American Horror Story, S2E1: Welcome to Briarcliff
Original Airdate: October 17, 2012
Recap by Sarabeth Pollock
It’s back, everyone. The show that made rubber fetish suits de riguer last year has returned with a brand new concept and a not-so-brand-new cast. There are new faces, but several cast members have returned in new, even creepier roles. Let’s dive right in, shall we?
The story begins in the present day. Newlyweds Leo and Teresa are wandering through the woods. They’re surrounded by creepiness: disjointed dolls, crosses made from twigs, remnants of stuff from some unknown place. Yes, it’s creepy. But that’s what these two are after. Leo and Teresa are on their honeymoon, but it’s not just any honeymoon. They’re on a haunted honeymoon tour. “Here comes the bride,” intones Leo, played with uncanny charisma by Adam Levine. He’s snapping pictures of his beautiful bride, who tells him that she’ll leave his ass if they’re not still banging each other at 80. Enough said. They crawl through a hole in the chain-link fence and come upon Briarcliff, a huge abandoned building in the middle of the creepy woods.
Teresa leads the way inside the building, explaining that Briarcliff was built in 1908 as a tuberculosis hospital. Over 46,000 people died there, their bodies carried out through an underground tunnel known as the “death chute.” The couple agrees that they should for sure do it in the death chute. The place is massive inside, with a great spiraling staircase that is now covered in dust and debris. Obviously it has been abandoned for many years, and vandals have spent their fair share of time wrecking things. Teresa continues with Briarcliff’s history, explaining that the Catholic Church bought the place in 1962, converting it into an asylum for the criminally insane. The most famous resident of the asylum was Bloody Face (as she tells the story, she poses for a picture in front of some graffiti celebrating Bloody Face).
As they explore, Teresa finds cast-off straightjackets lying about. Leo makes the big discovery, though. He finds an old exam table, presumably used during electric shock therapy, judging by the equipment in the room. Teresa wastes no time hopping up on the table, demanding to be tied down with the restraints. It would seem that this kinky couple has a fetish for doing it in haunted places. Just as Leo gets going (wink wink), Teresa hears a noise. Maybe it’s Bloody Face, she exclaims, and she takes off in the direction of the noise. Poor Leo follows, clearly not as interested in the noise as she is.
They come upon a door with an opening toward the bottom for food trays to pass through. It’s pitch black inside, and when Leo reaches around inside the hatch, he screams and pretends that something grabbed him. Ha ha. Leo realizes he can use the night vision app on his phone to film the room, so Teresa promises to blow him while he films. She’s on her knees and his arm is inside the room, and just when things get totally heated up, something flashes on the camera screen, and whatever it is really does grab Leo’s arm…only this time it rips his arm off.
Cue the creepy opening credits. (Has there ever been creepier opening credits on a tv show?)
We’re at a gas station. The man in his car accuses the attendant of price gouging…I mean, really…30 cents a gallon? What has the world come to? Meet Kit (formerly known as Tate on season one), who runs the gas station. He closes the shop and turns up the music. “There Goes My Baby” fills the empty service station as he counts down his drawer. The service bell rings, and then the power goes out. Kit goes to investigate, then he runs back inside to find his friends there. They came to borrow the gun that Kit keeps in the cabinet. Seems a black man was messing with their sister, and so they want to scare him off. (Fair warning—this is 1964 and the AHS writers have no problem getting edgy with the script) Billy taunts Kit about his new maid while eating a bar of chocolate. Kit remains calm, but this is hitting a nerve with him.
When Kit gets home, we discover the cause of his unease. He goes inside and puts his wedding ring back on his finger, going in search of Mrs. Walker. Mrs. Alma Walker is Kit’s new wife, and she’s also black. Kit bemoans the state of the world that won’t allow the happy couple to share the news of their nuptials with their families; while he wants to share the news, Alma knows that they have to be careful. This all has undertones in the present with gay marriage issues. Alma tells Kit that their marriage must stay a secret, and when she asks if he’s hungry (she has been cooking), he tells her that food isn’t what he’s hungry for. Kit and Alma come together. Their style of lovemaking is much different than Leo and Teresa. Kit is tender and passionate, and Alma returns his love and passion equally. Afterward, as they listen to Chad and Jeremy’s “Summer Song,” Alma gets up to finish dinner while Kit smokes a cigarette. Then the radio skips and the lights flicker. There’s a light outside, and Kit grabs his shotgun, convinced that Billy and the other guys have come after him. He tells Alma to stay inside, and as he runs into the yard yelling for Billy, a light shines down upon him. It’s blinding. He runs inside and can’t find Alma. The lights shine through the house, and then a horrible noise debilitates him. Kit falls to the floor, hands over his ears, and then the noise stops. Suddenly a pencil and a lampshade float to the ceiling, and Kit soon follows, then he is slammed to the ground. The light continues, and he sees things but can’t make them out. I don’t know about you…but all I could say was WTF?
At last we arrive at Briarcliff. A car pulls through the gates. Reporter Lana has come to interview Sister Jude about the bakery at Briarcliff. She gets out of her car, wearing high heels that don’t really work on the uneven cobblestone pathway, when she’s confronted by one of Briarcliff’s patients. The timid-looking girl offers Lana a rose and twirls around lightheartedly. Sister Eunice comes up and shoos the girl away. Lana tries to apologize for the girl, saying she was trying to be nice and make friends, but Sister Eunice says her concern is misplaced, and that patient has been accused of drowning her sister’s baby and cutting off its ears. Okay….
Sister Eunice takes Lana through the asylum to Sister Jude’s office, commenting on the stairway, which Sister Jude refers to as the “stairway to heaven.” All around them, however, things are less than angelic. The staff is trying to maintain order with some of the more unruly patients. The place is dark and almost sadistic. Lana’s eyes reflect her awe and horror.
They come into Sister Jude’s office unannounced. Sister Jude, played with gusto by Jessica Lange, is most unhappy at the interruption, as she is busy shaving Shelley the nymphomaniac’s head. Once Lana is alone with Sister Jude, Lana gets to experience the full force of Sister Jude’s powerful presence. She manages to insult Lana and her name in the first ten seconds of their meeting. Lana wants to talk about the bakery, whose products she uses every day. Sister Jude shifts her focus to the man who runs the asylum, Monsignor Timothy O’Hara, whose 3P’s (Productivity, Prayer and Purification) are the guiding principles of Briarcliff. She explains that not all of the patients are remanded by the state, which immediately makes you wonder who these other people are. Sister Eunice interrupts at that point to say that their newest inmate has arrived. Lana’s interest is piqued. Sister Jude sees right through her act. Lana isn’t there to see the bakery; she’s there to see the most infamous patient the place had ever seen up to that point: Bloody Face. Sister Jude dismisses Lana, saying that this man decapitated three women and cut them up, wearing their skin on his face like a mask. This isn’t the time for an interview.
Outside, the police car pulls up and the asylum staff stands on the stairs, waiting to see their new charge. The guards pull a heavily restrained man from the car…and we see that it’s Kit. Wait, Kit is Bloody Face? Ah, this is one of the first mysteries of the season.
Kit is stripped naked and hosed down, doused with de-lousing powder, and sedated before being strapped to his bed. When he awakens, Sister Jude is there. She apologizes for the odd reception. Kit insists that he didn’t kill anyone. The abject terror in his expression makes you want to believe him. But Sister Jude has heard this song and dance before. He has been brought to Briarcliff to repent. He tells her that he saw monsters, and she scoffs at his story about little green men. She calls him the monster. When she taunts him about killing his wife, asking if her “dark meat” slid off the bone easier, he spits in her face. This earns him a caning.
Kit is released into the common room. Here we meet some of Briarcliff’s residents. Shelley is fascinated by Kit and his whipped behind. She puts a claim on him in front of the other patients. Across the room, Sister Luc Gabriel sings the 1963 French hit “Dominique” (If you listen to it closely, it will get stuck in your head. As my sister will tell you, it doesn’t take much for things to get stuck in my head, and this particular song has been playing in my head for days. I might end up at Briarcliff myself…) Before he can turn the record off, a mysterious patient stops him, saying that if he turns it off, the other patients will be rewarded for ratting him out, and he’ll end up with more welts on his ass. There are rules for everything at Briarcliff, and that record must play every time they are in the common room. Kit can trust her, she says, because she’s not crazy. I, for one, believe her.
Kit’s conversation is interrupted when Spivey, another inmate and resident bully (played by Kelly Ripa’s husband Mark Consuelos), taunts him about being the most dangerous man in the whole place. A fight ensues when Spivey taunts him about his last victim, a Colored girl. He asks if he did it because he didn’t like her color. Clearly, this is a reference to Alma. Punches are thrown and the inmates joyfully watch the violence. Someone knocks into the record player and the song stops. Sister Jude comes in, flanked by burly orderlies. She blows a piercing whistle, which sends inmates scurrying out of her way. She calmly turns the record back on. Kit tries to say that Spivey started it, but she won’t hear it. One of the guards slams Kit in the head, knocking him out.
Now in solitary confinement, Kit has flashbacks of his last moments with Alma. A food tray slides under the door. It’s the mysterious girl. She tells him he needs to eat. She lights a cigarette and offers him a drag. She wants to help, she explains, because “what you put out into the world comes back to you.” Kit wonders what she put out to end up in such an abysmal place. They say she chopped up her family. She gives Kit permission to ask the unspoken question. Did she? “No,” she says. “Did you murder your wife?” Kit says no, and that he’s not crazy. She says it’s unfortunate, because if he’s sane he’ll end up in a worse place than Briarcliff. That seems a little unlikely, but she reminds him that he’ll be strapped into a different chair if he moves out of this place. There’s a noise down the hall. She has to go, but before she leaves, he asks for her name. It’s Grace.
Sister Eunice is cleaning up the common room when Sister Jude comes in. Sister Eunice is sobbing because Willie (a harmless looking old man who had been playing checkers) had been removed the night before for a medical emergency. This sends Sister Jude into a rage. No one told her this happened. He was taken directly to Dr. Arden’s wing. Looks like another mystery is on the way. Why does this make Sister Jude so angry?
Sister Jude storms into Dr. Arthur Arden’s wing. Arden, played by James Cromwell, is a stoic man who isn’t affected by Sister Jude’s imperious tone. He tells of a gentleman’s agreement between himself and the Monsignor that gave him access to the asylum. That’s odd, sneers Sister Jude, given that only one of them is a gentleman. She wants access into the labs. He changes the direction of the conversation, calling her attention to a plant he’s growing. He says it’s an alstromeria, but it’s one that has never been seen before. He created it by blasting it with gamma rays. Sister Jude doesn’t care about his mutations (remember this—I’m sure this is important!!) and demands that he work with her to ensure the smooth operation of the asylum. Four patients have gone missing under his care. They’re all dead, he tells her impassively. She wants to know where the bodies are. As he tells her they were cremated, we see shots of body parts being thrown into buckets. She continued her tirade, saying that she finds it odd that none of these patients have families. No one will ask questions about them. As she leaves, she gives him a warning. Now we see why Jessica Lange won an Emmy for this role. “I’ll always win against the patriarchal male,” she growls. “Bully for you,” Arden replies, slamming the door.
Lana is preparing dinner while Wendy smokes a joint at the table. She needs the pot, she says, to tolerate Lana’s cooking. Lana is worked up about her trip to Briarcliff, saying that this is important work compared to covering cooking contests. An interview with Bloody Face could get her somewhere. She could be in Look or Time. That Sister Jude was hiding something. She just needs to get to the bottom of it. Wendy gives Lana her blessing to pursue the article. As Lana leans in, Wendy points out that the blinds are open. Lana teases her that the pot has made her delusional, but Wendy reminds her that she’ll lose her job as a teacher if parents find out that their children’s teacher is a lesbian. It was enough of a fight to get evolution on the curriculum. Lana affirms her love for Wendy, and they share a kiss.
Back at the asylum, Sister Jude goes through her rosary, then we see her chopping onions. She’s cooking coq au vin, and while she’s cooking we see her applying perfume between her breasts. She’s dressed in red lingerie, which probably isn’t normal for a nun to wear under her habit. Then we see that she has cooked this meal for Monsignor O’Hara. Evidently she has feelings for him. He calls her a rare bird. Most nuns have renounced the sensory experience, but her cooking is incredibly…sensual. As they dine, she wants to know where he found Dr. Arden. When O’Hara put her in charge, it was to cure the people who did not have God in their lives. This was the cause of their madness. How, then, can they function with someone like Arden around? “He is not a man of God,” she says. O’Hara says that he was selected by people who know better than they do about dealing with these patients. But Sister Jude persists. “Your rare bird has a nose for rodents,” she tells him, her voice low.
Monsignor O’Hara has an appreciation for science, citing the advances in immunizations and the race to put a man on the moon. And within their own religion, Catholicism has been advanced by the work of the recently deceased JFK. This is a time when anything can happen. He takes her hand and tells her of his dream to take Briarcliff to a place of prominence, so much so that they will be asked to be the cardinals of New York. “We?” she asks. Well, she’d be the Reverend Mother, of course. But that’s enough. She’s his right hand, where he goes, she goes, and she lusts for him even though he doesn’t seem to see it. Her face lights up when he talks of his dreams. Eventually he wants to be the first Anglo-American Pope. He stares into her eyes. “You’d enjoy Rome, wouldn’t you, Sister?” he whispers. She unbuttons her blouse and pulls off her habit, letting her hair fall free. She straddles his lap and he welcomes her. But then they return to reality. That was all in her head. Monsignor O’Hara says that they’re all a team, and she needs to maintain oversight over her domain.
Outside, Sister Eunice carries a flashlight and two buckets full of flesh. Flash to a conversation she has with Dr. Arden, who comments that the weather is getting colder, and “they” will want some meat. Who are they? We don’t know. All I do know is that they’re probably really scary little f**kers who will give me nightmares. But they are hungry, so it’s Sister Eunice’s job to feed them. Dr. Arden asks if she trusts him, and she seems to, though he clearly terrifies her. She walks through the woods until she gets to a clearing. She can hear them in the woods, and it isn’t long before she loses her nerve and quickly sets the bucket down before retreating.
She doesn’t get far, though. Lana is out in the woods, too, unaware of whatever horrors are lurking. Oddly, Sister Eunice is more afraid of Lana ratting her out to Sister Jude. They can’t stay there. They have to go.
Inside, Kit tries to eat his food, having to eat like an animal because he’s still in a straightjacket and the plate is on the floor. There is a bright light, and Kit immediately pulls away, thinking it’s the…aliens? But no, it’s Dr. Arden, who tells him that he doesn’t belong here. There is so much they can learn together. Then he drugs him.
Back in the present, Teresa ties off Leo’s arm. They need to get the hell out of there, but Leo has lost too much blood. He can’t move. And of course he lost his phone—it’s in the other room with the rest of his arm. And the nearest town is five miles away. (Think about that the next time you get the idea in your head to go to a remote haunted asylum to have sex on your honeymoon!) She makes a run through the house, intending to get out to get the car, but now she realizes that she’s trapped inside. She is actually running straight down the death chute…
…And Sister Eunice and Lana are using the same tunnel to sneak back into the asylum. Lana wants to know why Sister Jude scares her so much. If Sister Eunice can give her five minutes, she won’t tell a soul what she saw.
In a dark wing of the asylum, Dr. Arden wheels Kit under a lamp. Kit is drugged and restrained. He struggles as Dr. Arden introduces himself as the man who runs the institution. “I thought Sister Jude ran the institution,” Kit manages. “So does she,” Arden deadpans.
Sister Jude is inspecting the hallways in one wing while Lana and Sister Eunice sneak through an empty corridor. Lana wants to see Bloody Face.
Dr. Arden’s voice comes through as he talks about how Sister Jude could have him castrated for his ideas, but this isn’t the Middle Ages and times are changing. This is a time of science.
Lana and Sister Eunice end up in the men’s ward, where they are taunted by the inmates. Spivey throws some kind of bodily fluid at Sister Eunice (I’ll leave it up to your fertile imaginations as to what it was…), and she runs, terrified, leaving Lana alone.
Dr. Arden tells Kit that he won’t be using anesthesia, as it interferes with his readings.
Lana walks through the ward and finds an orderly who says she shouldn’t be there, but she caught him in the middle of a sex act with Shelley, so he’s not going to report her if she doesn’t report him. Lana expresses condolences for Shelley’s hair and asks where the monster is. “Which one?” Shelley asks. Kit was taken to solitary confinement.
Sister Jude is on her rounds (“get your hands out of your pants,” she warns one inmate). Lana hides from her in one of the cells.
Dr. Arden tells Kit that the devil doesn’t reside inside Kit’s head. Dr. Arden wants to discover the dark secrets in Kit’s head. He hooks him up to machines and flashes lights in his eyes while he is restrained. Kit flashes back to the experience he had back at the house. He sees Alma, who screams for him to help her. While he’s having flashbacks, Dr. Arden reads the police report that explains how the bodies were found. They were skinned alive, starting at the feet. Kit flashes back to some kind of alien encounter. Was he abducted? Meanwhile, Arden isn’t placing blame. He’s more interested in “methodology.” Okay, this guy is sick…. He feels a lump on Kit’s throat. After cutting his neck open, he pulls out a metal shard.
Lana, in her quest to find Kit, peers through the food slots. Something grabs her and she’s knocked out.
Once she realizes what happened with Lana, Sister Jude takes her anger out on Sister Eunice, but she stops short of whipping her, even though that’s what Sister Eunice seems to think is the appropriate punishment for her impertinence. She put everything at risk, Sister Jude yells, even though she had taken Sister Eunice under her wing when everyone else thought she was stupid. Sister Jude doesn’t want her to ever call herself stupid again.
Lana wakes up, her head restrained. Sister Jude says she had a fall, but Lana knows better. But she’s safe now. She can receive treatment. We flash to a meeting between Wendy and Sister Jude, where Sister Jude basically threatens to expose Wendy as a lesbian if she doesn’t sign papers committing Lana to Briarcliff. Though she doesn’t want to do it, Wendy acquiesces. Lana is horrified. She is now a patient at Briarcliff, where she’ll be treated and cured of her lesbianism. “We’re gonna slay that monster together…we’re going to get you cured.”
Sister Eunice has stolen keys to Arden’s wing. Sister Jude finds Arden cleaning an old wing. He claims he is disinfecting the room, but Sister Jude realizes that something was living there. There are claw marks on the walls. Arden threatens her, using a story about his pet ferret. Sister Jude doesn’t back down. “You may think my mind is closed, Doctor, but my eyes are wide open.”
Back in the present, Leo lies helpless as Teresa tries to find an escape. But something, or someone, gets in her way. She screams.
So ends Episode One.
The best part about American Horror Story: Asylum is the plethora of themes that run through the show. I accumulated two pages of notes on themes alone from this episode (that might ultimately arc through the whole season).
Obviously religion plays an integral role in the show. With religion comes values, understanding the nature of religion, and sex and religion. My guess is that the 7 deadly sins will play some role in the series, given that you have a prideful bully, a lustful nun and a nymphomaniac patient…the list will no doubt go on.
Jessica Lange does not disappoint as Sister Jude. She dominated as Constance in the first season of the show with her caustic wit, but clearly Sister Jude is a force to be reckoned with. She craves power, she’s wary of men, protective of women, and she has an incredible libido for a nun. (Yes, most of those have huge asterisks attached to them, because Sister Jude doesn’t function in a black and white world) When the Monsignor says that she’s his right hand, you can see the effect it has on her. But while she respects Monsignor O’Hara, she is frustrated that he supports the work of the mysterious Dr. Arden. Dr. Arden’s presence undermines her absolute authority at Briarcliff. I anticipate a power struggle between the two this season, and I expect nothing less than an all-out battle. This is, after all, a woman who has a closet full of whips and canes that would make Christian Grey envious. “I’ll always win against the patriarchal male,” she seethes. Yes, Sister Jude is ready for a fight. I only wonder how she came to be the way she is. I can’t imagine there are many nuns who prepare coq au vin and wear red lingerie under their habits.
I can’t wait to hear what you all thought of the first episode. What did you think of the show’s direction? Do you like it so far? Was it aliens or something else that attacked Kit? Is Kit Bloody Face?
I know I’m sleeping with the lights on tonight….see you next week!