AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM Episode Recap: “Welcome to Briarcliff”

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Hit horror anthology American Horror Story: Asylum is finally back on TV!  The Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk creation won over audiences and critics alike in its first season, but now the creators, cast and crew are back for another go-round.  The second season takes place in the titular Briarcliff Asylum in Massachusetts.  The first episode revealed that, though the location is the same, we may be in for a bit of time jumping. No scenes with season one standouts Zachary Quinto or Frances Conroy on tonight’s episode, but we did get a heaping helping of Jessica Lange, Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson and Lily Rabe, along with show newcomers Adam Levine, Jenna Dewan-Tatum, James Cromwell, Joseph Fiennes, Chloe Sevigny, Lizzie Brochere and even Clea Duvall! Hit the jump for the recap of the premiere episode, “Welcome to Briarcliff!”

[You have entered spoiler territory.  Turn back now or commit yourself to the insanity.]

Adam-Levine-Leo-American-Horror-Story-AsylumWhere to begin…how about the beginning?  We’ll do a quick summary and then get into the dirty details: Asylum opens with amorous honeymooners Leo (Levine) and Teresa (Dewan-Tatum) photographing and exploring the ruins of present day Briarcliff Asylum.  Distracted by his lover, Leo gets his arm torn off by something lurking in the depths of a dark room.  Meanwhile, back in 1964, gas is expensive at $0.30 a gallon and Kit (Peters) is a good-natured gas station attendant with racist friends.  Wouldn’t be a big deal if Kit’s wife, Alma (Britne Oldford) wasn’t black…or abducted by aliens.  The latter incident led to Kit being transferred to Briarcliff, suspected of being the Bloody Face serial killer after his wife was found cut to pieces. Reporter Lana Winters (Paulson) comes to Briarcliff to get a peek at Bloody Face under the guise of reporting on Sister Jude’s (Lange) renowned bakery.  Sister Jude is at odds with everyone at Briarcliff: the patients; her underling, Sister Eunice (Rabe) and especially Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell).  The latter happens to be the creepiest mad scientist since Dr. Frankenstein and probably a lot more dangerous as numerous patients have disappeared during his watch.  Lana stumbles across some of them on the Asylum grounds and later wakes up strapped to a prison bed with a stability halo screwed into her skull.  Then, back in the present, Teresa runs around like a crazy person as she tries to get help for Leo, but runs smack into Bloody Face himself! Phew!

Crazy, huh? That was a lot to cram into one episode, even if it was the opener.  While I hope they slow down the pacing a bit over the coming episodes in order to explore some more of these themes, which we’ll get to in a minute, I did appreciate the fan service.  I mean, let’s count them off: sex scenes, blood and guts, aliens, mad scientists, randy and masochistic nuns, inhuman creatures feeding off of…other humans? And frickin’ aliens?!

All right, let’s get into a character discussion here since we’ve been introduced to a lot of them.  One of the interesting things about American Horror Story: Asylum is that you can compare an actor’s previous role to the current one.  In the case of Lange, her sense of authority still rings true, it’s just that when she used it in season one with her Southern belle drawl, it was mostly directed at her family (until she dominated the Harmon family later on); in Asylum, her authority is even colder (and accompanied by a harsh New Englander accent) and directed at everyone…even her superior! Only one person seems able to melt that icy exterior, but more on that when we get to sexy talk.

Peters spent the first season as an incredibly guilty ghost playing the innocent mortal; this time, the poor kid is innocent (we presume) and is paying for season one’s sins.  Paulson gets a lot more screen presence this time around; she drifted in towards the end of season one as a medium but seems to be a major player in season two.  The fact that her character is a lesbian (opposite Clea Duvall’s Wendy) speaks to one of the themes of homosexuality that was present in season one as well, though Asylum has much more of an air of intolerance built around it due to the time period. Rabe, what are you doing, girl? You spent season one with a hole in your head crying over your lost baby and now you’re cowering in front of Sister Jude like a whipped dog, but asking for a bigger cane for her to whack you with? I can’t deal with your crazy right now.

Jenna-Dewan-Tatum-Teresa-American-Horror-Story-AsylumNewcomers! Levine and Dewan-Tatum serve to give us flash-forwards into our present time and inform us that Bloody Face still haunts the grounds; not sure how much longer they’ll be around.  Cromwell’s mad doctor might be my new favorite character this season.  The man doesn’t care.  Sister Jude threw her opposition to his existence in his face and he just went and Clockwork Orange’d Kit in his laboratory.  Dying to see what kind of critters he has living in the woods.  Fiennes has an interesting role as Father Timothy Howard and, though we didn’t see much of him tonight, his relationship with Sister Jude bears keeping an eye on.

The patients! Ah, the patients. Our first introduction is to Pepper, a creepy looking individual who hands Lana a white rose (complete with thorns) and asks to play.  Sister Eunice warns that Pepper drowned her sister’s baby and cut her ears off.  Here’s hoping we see more of Pepper (played by the lovely Naomi Grossman under all those prosthetics). Her character reminds me of Jamie Brewer’s Adelaide from season one, who I miss terribly. Then there’s Spivey (Mark Consuelos), the degenerate bully who antagonizes Kit and throws feces at Lana (Look at the blood! ~Silence of the Lambs…close enough).  Then we’ve got the nymphomaniac, Shelley (Sevigny) who we’re introduced to while having her head shaved by Sister Jude in an attempt to quench her lusty desires (tell that to the orderlies).  Penultimately, we have Grace (Brochere) or Frenchie as I nicknamed her until she revealed her name.  Frenchie’s been nothing but helpful to Kit since he landed in the nutter; that can only mean bad, bad things on this show.  Last, but certainly not least is the serial killer, Bloody Face, who cuts off his victim’s faces and wears them as a mask.  Honestly, not as creeped out by Bloody Face as Rubber Man (or, The Gimp), but I’ll roll with it for now.  Any thoughts as to who it might be?

SEX! (Just kidding, not yet.) As wackadoo as American Horror Story is, they do often raise interesting themes.  Racism was touched on tonight, first by Kit’s supposed friends calling his wife a maid, then the discussion between the two of them to tell their families about the marriage and finally by Sister Jude’s bigoted words.  Whether Alma is a recurring character in Kit’s flashbacks remains to be seen.  Tonight’s episode talked a bit more about intolerance towards homosexuality, or “inversion” as Sister Jude so eloquently put it.  Not only was it cause for secrecy from the outside world in Lana and Wendy’s own home, but it wasn’t something they could talk freely about in their professional lives, lest Wendy be fired from her teaching position and Lana be relegated even further down the totem pole at the paper.  As Sister Jude used this fact as both a bargaining chip to keep Wendy quiet and sign Lana’s rights over to Briarcliff and told Lana they’d keep her there until they “cured” her, homophobia was the overarching theme for tonight’s episode in my mind.  That and aliens…

There was also a lot of God talk, which makes sense for a religious asylum.  There’s disagreement between Sister Jude and Father Timothy, that’s for sure, but at least they both seem to be somewhat on the same page.  As a stand-in for the seemingly unbreachable wall between religion in science are Sister Jude and Dr. Arden.  Neither one gets the upper hand in any of their arguments, but neither will either of them admit defeat.  Sister Jude seems stern and old-fashioned, but well-intentioned at least within her belief system.  Arden is off the rails, though in his own mind he’s as well-intentioned as the good Sister, just using science as a vector instead of religion.  Can’t wait to see more of these two.  As for the question of sanity, I believe this is about as sane as any of these characters will be from here on out.

Lily-Rabe-Sister-Eunice-American-Horror-Story-AsylumSEX! For real this time! Let’s get to it: Teresa and Leo start off with a bang (or a serious case of blue balls for poor Leo). Apparently the scary stuff does it for Teresa as they start to make out within the walls of Briarcliff, only to go for broke on top of an examination table.  Points for striving for realistic sex here, but the licking of your fingers did not go unnoticed, Mr. Levine! Moving on…when Teresa pulls up short after seeing something in the Asylum, she convinces Leo to go check it out.  (One of my favorite quotes because of its absurdity: “You could totally put it in my ass right now,” says Teresa as they run down the hall. You’re a lucky man, Mr. Channing Tatum.)  Although I’m sure Leo is enjoying the blow job as he’s groping around in a dark room, having his arm ripped off is not nearly so pleasant.  Remember kids, no blowies in the abandoned insane asylum!

A sweeter sex scene was had by Mr. and Mrs. Walker, as appropriate for their time period as Leo and Teresa’s was for ours.  Unfortunately, the aliens put the kibosh on any future love-making and turned to, presumably, all sorts of probing.  Oh, and putting cryptic metal spider thingies inside Kit’s neck.  If this season turns out to be an alien mind-game, I’ma be pissed…maybe. Okay, back to sex.  It seems that not all is what it appears with Sister Jude, as her cold exterior and icy demeanor melts away whilst cooking Coq Au Vin, donning red lingerie and daubing a bit of perfume on herself before covering up in her habit again.  (Lord have mercy, I got the vapors!)  What, or rather, who, could all of this be for? None other than Father Howard.  That Sister Jude is a rambunctious sort! (New England just doesn’t have great repeatable phrases like the South.  If you know any, fill me in!)  One last mildly erotic scene occurs between the masochistic Sister Eunice and the reluctant Sister Jude.  Not sure where that one’s going…

On a technical note, I would like to say that I’m glad they kept a similar opening theme for the second season with a little bit of Asylum flavor thrown in.  The sequence of images doesn’t creep me out as much as season one did, but I dig it just the same.  Some of the camera work in this episode was interesting, but sometimes in a distracting manner.  As Sister Jude says to Lana, “I see exactly who you are!” she points right to the camera, essentially at the viewer.  I thought this worked to great effect, calling us out as voyeurs.  Unfortunately, the first person perspective was a bit overused throughout the rest of the episode, notably when Kit and Spivey fight in the ward.

Well, I think that’s everything for this week folks.  Be sure to leave your comments below and stir up some discussion.  Commit yourself to tuning in next Wednesday night for our continued recaps of FX’s American Horror Story: Asylum. 

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