I don’t know that I necessarily agree that American Horror Story: Asylum is paratactic, as Slate recently and somewhat convincingly argued, because after recapping it all season, I’m pretty sure I can connect the threads. It just takes six billion years and a lot of retracing of sadistic torture scenes.
Untangling the threads of this season is a pretty gnarly undertaking, even though I find it eerily easy to rattle off the arc of each jam-packed episode if I can find a trigger; I mean, God, remember Anne Frank? Unpacking the whole thing is like wrestling with the last moving box stuffed with everything from staplers to spaghetti. It kind of reminds me of Super Mario World, where all of the bopped Koopa Troopas and zinged Cheep-Cheeps disappear like Skittles at a fourth-grade slumber party as soon as you’ve leveled up; so many nemeses have been thwarted, it’s hard to figure out who the real enemy at Briarcliff actually is. Satan Mary has been fatally concussed. Sister Jude reformed herself, and then her brain was turned into cookie dough (but at least we got that Switch Palace of a dance routine out of it). Arden is BBQ. I really thought Bowser would turn out to be the Nazi, but I was wrong.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, considering the trajectory of this season, that episode number 11 of 13 doesn’t waste any time reflecting on past events — it expects you to do most of the work yourself. Instead of paring down in the final stretch to give its audience any sense of clarity or Cliff’s Notes summary of what I sincerely hope was the most eventful period in the history of the asylum, it plows forward while continuing to throw more Georgia fatwood onto its plotfires. And babies. Like, multiple babies, some of them conceived via alien IVF.
For me, one of the most bizarre recurring themes of the season has to be the preoccupation with breastfeeding. This can’t just be because breast pumps are now covered by insurance and they’re hopping on the current-events train. There has to be some other reason, but no matter how many days I spend stuck in traffic asking myself what nursing has to do with a mental institution, I haven’t cracked that nut yet. The opening scene of this episode, “Spilt Milk,” didn’t help any: Johnny Morgan (Dylan McDermott), thoroughly modern son of Bloody Face, is kicking back with some weed and his little greasy neck-tickling hair squiggles and awaiting the arrival of his lactating prostitute, Pandora. She had a baby three weeks ago, which I find difficult to believe because she isn’t wearing sweatpants and seems to be able to sit down without difficulty. Pandora: Next time, I’ll take whatever epidural you had.
She and Johnny sit down on the sofa and have a nice, completely unsettling chat about “the faucet opening” when she hears her baby cry and how “breastfeeding is so important for early development.” Pandora asks how badly Johnny wants to suckle; he says he’d kill for it. You know what, Johnny, just kill her. I’m so nervous you’re going to bite her nipples off while I’m watching that I’m going to wrap myself up in protective Ace bandages like Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry and never take them off.
Back in 1964, a straitjacketed Kit (Evan Peters) is sleeping on his sad little cell mat when Dr. Thredson (Zachary Quinto) wakes him up to “spend some quality time” with his new baby. Thredson has vaccinated the child and prepared him for circumcision, but because Thredson is a person who spends his free time skinning ladies and wearing their mangled hides as Mardi Gras masks, Kit remains suspicious. “What’s your end game, Thredson?” he asks, but the doctor insists that he just “holds sacred a child’s need for love and protection.” Through a fish-eye lens, we’re guided onto the ward where Grace (Lizzie Brocheré) is nuzzling the wee babe while Pepper (Naomi Grossman) swats away leering patients, one of whom seems to want to punch the newborn in the face. Grace wants to name the baby “Thomas” after her grandfather; Thredson offers to help Grace work on her let-down reflex and, after banishing peskily protective Pepper to hydrotherapy, congratulates Kit and Grace on their “precious miracle.”
Twenty seconds of Hallmark bonding are followed by Kit asking Grace, “Hey, didn’t you get shot and die? What was up with that?” Grace recounts the “bright white light, just like old people talk about,” and we flash back to the aliens inserting a crying ball of human baby directly into Grace’s vagina while she stares into the camera as if to imply that the mass is freezing cold and extremely large. She explains that time works differently when aliens stuff you full of baby like an air-chilled turkey in outer space, which is why the baby grew so fast; when Kit asks her about Alma, Grace tells him that “aliens aren’t perfect, Kit, they make mistakes” and then we’re treated to a confusing montage of pregnant people floating around in water that I guess is supposed to lead us to believe that Alma is dead, after all. Grace apologizes for the fact that Kit will have to make do with starting a family with her instead, but offers up the consolation prize that Kit is “special” and the baby is similarly special: “People will listen to him; he’s going to change the way people think.”
Unromantically, Kit decides to honor Alma’s memory by proposing to Grace, who agrees because she’ll take what she can get. Ax murderers are never first in line for proposals. Or wait, they are. Their bliss is short-lived, however, because in waltzes Monsignor Timothy (Joseph Fiennes) and a slew of nuns from the orphanage who are ready to snatch that baby away and adopt him out to one of the couples on Parenthood. A scuffle ensues, but because nobody wants to get all covered in baby guts when the child is ripped in half, Kit releases Thomas into the hands of the nun. Dr. Thredson enters and plays the Daddy Club card, offering to help Kit get him back, probably by pitting him against poor, long-suffering Lana (Sarah Paulson), who’s still pregnant with his baby (the fetus who will later become thirsty Johnny Morgan) and in possession of the tape on which he overshares about his murders and brags about his nipple lampshade craftsmanship.
Down in the windowless nuthouse Panera, Mother “Claudia” Superior finds Lana and tells her she’s going to smuggle her out. Lana’s through with trusting people she doesn’t know, and rightfully so, but Mother Superior gestures over to Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), now looking like Kurt Cobain in his last days and wearing a grubby cardigan, and tells her that Jude has briefed her on Lana’s wrongful imprisonment. She hands over Lana’s patient file (“you’ll need it for your exposé” — Mother Superior’s champing at the bit to smear Briarcliff’s name, maybe because she now feels guilty for her role in zapping the brains out of Sister Jude) and instructs her to change into some plainclothes hidden in the bathroom and get her ass into the idling cab outside. Lana rips open a bag of bakery accoutrements and retrieves the tape of Thredson’s confession, then says goodbye to Sister Jude and vows to come back for her.
As Lana makes her way out of the bakery, Kit and Thredson are at the base of the stairs jawing it up about the whereabouts of the tape. Kit supposes that if he hands over the evidence, he’s done for, but Thredson promises to get Baby Alien Thomas out of “the system” and free Kit while he’s at it, offering to frame Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) for the Bloody Face murders. Lana comes into Kit’s view (finally, because now she’s three inches from his face and Thredson’s back on the stairs) and Kit distracts Thredson so Lana can sneak by in her masterful disguise — the clothes she was admitted in (weaksauce!) By the time Thredson gets wise, Lana’s safely in the cab, and he stares at her as she oozes away in slow-motion and flips him the bird while plastering the tape against the window. So gangster.
Thredson goes directly back to his house, scrubbed of human carcasses and scalps and incriminating lamps, where Lana is waiting because her journalistic ambitions make her story-hungry and stone-stupid. At least she’s packing heat, and the cops are already en route. She trains the gun on Thredson, who is so unruffled, he shoots the breeze with her while sloooowly fixing himself a martini. Lana bitterly reminisces with him about that time he “chained [her] to the bed and called her Mommy,” while we seamlessly segue into Johnny Morgan on the sofa with his hooker, who’s inviting him to call her the same. He can’t, though, because his mouth is full and eeeeew, there are viscous drips of human Fanta at the corners of his lips. Pandora goes out on a limb and suggests that Johnny might have “mommy issues,” judging by his appetite, and Johnny lights a cigarette while he considers her point. After the therapy session that presumably ensues, Johnny’s riled up because thinking about his refrigerator mother makes him “wanna do THINGS, bad THINGS” like strangle a hooker, despite her “rockin body and titty full of milk.”
He seems to know a lot about his mom, including the fact that she only loved one person, and we cut away to Lana asking Thredson what he did with Wendy’s body. I’m pretty sure she would’ve been better off without the answer. Thredson tells Lana that Wendy’s was the first body he had that he didn’t mince up into a zillion pieces, which is a promising start. Except after Wendy had been put on ice, Thredson decided to use her for sexual “practice” so that he could successfully impregnate Lana. Unfortunately, Wendy had that obnoxious judgmental dead person gaze, so Thredson only succeeded in boning her corpse when he flipped her over on her stomach. (A million barfs at this scene, by the way.) He kvells: “It was a triumph, better than I ever thought possible. Lana, Wendy allowed us to create this life you have growing inside of you.”
Lana remains unimpressed and presses him as to the current location of Wendy’s remains, so he finally admits that what he couldn’t burn, he cut up and scattered all over Massachusetts (“but you know what, Lana? We’ll always have Paris”), which probably served as seeds for where all of my favorite outlet malls later grew. For some reason this seems to disturb Lana more than the fact that Thredson got down with her dead girlfriend in multiple positions, so I guess she already had an outfit planned for the funeral. Thredson fills the cocktail shaker with round two as the police sirens approach, and asks Lana if she intends to keep his baby and bring him to visit ol’ dad every few months. Her answer is a resounding nope, and plus, she says, he’s headed for the electric chair. Thredson intelligently points out that he’s so batshit bananas that he’ll be institutionalized instead, and since Lana’s not keeping the baby, he’d like her to be known as his last victim. Thredson reaches for the gun snuggled among his martini swizzlers in the bar drawer, but Lana blows his brains out before he can grab it.
Some time later, after what had to have been lots of showers and Brillo-pad sessions on her memory, Lana is bringing flowers to Wendy’s grave, which houses a few of her ashes scraped from Thredson’s mid-century gas fireplace (wood-burning is much better for disposing of bodies, but it’s nice to have the convenience of just flipping a switch). Two of Lana’s friends, one sympathetic (she refers Lana to an abortion doctor) and one a real uncouth asshole (hey, need a roommate in your nice, spacious crime scene apartment?), have accompanied her, and she tells them that she’s moving to New York. The pals beat it out the back door to avoid the paparazzi and any connection to the “Sapphic reporter”, but Lana exits through the front and tells the “vultures” to read her book for the full scoop.
Back at Briarcliff, Sister Jude is waiting in the Dixie cup pill line for her medicine in her now permanently tripping-balls state of mind. She discourages the other patients from taking the “hoss tranquilizers” they’re prescribed and knocks the tray out of the administering nun’s hand. I love saucy Jude. Monsignor Timothy, who’s busy poring over the Briarcliff headlines Lana’s providing to the local newspapers, is summoned from his office by a guard who wants him to handle Judy’s outburst on the ward. She’s innocently indulging in some duckfaced grooving to “Love Potion No. 9,” but Monsignor lives in a no-fun zone, so he unplugs the tunes and asks what she wants to see him about. Jude’s in a mood to slut-shame Monsignor for relinquishing his virtue to Satan Mary Eunice and demands that he renounce his vows, but Timothy’s still under the impression that he can ride the “magic carpet” to Rome. Jude is not only jealous, she’s grossed out by his romp with Satan. She informs him that since he’s committed her to Briarcliff, she’s “blessed with the gift of total clarity.”
Unnerved by her unwashed hair, yelling, and the fact that she knows too much, Monsignor gets her carted off to solitary. Kit, however, is about to be handed a lucky break: Because Thredson has been outed as Bloody Face, he’s handed his release papers and heads to the Monsignor’s office to cajole him into releasing Grace and reuniting them with wee Thomas. Because Grace was pronounced dead before the ETs resuscitated her, Monsignor won’t be on the hook for releasing a convicted murderer, Kit argues, and if he agrees, Kit won’t send any more damning information about Briarcliff in the press’s direction.
This is appealing enough for Monsignor, so Kit, Grace and the baby cab it back to the house Kit once shared with Alma. They launch right into full-on nesting mode — should we get a horse? What do you think? Oh, sorry about all the alien dust, I didn’t get a chance to sweep up before I was committed — before being interrupted by a creak from the bedroom. It’s Alma, sitting on the bed and cradling another, cuter baby! Kit isn’t Bloody Face, he’s Shawty Lo! They have no choice but to become sisterwives! Bring back Shelley (Chloë Sevigny) and let’s all go to Home Plus!
Lana’s not filled with the same domestic-bliss sensations about raising the baby she conceived after being raped by a serial killer, though, so she’s at the back door abortion clinic, which is of course a retro, hoopty assemblage of screaming tea kettles and dusty-looking curtains and bed linens. Lana lets out some wails as she’s being prepared for surgery and is promptly shushed by the doctor; after a series of bloody flashbacks, Lana grabs the doctor’s hand before she can start the procedure because she’s not in the mood for any more “death.” This creepy pregnancy is coming on the book tour, dammit, for My Experiences at Briarcliff Manor: A Recollection of Events!
Smoking and wearing a very cute plaid maternity dress, Lana presents her memoir and some photographs to the police as part of a campaign to probe into what caused the disappearance of several patients (including Pepper, apparently) at the asylum over the course of two years and expose Briarcliff as being probably not the best place to seek treatment for your next nervous breakdown. Lana explains that she wants to go back to Briarcliff (????!!!!!) to get Sister Jude to substantiate all of her allegations; she’s been denied access and needs a court order to get in the door. When Lana busts into Monsignor’s office with the police and demands to see Sister Jude, however, he tells her that Sister Jude hanged herself two weeks before and produces a file of documents to back him up: her death certificate, an account of how her body was found, and the number of the bin containing her cremains (Lana becomes suspicious that a nun would be cremated, but according to Monsignor this was because she “died outside a state of grace” because she committed suicide). So much evidence, one might say … too much evidence? Of course, AHSA isn’t going to play us as cruelly as that after killing off Satan Mary Eunice, so we hop on the dinner trolley and wheel ourselves down to a basement room, where a despondent Jude is praying to the saint of lost causes.
Of course, what could be a more potent stab of labor-inducing Pitocin than revisiting the institution that was the site of your repeated torture? Lana has landed herself in the hospital and has given birth to the ginormous baby who will grow up to be Johnny Morgan. Props, I guess, for not casting the same newborn in all three roles; these are very diverse baby actors! This one is squalling, and the nurse has brought him to Lana — despite her request to never see him, because duh — because he’s allergic to formula. Lana caves and accepts the baby to nurse him, looking up at a crucifix on the wall that appears upside down because the first time you nurse, it hurts like Satan chomping down on you with fire-needled jaws and also this baby is evil and all of that. If all of this is pointing to the fact that reluctance to breastfeed leads your baby down a road paved with the skin of your murder victims, I am unimpressed. I know at least one person raised on formula who has drawn the line at mild torture.
With three babies now in the mix and two episodes left before the close of this season, we’ll just have to wait it out. Bust out your sexiest nursing bra (just kidding, sexy nursing bras are myths, like the jaunty jackalope) and prepare for more carnage as we climb to the summit.