Be aware there are spoilers for the American Horror Story: Apocalypse premiere, ‘The End’.
Beneath the baroque aesthetics and Grand Guignol displays, American Horror Story has always pressed on the raw nerves real-life horrors of life in America. Murder House addressed school shootings, Coven hinged on a hideous act of on-campus sexual violence, and last year’s politically-fueled Cult put the real world parallels front and center with a Trumpian horror story about the rise of political discord and rage-fueled populists. With the freshly debuted eighth season, Apocalypse, American Horror Story continues in that hyper-topical vein by tapping into our growing paranoia that the end of everything might be extremely nigh. Unfortunately, it falters out of the gate with a mixed bag premiere that fails to conjure any real terror despite the all-to-real inspirations, nor does it brew much intrigue, despite the promise of the much anticipated Murder House–Coven crossover. Still, American Horror Story is ever the aesthetic treat, and boy is it funny — in fact, early on, Apocalypse seems to be all about the camp humor and it’s some of the best we’ve seen from the series yet.
The premiere opens on a sunny day in modern day Los Angeles, where wannabe influencer and billionaire socialite Coco (Leslie Grossman) is getting new ‘do from her flamboyant hair dresser Mr. Gallant (Evan Peter) and being force-fed cold-pressed juice by her personal assistant Mallory (Billie Lourd). It’s another day in paradise until their phones sound off sirens in unison with inbound ballistic warnings. “It’s bullshit. It’s a hoax,” Coco says. “It’s going to be like that time in Hawaii, they’re going to text in like a minute with a retraction.” But it’s not like that time in Hawaii, and after a call from her powerful father, Coco winds up on board a private jet bound for safety, alongside Mallory, Mr. Gallant, and Mr. Gallant’s celeb grandmother (a deliciously nonchalant Joan Collins) just as a mushroom cloud erupts over LA. It’s the vision of a familiar nightmare in our modern age of nuclear terror — and in keeping, the wealthy elite just buy themselves a ticket to safety while the rest of the world burns.
Elsewhere, while Coco and her entourage are making their grand escape, a loving family is torn apart by the powers that be. Fresh on the heels of a UCLA acceptance letter celebration, Ambercrombie fresh-faced teenager Timmy (Kyle Allen) and his catalogue-cute suburban family draw together for one final embrace while they wait for the world to end when, suddenly, a mysterious government-esque group breaks down the door and pries Timmy from their loving grasp. His ideal DNA (discovered through an ancestry site) is the golden ticket to an underground bunker, but only him and he doesn’t get a say in whether or not he goes. While he waits out the blast, Timmy bonds with another captive youngster, Emily (Ash Santos), and the two are quickly shipped off to the real bunker, Outpost 3. This sustainable safe house lies underneath the foggy nuclear wasteland and it’s ruled over by the strict, high-collared and vaguely sinister Wilhemina Venable (Sarah Paulson), who serves on behalf of the oh-so-mysterious organization known as The Collective.
This is where we step into the true world of Apocalypse; dark and candle-lit habitat jazzed up with steampunk-meets-BDSM fashion and an eclectic set of inhabitants. Coco and her crew are there too, along with a few other familiar faces, each decked out to the nines in lavish, textured finery and increasingly frazzled maintenance. In classic Ryan Murphy fashion, the aesthetic is so strong it threatens to overpower the story — which, unfortunately, Apocalypse has very little of in the premiere. There’s ample humor running through the twisted thrills (“Stu is stew!” is an all-timer goofball joke in the series), but unfortunately Apocalypse gives us little more than crude plot and barebones character sketches.
In Outpost 3, you are either Purple or you are Grey. The Purples are the elites, either for their money (each spot in the bunker cost $100 million) or for their desired DNA (we don’t know what that DNA is), and the Greys are servants, regular folks who are “lucky” to serve in Outpost 3 rather than live outside its walls. Venable rules the fallout shelter with an iron fist — and with the help of her cruel right-hand-woman Miriam Mead (Kath Bates), she wields that fist efficiently, enforcing a set of strict rules. No going outside, naturally. But also, no “unauthorized copulation,” particularly cruel considering they’re a bunch of people trapped underground with nothing to do, and because Timmy and Emily can’t stop making eyes at each other. They also play ‘The Morning After’ over the loudspeaker 24-7, because they’re just those kinda sinister bitches.
The episode’s best moments arrive near the end, when new revelations tip the scales in much more interesting directions. Fore one, Venable and Mead truly are a twisted pair, power-hungry and off their leashes with no societal norms to check them, the duo inflict their cruelties because they can, and because they enjoy it. It gives them a tingle. It’s a mischievous wrinkle in the set-up, but an 18-month time jump later, the real thrill arrives in the form of Michael Langdon (Cody Fern), the grown up version of the Anti-Christ baby introduced in Murder House — the nanny-murdering spawn of Vivienne Harmon (Connie Britton) and Tate Langdon (Evan Peters, who’ll do double duty this season), raised by Constance Langdon (Jessica Lange). He’s got Vampire Lestat vibes and he comes in packing power and unlimited clearance on behalf of the Collective, assigned to determine who in the bunker’s beleaguered population is worth relocating to a less compromised facility.
Michael Langdon’s arrival is the spike of adrenaline that the Apocalypse premiere needed, a spark of story among all the tepid plot, but unfortunately it comes at the tail end, offering only a tantalizing glimpse at the Murder House-Coven mashup we’re all waiting for. The premiere certainly sets up a number of enticing mysteries, and brings the signature AHS spin to a familiar subgenre (though the post-apocalypse feels a bit stale after the early-aughts glut), but unfortunately it never manages to set up any relationships or characters worth investing in. Who are we supposed to care about in this bunker? Or are they just banking on our investment in seeing the Harmons and the coven back in action?
Still, there’s a lot to like about Apocalypse among the stale bits. The humor kills, the cast is game, and Kathy Bates is absolutely slaying her neo-goth look. If Apocalypse can give us a sense of story (and quickly) to go with the pretty mystery box, they might be on to something special… otherwise, this pretty package is going to be all the more disappointing as a sequel to two of the series’ most beloved seasons. It’s the end of the world and American Horror Story is back with a bang, it’s just too early to tell if there’s any real structure worth sticking around for after the the shock and awe.
American Horror Story: Apocalypse airs Wednesday nights on FX.