American Horror Story: Asylum Watch: Episode 1 - Welcome to Briarcliff

Does anyone remember 2011? That’s the last time American Horror Story was on TV. I talk tons of shit about series that pump out the normal American excess of twenty episodes or more a season, but at least those shows don’t ask fans to wait ten fricking months in between. But I’m taking a lesson from Tupac, AHS. I ain’t mad at cha. I embrace your return, and am ever so thankful that this season’s premiere dwarfed last season’s pilot in almost every way. Maybe it’s because my expectations were fully formed this go around. Whatever the reason, it’s good to have horror on TV without any vampires or Dexter’s ghost dad to deal with. Welcome to Asylum. We hope you despise your stay.

”All monsters are human.”

These words, spoken with conviction by Jessica Lange’s spicier-than-ghost-peppers Sister Jude, seem to antithesize the actual goings-on in and around Briarcliff Manor, a notorious tuberculosis ward turned insane asylum. It was the setting for 46,000 deaths between its opening in 1908 and the Catholic Church buyout in 1962, when It gained its “No Way Out” reputation. This is exactly the kind of multi-layered setting one would assume Murphy and Falchuk would explore after taking on the haunted house sub-genre in the first season. It’s huge, full of dark corners, and is able to house an enormous cast of characters.

Before getting to the central 1964 timeline, we follow sex-crazed newlyweds Leo (Adam Levine) and Teresa (Jenna Dewan) on the twelfth and last stop of their Haunted Honeymoon Tour, self-perpetuated because “Mommy is a horror freak.” Sexually repressed nuns and nymphomaniacs can wait. This couple wants to sex up all of the decrepitude of this seemingly abandoned asylum, complete with creepy religious paraphernalia strung up outside. Some sex talk and sexy pictures later, and Leo straps Teresa down, faking electro-shock therapy before they get down to the kind of business where “Ready for your injection?” reads as erotic dialogue. They’re stopped by a noise, perhaps the unspectacularly-named Bloody Face, coming from behind a heavy door with a slide window. Using his cell phone’s video camera, Leo sticks his hand through the window and records the darkness, all while Teresa starts going down on him. Of course, a boogey monster quickly appears and rips his arm off almost at the shoulder, turning him into a screaming bloody mess. Teresa hysterically runs around trying to find an exit that may lead to help. Smash to the jump-cut clue-filled opening credits, crammed with religious statues, nuns riding patients, and crab-walking up staircases.

”Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin.”

Flashback to 1964. Kit Walker (Evan Peters), a gas station attendant, arrives home after work for some tighty-whitey tossing coitus with his wife Alma (Britne Oldford). Due to it being bi-racial, I assume, their marriage is kept secret from their parents. Afterward, as Alma makes Kit’s dinner, radio static and blinding lights take over the room. Temporarily assuming it’s harassment, Kit finds his theory disproved by the loud crashes and destruction of everything in the house just before he and a few other items are sucked up to the ceiling. Tractor beam, you say? Apparently so, as proven by flashy snippets of Kit strapped down in a white room while skinny green things push into his backside. This is the point when millions of Americans’ trust wavered as they arched an eyebrow and screamed, “Seriously?!?” The truth is out there, people.

Finally, we get to Briarcliff proper, as reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) arrives under the guise of writing about the asylum’s bakery, made semi-famous from Sister Jude’s molasses bread. Let’s meet some characters here. Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) takes Lana to Sister Jude, though not before running into the scary, baby killing, buck-toothed “lady” that I’ll refer to has Hairy Krishna. (She shows up in the “This Season On…” previews, so I hope she’s one of the regulars.) Jude is playing barber to Shelley (Chloe Sevigny), the resident nymphomaniac. Jude is a no-nonsense nun, guided by her three “P”s: productivity, prayer, and purification. She stands behind the visionary leadership of Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes), and rails against the science-based treatments of Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), who will most assuredly become a mad scientist by the time this is done. Trepanation with your coffee, anyone?

Lana’s real intentions are soon discovered, as she is overly interested in the arrival of the previously mentioned Bloody Face, accused of skinning his victims and making masks from the skin. Turns out, this maniac is Kit Walker, though he professes his innocence over and over, even as he’s whipped. (I wonder who these other victims are.) After being in the general population of the asylum for all of two minutes, Kit gets hit on by Shelley and gets hit in the face by someone else, a fight that gets him thrown into a straitjacket in solitary. A kind soul, Grace (Lizzie Brocheré), brings him a plate of food and allows him a drag of her cigarette. She’s accused of chopping up her family, but she also claims innocence.

Dr. Arden becomes Kit’s reverse savior, taking him out of solitary confinement, only to strap him to another table, causing flashes of his abduction to flourish. Arden believes the devil resides in the brain, not in hell, and has shelves of jarred brains to prove it. He finds a solid bulge on the side of Kit’s neck, too hard to be a tumor. He cuts Kit open with a scalpel, as was done by his green captors, and finds a black insect looking thing that sprouts legs. It almost looked like a computer chip of some kind. Alien spyware?

Back in Lana’s world, she and her lesbian partner/elementary science teacher Wendy (Clea DuVall) talk theories and agree that Lana should go back to investigate the asylum further, which she does, in the dead of night. In what will certainly be one of this season’s mysteries, she stumbles upon Mary Eunice leaving two buckets of “food” out in the middle of the woods, near what’s referred to as the “death chute,” where all the TB victims of old were carted out. What kinds of creatures are out there? Mary Eunice moronically agrees to let Lana poke around for a few minutes, taking her where Kit was previously held. The hallway full of crazy male patients is no place for attractive women, as proven by Mary Eunice getting a face full of ejaculate from a particularly peppy inmate. Lana is then left alone, stumbling upon Shelley orally pleasing a male ward before hiding in an empty cell when Sister Jude walks the halls. Just when she feels safe again, Lana is grabbed by the neck and knocked unconscious.

She wakes up, you guessed it, strapped to a bed. Jude smugly tells Lana of her visit to Wendy, where Jude casually threatens to reveal their relationship to the world, thus ruining Wendy’s teaching career. (Because gay people are stupid? I can’t quite figure out why anything but a gay P.E. teacher would bother these people, even in 1964, but I’m naïve that way.) In a corner, Wendy agrees to sign the papers admitting Lana into Briarcliff, inevitably sealing her fate.

Sister Jude will definitely become a much more hated, and possibly celebrated, character than Constance was from the first season. (Keep that Emmy shelf dusted, Ms. Lange.) She presents herself as the epitome of righteousness and piety, but can’t stop herself from sexually fantasizing about Monsignor Howard as they sit at a dinner she gussies herself up for. Howard’s devotion to climbing the Catholic Church ranks, with Jude as his right hand woman, is what sets Jude off, picturing herself popping her habit off and getting rowdy. She is definitely power hungry, but it’s good to see she has weaknesses. Perhaps her swearing off alcohol will come back to sluice her later. Drunk, horny, and full of blarney.

But despite her frigid persona, Jude apparently isn’t all brimstone and physical admonishment. Though she is adamant in scolding Mary Eunice for allowing Lana onto the property, she is just as adamant about convincing Mary Eunice it was a mistake, and not a mark against her intelligence. Jude dismisses the whips that Mary Eunice pulls out for her spanking. (An instance of female assery, in a series dominated by male assery.)

She shares no such sympathy for Dr. Arden however, plainly accusing him of the mishandling of four patients, all without family, who died under his supervision. “All that have died are alone in life,” is his cryptic response. Near the end of the episode, she finds him in a cell, scrubbing the walls down with disinfectant. Jude is disgusted by the smell, asserting that something had to have been living in there, to which Arden claims the room had been unused for years. So why would an unused room need cleaning? Perhaps he needs the sterilization for the experiments he’ll be performing in the room later. Thanks to a quick flip into the present, where Leo lies on the floor bleeding out, we realize that he was reaching into the same room Arden was scrubbing.

The very end of the episode finds Teresa, still dashing around like a crazy bitch, running into the “real” Bloody Face, whose face is indeed bloody and made of other people’s skin. Let me talk this out. There is an actual Bloody Face, who probably isn’t Kit Walker (which I didn’t believe anyway), that was possibly around before this show’s events started while having nothing to do with the asylum, and is also around almost fifty years later. Is it a legend that inspired someone to make it real, or something supernatural? This doesn’t seem like something Arden would purposefully have any part of, but maybe it was a medical mistake of some kind. Not the actual sewn –up skin mask, but the undying lunatic part.

While I had, and still have, some reservations about this season, since religious exorcism horror really doesn’t do anything for me, I can’t think of anyone better than Murphy and Falchuk to freshen up a staled staple of the genre. Too bad Friedkin already did the whole crucifix masturbation thing. Murphy will probably have someone using a full-sized cross. Drop your theories below and join me next week. It’s gonna be a great autumn on FX.

The Inane Asylum

I truly expected the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby,” as sung by Kip, to be some kind of clue. I guess it was, if being skinned and murdered is what happens when someone’s baby “goes.”

“You can shave me bald as a cue ball and I’ll still be the hottest tamale in this joint.” It doesn’t take a lot of confidence to feel more attractive than rabid, muttering lunatics, but it helps.

I hope “Sister Jude’s Molasses Bread” becomes a tie-in product, because damn that sounds good.

Best thing about eating while wearing a straitjacket? All that money saved on utensils.

“Did her dark meat slide off the bone easier than your other victims?” Even as a nun, a Jessica Lange character can’t help but be a little racist.

A small moment in TV and movies that I absolutely hate is when a character lights something, in Wendy’s case a joint, and then immediately puts it out. Such a waste. How good was the weed in 1964 anyway?

The strap budget on this show must be extraordinary. Perhaps next week, someone will stumble into the asylum’s underground strap factory.

Arden’s “Cleanliness is right next to godliness” line was as perfect as it could be. And his story about the ferret was a winner as well. I love James Cromwell. Maybe his wife will end up being Frances Conroy, and a Six Feet Under reunion will happen. Hey Michael C. Hall, I didn’t really mean that Dexter crack earlier. Really!

“I’ll always win against the patriarchal male.”

“Bully for you.”

The sexual tension between Jude and Arden is denser than a dead star, am I right? No?

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.