If there’s one show that can successfully unnerve a viewer, it’s “American Horror Story.” With disparate tales told across multiple interconnected plot lines, every episode is crafted deliberately to unease and discomfort as many audience members as possible. No two seasons are alike. The second season, “American Horror Story: Asylum,” is perhaps the most ambitious yet, but also the most flawed.
“Asylum” focuses on a few main characters, telling their stories simultaneously. Plucky reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) is committed to Briarcliff Asylum by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), a corrupt nun who, alongside associates Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) and Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), oversee the facility. Almost all the doctors and nuns display depraved levels of mistreatment and malfeasance toward their patients; Briarcliff is not a sunny place to reside in. Lana’s admittance was an act of both ignorance and deliberation. She chooses to investigate the facility but is ultimately held against her will.
In addition, there’s a serial killer nicknamed Bloody Face (Dylan McDermott) there, a psychiatrist named Dr. Thredson (Zachary Quinto), and many supporting characters.
Almost all of the primary characters are exceptionally stereotyped, but that doesn’t detract from their realism. Lana, being a reporter, is headstrong and determined to uncover truth at any cost. Sister Jude is wicked and abusive, but believes she’s acting with the will of God. Dr. Arden is a mad scientist, reserving patients purely to experiment on so that he can further the field of medicine overall. Sister Mary Eunice is naive and bubbly, which makes her the most exploitable. The mish-mash of character arcs and plot threads that fuse as a result of these many stereotypes make for some interesting interactions. Unique characterization is something “American Horror Story” has always done well, but unfortunately that doesn’t extend to other aspects of the season.
The overall story needs improvement. The writers provide far too much foreshadowing. The point of a plot twist is to unbalance the viewer by contradicting their expectations. Here the writing feels predictable and lazy.
While “Asylum” commits plenty of sins, there are several redeeming aspects. The camera work is ingenious; it rarely feels steady and constantly shifts between perspectives so that the viewer lacks a clear angle on every scene. This subtlety creates a feeling of unease, as the lack of focus keeps viewers on edge subconsciously. Additionally, every actor turns in a fantastic performance, with Zachary Quinto, Jessica Lange, and James Cromwell being the highlights. Cromwell in particular is unfathomably intimidating; his mannerisms alone add oodles of tension and gravity.
It was particularly clever of the writers to cast several characters in “Asylum” that contradict characters from the previous season. For example, Zachary Quinto plays a homosexual in the first season, and in “Asylum” his psychiatry studies focus on “curing” homosexuality. The dichotomy feels very natural, and is an excellent layer of subtext that underscores the overall theme of the show nicely.
Despite what it has going for it, “American Horror Story: Asylum” is underdeveloped. While the characters are interesting, not enough are fully developed. The plot has some complex and intriguing moments, but its looseness defeats the tension it’s supposed to create. While the idea of an asylum full of maniacs, mad doctors, corrupt saints and guilty innocents is compelling, the lack of focus makes everything blur together.
You could argue that the plot lines don’t matter as much as the scare-factor. However, it’s difficult to feel scared when all you can think about is how poorly everything is displayed. It’s disappointing, then, to see so much potential squandered with too many open plot threads and bad scenes, and too few compelling moments. Viewers seeking an unsettling story with gruesome imagery and disturbing ideas will likely enjoy “Asylum,” but trying to find anything greater is a losing prospect.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.