Left unchecked, Ryan Murphy can wreak havoc on a show, and not necessarily in a good way. American Horror Story as a property in and of itself is a test of balance for Murphy, and Brad Falchuk seems to be there to tip the scale so that their shows run more cogently, so they think. Murphy’s extremism in sentimentality and camp is supposed to be checked by Falchuk’s seemingly egalitarian approach, which has felt more exertion in Asylum than it did in Murder House. That seems to come off in certain aesthetic and formal choices: “Spilt Milk” presents its shocker of a beginning with a transaction with a prostitute that specializes in a fetish involving breast milk. That button pushing concept sounds like a Murphyism, but the camera angles, ostensibly chosen by AHS veteran Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, but the focus and concentration on Johnny (returning cast mate Dylan McDermott) feels more like Falchuk wanting to reign in the weirdness with mapped out nuance.
It introduces a more Oedipal theme that’s run faintly through the season. The relationships between parental figures and their children is something Murphy and Falchuk have explored on Glee, and Murphy on Nip/Tuck, but there’s an odd twistedness in Asylum in its illustration of that dynamic that’s feels both intentional and unintentional. Dr. Thedson (Zachary Quinto) whispers menacingly to Kit (Evan Peters) about his acumen regarding the importance of loving a child, a sharp irony underlining his reading. I’d be lying if I didn’t think I saw a split second of footage where Quinto turned his head ever so slightly and winked at the camera.
Kit and Grace’s (Lizzy Brochere) relationship is built on trust in the metaphysical. Not only a fancy way of talking about how they both believe in aliens, but also the suggestion that Grace’s child is a chosen one. While the lack of subtlety on AHS has often been used to its advantage, specific moments like this, where the show invites you to trust Kit and Grace, to understand that their supposed “delusions” are realities to them, overplay its hand, drooping into a saccharine tone that feels alienating in comparison to the jauntily camp that the show succeeds so well at. It’s like Todd Haynes’ [SAFE], but tone deaf. They find a point of identification in one another’s otherness.
Judy (Jessica Lange), now ravaged by the dose of her own medicine, now has her fate left in the hands of Lana (Sarah Paulson), and is given the opportunity to leave by Mother Superior Claudia (Barbara Tarbuck). While AHS doesn’t peddle in subtlety, it does peddle in suspense. Recalling De Palma’s use of split screen, as Lana makes her way out of the Asylum, it feels surprisingly smooth in its tautness, devoid of the overcooked and overwrought decisions that the show often makes. The conciseness of this sequence, lasting no more than 45 seconds, is what allows it to inch near perfection.
But the confrontation between Lana and Dr. Thredson at his home seems to almost undo this episode high point. We sit back for an exposition dump, and some more material aimed to kick in our gag reflexes, and while it’s typical for AHS to disorient the viewer via camera angle switches in the most mundane of moments, that exact methodology seems like a misfire. It’s two people basically at a standoff: Lana dressed not unlike someone like Barbara Stanwyck, a small pistol in hand, the blue in her dress a mix of ostentatious and cool, fitting given her disposition in the scene; and Dr. Thredson, just ostentatious because Quinto hasn’t really been capable of playing Dr. Thredson as much else this season.
While Asylum is arguably AHS’s best effort, it still suffers from amateurishly floundering its dramaturgical elements inconsistently. On the one hand, Asylum has been rather impressive at misleading the viewer through composition and framing. The standoff between Lana and Dr. Thredson often points to really obvious employment of Chekov’s gun, or fireplace, or martini glass. At least in this episode, it doesn’t succumb to that kind of obviousness, but nor is it savvy in its eliding of convention. When the final deed is done, an air of superiority permeates the screen, the smugness not reading on Paulson’s face (she’s too good an actress for that), but on the remaining seconds on screen, ones that linger lasciviously on someone’s fallen body.
AHS’s greatest strength is its aestheticism, a gleeful “eff you” to conventional dramas and the new baseline label of “cinematic TV shows”. It is its own thing, and it seldom cares whether its pivots, fisheyes, jump cuts, split screens, etc. are necessarily appropriate to a given scene. Bully for them. Its tried and true weakness, in every episode without exception, is its dialogue. Not only is it often redundant and expository, the earnestness in its stupidity is grating when an actor reads it with the self-seriousness that oozes from every word. There’s one exception though. “It was the story. I was going to do anything to get that story. I just didn’t realize how much it was going to cost,” Lana says, looking over her dead lover’s memorial. There’s a duality in this line reading that not every actor in Murphy/Falchuk’s troupe is able to channel: on the one hand, Lana is earnest in her shock and sadness and trauma, on the other, there’s a sly self-awareness in Paulson’s tone of voice, the hint that she knows that every line is kind of ridiculous. That ability to toe the line is what makes Paulson such an invaluable player on the AHS team.
Lange, as impressive an actress as she is, only finds the duality in her performance intermittently. She’s either on one end of the spectrum of camp and earnestness or the other, vacillating between the two without embracing the two and melding them together. It often changes from episode to episode. In the confrontation with Monsignor Howard (Joseph Fiennes) is decidedly on the latter end. Not a bad thing, and in this case, it’s tipping it to that end of the scale works rather well.
Though, as aforementioned, AHS’s misdirections can be clever, the optimistic end notes for character arcs on this particular episode feel too easy, but in an obnoxious way. Rather than whet the audience’s appetite for What’s to Come, it’s more like hanging it over your head and then giving you a really hard noogie. It’s not so much the suspense of what will come in the final two episodes and more like a gloating, hour long episode.
There’s one thing that’s commendable: while Murder House felt like an experimentation in this format, Asylum exudes a confidence, and while it may carry the air of self-congratulation for its weirdness, it’s confidence all the same. They’ve reeled back from juggling a thousand storylines and arcs, and they’ve chosen to focus on a select few characters. Now, that feels like balance to me.