American Horror Story Season 2, Finale: ‘Madness Ends’

Well. It’s over. Are you OK? Are you going to be OK? Are we going to be OK? American Horror Story: Asylum has wrapped, and Shelley hasn’t been turned into an immortal legless fembot. We never got a close-up on the aliens. Satan Mary Eunice never ghosted herself back into Briarcliff to put her feet up on a desk and contemplate the roaring fire while wearing Nazi-stained jewelry. And almost everybody died. Yet this finale was palpably satisfying, like eating an entire pizza by yourself with no one watching.

Perhaps it was because it tied itself up in a big bow of feminist themes — the old guard, Sister Jude, expressing regrets over subverting her own ambitions and cranky (but not evil) sensibilities in favor of The Man, Monsignor Timothy’s; Lana’s non-retro-feminine steeliness and autonomy being what, in the end, served as her salvation. Or maybe it was the fact that, after 12 episodes spent in a world occupied by supernatural forces and hallucinatory dance sequences, it felt as though we were coming back to earth, back into the realm of fatal cancers and eBay artifacts that were more familiar than the fantastic wiggle dresses we wore in an imaginary romp through the 1960s. The fantasy only reached so far — in the end, deaths were permanent, and even the inexplicable was dealt with as though it were a fairy tale we were only half-expected to believe. I adjusted my expectations after watching Episode 1: This was an entirely different show than the first season, and I think it’s tough to create something so disparate and market it under the same title. This season was a success. It was crazy. It was fun. The finale was — fine! — sort of touching, even. I’m genuinely sad to wave good-bye as it trots off into the dusty hiatus. Farewell, weird show. Hurroo, hurroo. I hardly knew ye. But also I knew ye really well because, as I’ve mentioned, I basically wrote a freaking book of recaps on ye ass.

We open on Johnny Morgan (Dylan McDermott) breaking into modern Briarcliff four months ago. He’s listening to an audiobook of “Tales From Briarcliff,” written and narrated by his mother, Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), smoking serious drugs from his serious pipe and hallucinating the ghosts of asylum past: There’s Lana luxuriating in the hydrotherapy tub, telling Johnny that he “wasn’t conceived in love, but in hate” and that he never should’ve been born; there, on the stairs, is his father, Dr. Thredson (Zachary Quinto), lovingly telling him that he adored his child “even while [he was] still in [his] mother’s womb.” That is some potent word-colostrum for the love-starved child Lana gave up for adoption 48 years ago!

Johnny’s so high that Briarcliff is like a museum outfitted with ghosts and relics of his past, in which he’s mired himself so deeply that he seems to spend about a hundred percent of his time mentally incarcerated there. Leo (Adam Levine) and his new wife (Jenna Dewan-Tatum) enter, so we know we’re right back where we began, in the unfortunately dimly lighted music-video lesson of why not to use your iPhone to take pictures through a door slot in a haunted mental institution. This time, we see Johnny donning his Bloody Face mask before chopping off Leo’s arm from his homicidal maniac’s perspective, so we know that Leo’s urge to Instagram while getting a beej was what did him in. Johnny would’ve probably been content to just sit and stew and smoke crack or whatever’s in that pipe if he hadn’t been so rudely disturbed by the camera flash.

Modern-day Lana lives in a very nice apartment decorated with a zillion self-congratulatory portraits — including one drawn by a tipsy Bono on a cocktail napkin during a flight back from Somalia — and news clippings all over the walls. She’s preparing for an interview that will air during her Kennedy Center Honors gala. She’s earned herself a reputation for being the only woman men will open up to (ask her about that Madoff interview), and has six best sellers under her belt. She also has a super-hot opera singer girlfriend who brings her a glass of Chardonnay and dinner with Sondheim that evening.

Yes, Lana is living Oprah’s best life, though she’s gotten pretty vain in her advanced years and has a plastic surgeon in Paris and one hell of a dermatologist. From the outset, Lana refuses to talk about Bloody Face (a.k.a. Dr. Thredson) in the interview, comparing his household name status to a “Heath Ledger movie star villain.” As she grabs a mirror to do her own eyebrows (a lady always does her own eyebrows!), we see a reflection of 1970’s Lana with cat eyes and fabulous hair, which at first seems to be not a flashback but a clue that Lana thinks her plastic surgeon is a lot better than he or she actually is. Maybe it’s both: Lana forsook print for television (“the future”) and led a camera crew to Briarcliff after her escape to finally shame it, as she had long vowed to do. “It wasn’t justice that got me back into Briarcliff, it was ambition,” she tells her interviewer, but we knew that all along. Lana’s passion for social justice has always played second fiddle to her personal drive, which anchored her firmly in the space between antihero and hero.

The true martyr of Briarcliff — the only person whose flaws were strictly of the bad retro vests and dingusy mentality that you can have two spouses and zero problems — was Kit Walker (Evan Peters), but that doesn’t mean that Lana didn’t earn the right to be the kind of asshole who executes good deeds while still looking out for number one and monitoring the proto-smartphone contacts stored in her mind. She knew just what she was doing when she set out to film “Briarcliff Exposed With Lana Winters”: “Believe me, there is nothing more stimulating than crazy people, but you need more than that; you need an angle.” Raped, tortured, electroshocked, and subjected to eating cannibalistic croque monsieurs, Lana was more than happy to exploit her experiences at the asylum for instant fame and to help the cause, in that order.

Lana’s exposé was totally reminiscent of Geraldo Rivera’s investigations into Willowbrook State School, Willbowbrook: The Last Disgrace. It won Rivera a Peabody award, and the filthy conditions and patient abuse was referenced in “Briarcliff Exposed” by shots of an even more decrepit asylum than the one we left in 1967. Its deterioration is due to it being sold to the state of Massachusetts, which led to overcrowding and general chaos. Hello, man with oatmeal cascading out of his mouth. Bonjour, lady sitting next to a wall stained with feces. “But how can I describe to you the way it smells?” asks Lana, to which I respond loudly, “Don’t bother! I can see very clearly that it smells like oatmeal and doodoo.” Lana grabs an attendant and asks him why patients are being left unsupervised and chilling “smeared with their own feces.” There is no good answer for this, so Lana then demands to be escorted to Judy Martin (a.k.a. Sister Jude, a.k.a. Jessica Lange). We see Lana enter a dark cell to find Jude with bedhead, rocking and looking like she’s just watched Mama 50 times in a row; Lana escorts her out and finally drags a coherent “Lana Banana” out of her, but that was all a fantasy.

The reporter in Lana’s 2013 apartment says that she’s surprised she couldn’t remember that powerful scene from the exposé, and Lana admits that it didn’t happen. In fact, by the time Lana arrived at Briarcliff with the crew, Judy was long gone, so although she succeeded in shutting down the institution, it was “not the [ending she] wanted.” Duh! And when a duh hits, you gotta reach for a club soda. Johnny Morgan, who has infiltrated the crew, is happy to oblige. Lana doesn’t seem to recognize him (and why would she? She gave him up for adoption shortly after he was born), because she calls him a “doll” instead of a “psychopath.”

You know it’s a flashback when Carole King is playing, so here we are, in a flashback to the early ’70’s, with Lana knocking on Kit Walker’s door. He greets her, ecstatic that she’s succeeded in shutting down Briarcliff, but then sees that she’s got her film crew in tow. Lana wants to know who Betty Drake is and if she’s crashing at Kit’s hippie pad. We already know that Betty Drake is the name given to Sister Jude after Monsignor Timothy (Joseph Fiennes), et al., forged her death certificate, but Kit doesn’t want the camera crew to get this information quite yet. He ushers Lana inside, where she tells him that she got a hold of Betty’s file while revisiting Briarcliff, and her records state that she was released into Kit’s custody. Kit admits that he freed Jude shortly after attending Lana’s book signing, when it became clear that Lana was a self-centered person who was too busy brushing her hair to rescue the former nun. Kit was already a VIP at Briarcliff during his wife Alma’s stay, and after Alma’s death, he took to playing checkers with Jude and, what with the overcrowding and fecal wall ornaments, the guards didn’t really seem to mind if he took a patient off their hands.

He needed to forgive someone to put his Briarcliff ordeal behind him, so what better way to do it than adopting a 60-year-old woman who still kind of wanted to beat people with broomsticks and call them little shits? He nursed Jude through detox, had his children feed her carrot soup from the garden and weave flowers into her hair, and I think is somehow complicit in the kind of spinny-ceiling, Irreversible-esque camera work that made me feel like I had just lost a drinking game along with my will to live. After a bout of bad behavior (transitioning from being locked in solitary confinement is tough, y’all, and Jude still seemed to think that Kit was Bloody Face), Kit’s half-alien children brought Jude into the woods and magically restored her to kindness and sanity. How handy!

After her magical forest vacation, Jude teaches everyone to swing dance and becomes something of a nana figure to Kit’s offspring. Unfortunately, six months later she develops Fatal Nosebleed Disease and takes to her bed to impart solemn life lessons to the outer-space babies. She advises Kit’s daughter to never “let a man tell you who you are or make you feel like you are less than he is. It’s 1971 and you can do anything you want.” I guess this is because she squelched her good judgment in deference to Monsignor Timothy’s will for so long. To Kit’s son, she says, “Don’t pick your nose. And never take a job just for the money. Find something that you love. Do something important.” I guess the pay was really great for being a nun at Briarcliff. Psych! It totally wasn’t! This knowledge came out of a can. Either way, what a great way to send off Jessica Lange, who owned this season with an iron habit. It was moving! Fatal Nosebleed Disease is never not moving. In a martyrly last act, Jude rejects Kit’s offer of mushroom barley soup and summons the Angel of Death (Frances Conroy) for a dramatically shot kiss in sentimentalvision (you know: white four-post bed, black retractable wings, etc). Bam. That’s dignity.

Back in Lana’s Bono-art shrine, the taping continues. As her interviewer clicks her pen to life, Lana realizes aloud that they’ve reached the “hard-hitting part of the interview.” Apparently, after “Briarcliff Exposed,” Lana took on the controversial topic of Monsignor (now Cardinal) Timothy’s culpability in the crimes committed at Briarcliff. “Half of New York wanted to lynch me, and the other half would have had me banned from the state,” says Lana, which is weird because I never really got past Timothy Howard’s wet-noodle vibe. In a flashback, we see that Lana cornered Timothy with her crew after Easter mass and fired questions at him about “disturbing evidence” of Dr. Arden’s (James Cromwell) human experiments — and hey! Look! There’s a clip of Shelley (Chloë Sevigny), legless and covered with sores! I missed that stumpy lady!

Lana reminds Timothy that there’s no statute of limitations on murder, and that human bones dating back to his term in charge of operations at the facility had been found. Timothy, freaked, zooms away in his car and wishes her a happy Easter. Because Lana’s tenacious, and also because Timothy strangled Shelley with a rosary, he later killed himself by slitting his wrists in the tub. That’s a good way to kill yourself on film, I think: lots of drama but probably very relaxing in the moment. Lana tells her interviewer that Timothy “was so corrupt and deluded, he believed his own lies.” And since “lies are like scars on your soul,” and Lana’s concerned with her complexion, she decides to come clean about a lie she’s told for more than 40 years: Baby Bloody Face is alive, contrary to Lana’s claims in her book, and though she didn’t raise him, “someone did.” I wish we knew who, but we never find out. I guess they crammed kind of a lot into 13 episodes, so I can forgive this.

As Lana confesses to relinquishing her child in the hopes that someone could give him “the mothering he’d need,” Johnny Morgan listens from a fancy anteroom. At some point in the “mid-’70s,” Lana felt remorse for giving him up and, using her “skills as a sleuth, which are myriad, as we know,” showed up at Johnny’s school playground to get a glimpse of her son. She finds him being bullied by a kid who asks him in full Boston brogue, “Do you like dinosaurs? You want to suck a Brontosaurus dick?” No, that would be much too large a dick for a 6-year-old to suck, but thank you, friend, for inquiring. Lana scares off the aggressor and tenderly asks Johnny if he’s all right, stroking his cheek as assorted playground children look on and snicker. She has totally revealed herself to be his mother by being so embarrassing. She stopped short of wiping peanut butter off his face with a swipe of her thumb and some maternal spit, but she had made a careless error. That was, Lana explains, the last time she saw Johnny, who is still in hiding but now munching on an éclair and looking very glum. She admits to thinking about him often, particularly because she never had children due to societal scorn for her lesbian lifestyle. Luckily for Lana, Kit entrusted her as godmother to his two children, both of whom are accomplished enough (neurosurgeon, Harvard law professor) to boast about as if they were her own.

Kit remarried a pretty girl from his co-op, but other than a cheerful wedding montage, his story ends somewhat bleakly, with pancreatic cancer that metastasized when he was 40. It spread to his liver, and he spent his final (“peaceful”) months in hospice care before being called back to the spaceship by his alien fans, who swept him out of his wheelchair without affording us any opportunity to study their faces or mandibles. The role of the aliens has been strange in this season of American Horror Story — they remained a tease throughout the season, blasting their floodlights onto any scene that required a deus ex machina but never really occupying the foreground of the plot. It almost seems as though the aliens were a device used to fill in where PTSD amnesia may have — when someone’s death was premature, say, or when they needed to impregnate women so that there would be a couple of babies on set to break up the bleakness of the mental asylum diegesis.

Lana’s interview wraps. After the crew exits, she goes straight to the bar cart to fix herself a drink (perhaps a habit she picked up from Dr. Thredson, who had a very nicely appointed martini setup). She gets out two glasses and asks the air, “Can I pour you a drink? Why don’t you come out now. You don’t need to hide. Not any more.” As if there were ever any doubt, this serves as further evidence of Lana’s expert psychological manipulation: She and Johnny’s father both had bar carts; genetically, their progeny’s weak spot would be the hospitable act of having a friendly cocktail. How disarming.

Johnny, full of pastries, comes out of the shadows and joins Lana: What a lovely life she’s had, he muses, and here it is, about to end. Lana asks him how he got on the crew, and he tells her that he killed the doughnut caterer and put him in the trash. Oh, that old trick. Lana tells Johnny that she recognized him immediately, because he’s “her own baby boy,” though we see in a flashback that the police investigating Johnny’s crimes (more than five homicides) paid Lana a visit and showed her photos of him. Lana informs Johnny that he looks a lot like his father, whose handsomeness her brain had erased because he froze and copulated with her girlfriend after she was deceased. She asks how he found out who he was, and he tells her that he knew when she visited him on the playground; he also procured Dr. Thredson’s confession, taped by Lana, on which she exuberantly threatened to abort fetal Johnny with a coat hanger.

“That’s when I started loving him and hating you,” spits Johnny, which I suppose makes sense. Lana is relieved that Johnny probably won’t want to use her skin to make a pantsuit because of her advanced age, and because he has no sense of humor he sticks a gun to her head immediately. Lana buys time by telling Johnny that his father “didn’t believe in guns — of course, he was lying about that, too,” and consoles his vulnerable abandoned-child’s heart by telling him that he’s only half monster: He’s also half Lana, ambitious lady and muse to Bono! They go back and forth about this in whispers, as Lana inches her hand on top of Johnny’s and seems basically about to offer him the breast as she gently lowers his gun. Johnny, crying softly, blubbers “I’ve hurt people, Mom [or maybe wah, or wom, or aw].” She tells him that “it’s not [his] fault,” calls him “baby,” and then snatches the gun and trains it right between his eyes. “It’s mine,” she says, and shoots him dead.

One last time, back we go to 1964. Lana is walking through Briarcliff with Sister Jude on her first visit to the asylum, trying to meet Bloody Face to get the story that she knows will launch her career. “You make ambition sound like a sin,” she remarks to Jude. “Nope. I’m saying it’s dangerous,” Jude responds. She tells Jude she’d love to hear her story someday, but Jude says that she doesn’t think she and Lana “are destined to meet again.” She hopes Lana knows that she’s in for “heartbreak, the sacrifice [she’ll] have to face as a woman with a dream on her own. […] Look at you, Ms. Lana Banana. Just remember, if you look in the face of evil, evil’s gonna look right back at you.”

What a fucking season, right? Fly away, little nun. Go hang out in heaven with the aliens and Anne Frank. Look down on the fiery depths, where Satan Mary Eunice and Dr. Arden are having a threesome with that kid who was a bad seed. Think of all the times we ate spaghetti together on Wednesday nights while watching one character sodomize another. It’s going to be a long nine months until we meet again. I’ll just be sitting here, clutching my pearls and knitting tiny sweaters. Waiting.

Filed Under: American Horror Story, FX, Recaps

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Tess Lynch is a contributing writer to Grantland.

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