American Horror Story: Asylum: S2:E2 “Tricks and Treats”

“It drives you crazy, doesn’t it? To be the smartest person in the room with no real power because of that smelly clam between your legs.”

Dr. Oliver Thredson, who seems to be the voice of modern scientific reason.

Just like “Welcome to Briarcliff,” Asylum’s second episode “Tricks and Treats” opens with Teresa and Leo, the former of whom abandons her new husband to die at the hands of Bloody Face. From there the episode jumps back to Mischief Night 1964, where Lana’s girlfriend is inconsolable with remorse over having Lana committed. She isn’t left to suffer long, however; after a short shower scene reminiscent of Psycho, Wendy comes face-to-Bloody Face, who is clearly not as locked up as she and her friends thought.

Meanwhile in Briarcliff, Lana’s notes are confiscated in a room search. Lana challenges that the notes are unnecessary, citing that she has an excellent memory. Sister Jude accepts this challenge, charging Dr. Arden to muddle Lana’s memory with electro-shock therapy. Arden marvels at her turnaround, and she claims prayer has yielded the understanding that “this therapy is just another tool in His bountiful tool chest.” As though he is testing her resolve, Arden makes Sister Jude participate in the therapy herself, and with horrific fascination she does.

One day (or several days) later, Kit is given an appointment with visiting psychiatrist Dr. Oliver Thredson, who has been tasked by the court to evaluate Kit’s sanity. Interspersed with the actual interview, Thredson is shown making his report and diagnosing Kit with acute clinical insanity.

A skittish Sister Mary Eunice meets Dr. Arden on the grounds. Though he won’t tell her about the creatures, he presents her with a candy apple. She is reluctant to accept it, saying, “Sister Jude says sweets lead to sin.” This is funny coming from a woman Monseigneur Timothy described as a rare bird with a decadent palate, but we’ve also been given an idea that Sister Jude is a woman who knows a thing or two about sin. Arden insists, in any case, holding the apple toward her and all but forcing her to take a bite.

That he is the serpent introducing Sister Mary Eunice’s perky, dotty innocence to corruption is only reinforced when Shelley confronts him in the kitchen. He rebuffs her, visibly disgusted by her sexuality as he tells her, “Whores get nothing.”

You’re welcome, if you weren’t already thinking it.

His lip curls and he pronounces that her whorishness makes him sick, completely dismissing Shelley’s backstory and how it reveals that there was nothing wrong with her when she was sent to Briarcliff. Liking sex was her only crime, and being of the ‘weaker’ sex the decision fell to her husband to commit her when he found her liking it with other men.

The Monseigneur again uses medical science as a pawn and Dr. Thredson gets drawn into the exorcism of new patient Jed, who–if the color-changing demon eyes are an indicator–may in fact be possessed by the devil. As the Monseigneur notes, “Times may have changed but the nature of evil has not.” Still, times have not changed enough that the strong and resilient Sister Jude is deemed sturdy enough to participate in the exorcism.

Dr. Arden is shown at home, presenting a fancy dinner for a whore–this one actually engaging in sex for money, unlike the other women who are called whores throughout the episode. At first his evening of ‘romance’ seems to be more about his need for power; he stands, looming over the table and waxing intellectual about composers and wine, “Of all the composers from the romantic era I love Chopin the most… he was inspired by his childhood sweetheart who refused his hand in marriage. Can you hear the longing?” It’s reminiscent of Lolita, how the destruction of a childhood romance is blamed for a man’s growth into a sexual predator. When the woman takes control of the conversation by refusing the wine he loses his composure, gripping a carving knife and taunting her about Bloody Face, saying the murderer’s capture makes her ‘perfectly safe.’ while his tone and the way he carves the roast make the assurance feel more like a threat.

Meanwhile the exorcism is not going well. Jed’s demon gives us some character exposition in between speaking in tongues. To Thredson, “I’m glad I gave you up.” He taunts Father Malachi about his legs, and tells the Monseigneur, “Stick it up your ass, Father.”

Timothy leaves the boy with Jude, who moments earlier was judged too weak to be there. She ignores his instructions to stay outside and speak only to god. The demon gloats that Sister Jude became a whore in an attempt to make men appreciate her considerable value. Sister Jude’s flashback is of a drunk woman in a smoky bar filled with soldiers, who make it clear that while they may use her they’re still going to go home to their wives and families. In the midst of her bender, she hits a child with a car and, as the demon taunts, does not even get out to check on the girl. This explains her renouncing spirits and being so hard on those with ‘problems’ of a sexual nature.

In the chaos over the failing exorcism, Briarcliff’s power goes out and all the cells mysteriously open. Most of its inhabitants, having presumably become institutionalized, merely seem confused by this, but in the red flashing glow of the emergency lights Kit, Lana, and Grace argue over escaping. Lana chooses to forsake her own chances to keep Kit from succeeding, but her resolution seems to weaken as she witnesses Kit being beaten by the orderlies and sees the disgust on Grace’s face.

To the whispering of prayers and Dr. Thredson’s attempts at CPR, Jed is pronounced dead. Sister Mary Eunice is standing behind Sister Jude, and rather than Jed’s demon jolting up with one more nugget of insight, Sister Mary Eunice swoons. The scene changes immediately to Dr. Arden’s escort, removing her ‘trashy makeup’ until she is ‘clean as a virgin.’ For emphasis, she is wearing a nun’s habit. After she finds some photographs of women trussed up in compromising positions (Scandalous! Violent?) she becomes frightened. When Dr. Arden draws near for the formerly consensual coitus, she bites him and flees.

Sister Jude is shown descending her ‘Stairway to Heaven’ to tell the family their son has died. Following the distraught wails Dr. Arden visits a very different Sister Mary Eunice in the infirmary. It’s hard to say if she is only, as Dr. Arden says, disconcerting without her costume, or if something more significant has happened with the exorcism. Between his failed attempt to satiate his desire for her with a prostitute in a costume and her vulnerable and sensual position, the power dynamic between them has changed. When Dr. Arden leaves and she flings off the modesty of the blanket, the crucifix on the wall trembles. There is something more powerful at work in Sister Mary Eunice; she has tasted the symbolic apple now, and has been filled with the corruption of a devil in a final trick played upon the team of exorcists.

Even without realizing this, Sister Jude observes to Lana that it has been a long night; they have been given “a lesson in the power of Satan. One can never let one’s guard down.” Then she presents Lana with a ‘treat,’ rewarding her for betraying Kit and Grace by letting her watch their punishment while receiving none of her own. Kit assumes Grace’s lashes and Sister Jude tauntingly calls him Sir Galahad, the Arthurian knight renowned for his purity and saintly goodness.

There is no room for secrets at Briarcliff. Between the cell–I mean room–inspections and demons blurting out one’s dirty past and secret lusts to anyone in earshot, it is becoming evident that the conflict here is not who is keeping what from whom, but rather how the knowledge of those secrets will affect the actions of those involved. Again, most of the exposition happens for Briarcliff’s staff, and in the most cliche terms it does seem possible that the inmates are running the asylum. These people are damaged. The purity and surety of newer arrivals (both inmates and staff) are pitted against the adaptations and complacency of those who’ve been around awhile; Dr. Thredson and Sister Mary Eunice are weakening in the hold of the stronger forces, while Kit and Lana are still each struggling to cling to what they believe ethically and morally.

The newly arrived Dr. Thredson has witnessed appalling things, abuse, malpractice. When he lectures Sister Jude on Briarcliff’s barbaric methods she hits him with the line of reasoning Monseigneur Timothy gave for her and Dr. Arden: “Let me I remind you your job here is to write a recommendation to the court regarding the sanity of one patient. So I suggest you do your job, and let me do mine.” This again squares medicine against religion, only to overturn that by introducing religion to a scientific practice before that, and adding science to a religious exorcism shorty after.

There’s a level of consistency here. The demon in Jed is also reminiscent of the devil’s alleged residence in Kit’s pretty blonde head, while the Asylum itself continues to be a character when the power goes out and the doors spring open even though they seem to operate on plain old key locks instead of fancy electronics. Grace and Kit are talking about the bakery again, and as that’s what drew Lana to Briarcliff for the first episode and led to her incarceration it’s humorous to hear them discuss it as an escape.“How does that work? You disguise yourself as a giant loaf of pumpernickel?”

Meanwhile the show is delving deeper into gender issues and Jude’s assertion that “Mental illness is the fashionable excuse for sin.” Shelley’s rebuttal to Dr. Arden can sum up the majority of this episode. “Men like sex and no one calls them whores. I hate that word; it’s so ugly. I’m into pleasure.” She is a whore for liking sex. The prostitute is a whore for taking control of the sexual act by making it a transaction of her choosing and finding a way to benefit. Sister Jude is a whore for using sex as a tool to earn the respect of men. Lana and Wendy are whores because they’ve managed to find a way to have sexual pleasure without men entirely. From homosexuality to miscegenation to the misapplication of treatment for mental illness, the characters are all struggling within or without social mores.

We’re also no closer to grasping the true identity of Bloody Face; having seen this mysterious ghoul in the ‘present’ timeline where colors are hypersaturated, the vivid blue eyes as the only identifying feature are a bit misleading. Bloody Face has blonde-ish hair in the 1964 scene with Wendy, but as s/he is wearing another’s face as a mask it’s entirely possible that the hair belongs to someone else as well. Or maybe it’s the demon that now seems to reside in Sister Mary Eunice. Plus we still don’t know anything about the creatures living in the woods, creatures that Sister Mary Eunice notes are growing more violent as time passes. Still, all our information is unreliable; there’s no concrete way to track the order of events or whether we are being shown a perception or a reality.

 

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