American Horror Story: Asylum S2:E1 “Welcome to Briarcliff”

“Repent for your crimes to the only judge that matters.” -Sister Jude

Inaugural episodes of shows like this are hard to write about, because every little detail has the potential to be important. Out of context, the characters’ dialogue foreshadows important points for consideration. One of Kit Walker’s earliest lines asks his gas station acquaintance, “Are you insane?” Later, Sister Jude also states that “All monsters are human,” and that “Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin,” baldly pronouncing the root issues that will be explored through the season. Can we ever truly grasp our own sanity? If all monsters are human, will dehumanization diminish monstrous behavior? Is a healthy mind incapable of committing offenses against god and man? Are we all out of our depth when we strive to understand the root of human cruelty?

Ludovico treatment? Yes please.

We don’t get much insight into the inmates in this episode. Most of the character development and exposition centers around Briarcliff’s staff. As they are in the position of power here, this is sensible enough; their actions and desires will be what drives the story forward, shaping the patients’ recoveries or driving their growing madness.

Monseigneur Timothy craves power and recognition. Sister Jude professes his belief that “The tonic for a diseased mind lies in the three P’s–Productivity, prayer, and purification.” His own words, though, suggest his interest in diseased minds is peripheral at best. He is willing to use science to further his advancement in the hierarchy of the Catholic church, ignoring the questionable morality of Dr. Arden’s experiments and other things done under his authority. After all, if “God created science and religion,” then both are equally viable and powerful tools available for his use. He observes to Sister Jude during their intimate dinner that “Anything can happen if someone wants it enough.” This statement precedes Sister Jude’s fantasy of following through on her lustful thoughts, and it is clear she and Timothy have different ideas of what should happen, in more ways than one.

Sister Jude seems genuinely interested in using Monseigneur Timothy’s ‘Three P’ system to cure those in her charge. Conceivably, her desire to save these people comes from what she sees as her own spiritual failings–she lusts for Timothy and has notably decadent tastes incongruous with how Catholic nuns are supposed to ‘deny sensory life.’ This is shown having a twofold effect on her actions, making her hypercritical of the proclivities and sexual urges of others like Lana and Shelley, but also inclining her to overlook the failings of those like Sister Mary Eunice in blind admiration of the woman’s naive piety. We are also given hints at deep-rooted hypocrisy in Sister Jude, where Lana observes to Wendy, “Under all that piousness and fidelity there’s a real darkness.” There’s even evidence of how morality and desires have nuance and can’t be ruled by black-and-white dichotomy: Sister Jude is preparing coq au vin with a large bottle of wine, only to later tell Timothy that she has ‘renounced spirits.’ This willingness to work in ambiguity is reinforced when she uses Sister Mary Eunice to steal Dr. Arden’s keys, rather than doing the dirty work herself.

Dr. Arden, in spite of his derision of religion, wants to use science to become God. From the creatures in the woods–implied products of his medical experiments on Briarcliff’s patients–to the successful mutation of plants into an entirely new species, he claims to eschew religion when he actually seeks to supplant it. He has control over the life, death, and physical wellbeing of the patients, giving him a creator’s power. In one of his final scenes in this episode, a gloved and aproned Dr. Arden stops scrubbing a cell clean to cheekily antagonize, “Cleanliness is, after all, next to godliness.” While Timothy views Dr. Arden’s approach to progress at any cost with blithe acceptance, Dr. Arden is a man who clearly delights in his work. His hands linger lovingly over a tray of immaculate tools, and he relishes in his patients’ reactions to his ministrations. More than anything, this reinforces that rather than being god-like in nature, he is only playing god.

Sister Mary Eunice is presented as guileless, telling an arriving Lana Winters that asylum inmate Pepper is not in fact harmless, but a violent baby killer. She does this with such earnest simplicity that you have to wonder if any one person truly can be that oblivious. Unlike the others, Sister Mary Eunice shows no ambition to be anything other than good. Unfortunately, she seems to have no inclination of what goodness is, seeking only to eagerly please each person with whom she interacts. She lets Lana tour the asylum unescorted, steals at the urging of Sister Jude, and faithfully follows Dr. Arden’s instructions to feed the mysterious creatures in the woods a meat that might be people. This malleability leaves her with nothing but internal conflict, because there is no way she can possibly satisfy all of her superiors and their conflicting goals. She is so in awe of Sister Jude and the idea of her ‘stairway to heaven’ that she never bothers to consider for herself the nature of the goodness she longs for.

Rather than considering the staff versus the patients of Briarcliff, these characters are juxtaposed with one another. Sister Jude’s religious methods are pitted against the scientific techniques of Dr. Arden, while the allegedly pious Monseigneur’s ambitions sit opposite Sister Mary Eunice’s ambitious piety. “Welcome to Briarcliff” also drives home the difference between depth and surface. Briarcliff itself, while its 1964 sunny brick facade resembles a sprawling manor home with immaculate grounds, inside resembles a dark maze of stairs and hallways that call to mind a prison’s panopticon design that can’t physically fit with what we see of the exterior walls. Sister Jude’s self-indulgent ritual of perfuming herself as she dresses in red negligee and back-seamed thigh high stockings is concealed under the modest black habit where her only visible indulgences are a tidy glimpse of blonde hair and a very self-righteous air of superiority. Dr. Arden muses to Kit before his first surgical foray into the man’s flesh, “The devil doesn’t reside in hell, Mr. Walker,” continuing to say the devil instead can be found in Kit’s pretty blonde head. Appearances here are crafted to deceive and mislead; even our quick glimpse of Bloody Face shows a figure literally wearing the skin of another as a mask.

When nothing is as it seems, we are left instead to try and feel our way through the action of what happens, rather than the people around whom it is happening. But here we encounter another problem: what is happening? The meat of the episode is framed in a sensory rush of events some 50 years in the future, and with exception to Briarcliff we are given no inclination of how these two timelines will marry. This nonlinear storytelling, especially in conjunction with themes of perception, delusion, and insanity, make it difficult to accept anything as absolute fact. In American Horror Story, this technique is particularly effective because it draws the viewer into the world of Briarcliff’s patients–like them, we can’t trust what we see, and when our own concept of reality is deconstructed it calls into question every commonly accepted fact. Nothing can be known with a sense of certainty. The skittering chip insect Dr. Arden removes from Kit’s neck is followed sequentially by the gory hand that grabs Lana through the maximum security door. The story jumps forward to Sister Jude observing that reporters have a ‘fertile imagination,’ which introduces the possibility that what we have seen happening to Lana is not in fact accurate. The notion of fertile imagination still on our minds, we are treated to the future: decades later, Teresa is running through a hallway and finds herself face to face(s) with Bloody Face.

We are not being told everything. Characters know things they shouldn’t, like when Grace asks Kit if he really killed his wife, while Sister Jude has only made a reference to Alma as ‘dark meat.’ Later, Sister Jude knows enough about Lana to visit and manipulate Lana’s girlfriend, though they are clearly very careful about concealing their relationship by living together ‘like sisters’ and not kissing when the blinds are open. We are given dozens of questions and no concrete answers.

Finally, less organized feels:

  • Adam Levine’s got an arm off! Also, do this and I’ll blow you is not the same as do this while I blow you. Also, Teresa, why would you stick your arm into what is clearly the world’s worst glory hole after what happened to hubby?
  • Some excellent foreshadowing in the gas station, both from the family in the car implying that people ‘way out here’ can do whatever they want, to Kit’s acquaintance hinting at Alma with references to maids and chocolate
  • Aliens? really? aliens? please no.
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