eunice, “but he can’t have her!”); Mother clearly thinks Jude’s white coif is too snug, so I bet she’s pretty relieved to dismiss Jude when the phone rings to inform her she has a visitor. It’s Arden, who meets her in the chapel and tells her she was right about Satan Mary Eunice. Arden jumps at a thud and Sister Jude suggests that he’s afraid of Satan Mary; no, no, that’s not it, it’s just that he’s so busy busting in on other people’s conversations and fiddling with his hallucinogenic plants that he doesn’t have time to “babysit a deranged nun.” He’s also seen evil up close, which is why Sister Mary’s purity “meant so much” to him. He begs for Sister’s help, and she agrees if he follows her every instruction. He swears he will, but he’s an untrustworthy former Nazi who gave Chloe Sevigny ass-face and tuberculosis, so I don’t buy it.
Monsignor Timothy (Joseph Fiennes) is visiting the ward to bestow a pointy, sharp, sparkly star upon the inmates to top their hair-and-bedpan-adorned tree — which, by the way, Monsignor is really feeling because it kind of reminds him of Marcel Duchamp and the found-object art movement. Either because of the marvelous tree or just because he’s got that flirty Father Intintola touch, he seems to be sprouting a crush on Satan Mary, which would definitely add another dimension of bummer to Sister Jude’s plot. I’m down for that. Though Monsignor was initially concerned about letting Psycho Santa wear his murdering outfit for the occasion, he’s happy to see Emerson across the room with a lady in his lap, not killing the shit out of her. Of course, when we zoom in, we find that he’s hissing into her ear “Hey, what do you say we blow this pop stand, savage a few elves, and then suck on each other?”
Satan Mary calls for Frank to get a ladder so they can hang the pointy weapon — er, ornament — and then watches with barely concealed glee as Emerson attacks Frank (“well, one step forwards, two steps back” when celebrating Christmas in the asylum) with the star before the guards pull him off. Frank, not mortally wounded, lands a few punches on Emerson before escorting him back to solitary.
Kit’s having what seems to be a nice nap in his hospital bed, dreaming of bringing home a Christmas tree to his pregnant wife (before she was either killed or snatched by aliens). After bantering back and forth about the gender of the fetus, his wife turns into Grace, who insists that they dance and make out because that’s what dreams are like, I guess. Kit rolls with it until he’s awakened by Lana, telling him that the police are still searching for him, which means that nobody knows he’s at Briarcliff — or that she is, either. Lana tells Kit that Thredson (Zachary Quinto) is Bloody Face and gives him a cursory account of her cool time chilling in nipple lampshade heaven. She goes to find a phone, and says she’ll be right back. Too bad Scream did’t come out for another thirty-two years to teach her a lesson about this.
Arden lets Sister Jude back into Briarcliff and seems like he’s going to go along with her plan of locking her in a room with Satan Mary Eunice (Sister Jude is nothing if not confident, apparently). Another outcast has sneaked back into the ward: Just as Lana is dialing the police, Dr. Thredson steps out of the shadows. Shouldn’t there be a doorman at this establishment? As it happens, the papers have reported that Lana’s back at Briarcliff, but the story circulating is just that an escaped mental patient has been returned to her rightful place at the ward, not that she was terrorized, raped, and made to eat girlfriend-flesh croque monsieurs. Which is a much better story, and would have sold a lot more papers. What a shame.
Thredson has been busy erasing all evidence of Bloody Face from his house with a toothbrush, burning all that hoarded skin in his furnace. He’s pretty pissed that Lana turned on him after he bonded with her, manipulating him into boring her with his abandonment issues and mommy complex, so now he wants to borrow her face for his new BF mask. After all, they’ve been “drawn together like magnets.” Unfortunately for Thredson, Kit busts open the door to reverse their polarity and knock him on the head with a canister. Lana wants to kill him, but Kit knows that Thredson’s his only shot at escaping the electric chair, so they put him in restraints instead. “Why is there still a manhunt? Why haven’t they turned you in?” asks Lana, who remains the voice of reason even after her ECT treatments. Could it be the SanDisk alien that keeps trying to creep back into Kit’s neck? Maybe Dr. Arden wants to turn Kit into an alien ant farm.
Frank tosses Emerson back into his cell without much of a fight, so Satan Mary Eunice appears to slice Frank’s throat and frame Emerson for it (he doesn’t seem to mind: he’s snug inside his cozy suit, cackling and watching through his little meal-hole). Satan Mary wipes the blade and says she hopes “we’re not looking at a rampage.” She’s being sarcastic, because instead of meeting Sister Jude in her office, she sends Emerson and locks them inside. Arden’s waiting outside the door, too, trusting that his “loyalty is no longer in question.” He doesn’t feel like eavesdropping on the “tedious” evil ho-ho-ho’s coming from behind the door, though, or Sister Jude’s screams for help as she gets beat up by Santa, who wants to tell her about his fantasy of sodomizing her with a crucifix. God can’t help her, says Emerson, because He’s “off having schnapps with the nice Santa,” but then he changes his mind when he sees the closet full of uncandied canes. “Maybe God is here,” he says, before waxing poetic about having Sister lick his wounds and their seeping pus (still not topping the cook who won’t wash his hands) while he whips her, reenacting the punishment she administered to him a year ago. Before he has a chance to rape her, however, she spears his neck with a letter opener. Nobody has ever used a letter opener for anything other than this. They need to stop being called letter openers.
Arden, having escaped the boooooring spectacle of listening to Psycho Santa’s funny games session with Sister Jude, is back to business, wheeling Grace’s corpse through the death chute. The electric bee noise hits him, and so we know the white light and alien claws can’t be far behind. He sees flashes of the giant praying mantis grabbing at Grace’s body, and she’s gone. I’m guessing the aliens need her to raise the human-alien hybrid baby that’s incubating in her uterus, which is probably sitting in a mason jar on a spaceship. With all of the forcible sex and willful removal of uteri at Briarcliff, I’m starting to expect to see baby aliens and Bloody Faces all over the place. And I know that Shelley (Chloe Sevigny) was strangled with a rosary, but didn’t Dr. Arden inject her with some sort of immortality serum? I nurse a small hope that she’s coming back. I miss her wretched face and stumpy, patchwork body. Maybe it could be a Christmas miracle.