[Warning: Possible Spoilers]
Season two of Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” anthology takes place in a facility that saw an outbreak of tuberculosis, which claimed 46,000 lives, before it was converted into an asylum by the church in the ‘60s. “Asylum” is a whole new story and setting with a handful of the same actors from the previous season that now portray different characters. The most notable performance is Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), a nun who runs the asylum with an iron fist. She is controlling, unforgiving, has a penchant for wearing red lingerie underneath her robes and is feared by her second in command, the doormat Sister Eunice (Lily Rabe). Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes) is Sister Jude’s superior and object of her affection and fantasies. Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell) is a sadist who performs horrific, unknown experiments on the patients and clashes often with Sister Jude, who knows of his doings, but is unable to prove them or convince Monsignor Howard that Arden is not a man of God.
The first episode of the season kicks off in the present day as Leo (Adam Levine) and Teresa (Jenna Dwan-Tatum), “the lovers” and newlyweds, spend their honeymoon consummating their marriage in the most haunted places in America. Their latest stop is the abandoned Briarcliff Manor Sanitarium, an old mental institution. As the lovers delve deeper into Briarcliff, Leo receives a surprise amputation while Teresa struggles to find a way out now and stumbles into a man with a bloody face (think Leatherface).
This episode then backtracks to 1964, where Kit Walker (Evan Peters) makes a simple living as a gas station attendant. He and his wife, Alma, are an interracial couple and are forced to keep their union secret in fear of scrutinization. This is where “Asylum” gets odd. Kit and Alma are attacked in their home by what audiences are to assume are…aliens. Bright lights flash from the sky and images of long, foreign-looking fingers probe at Kit and point to the possibility of an alien abduction.
Meanwhile, journalist Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) arrives at Briarcliff to attempt to get a few minutes in with serial killer “Bloody Face,” famed for killing women by skinning them alive from the feet up. One of his victims, an African American woman, is later identified as Alma. As it is revealed later in the episode, Bloody Face is Kit Walker. Lana discovers the institution isn’t what it seems and her nosy ways cause Sister Jude to blackmail Lana’s lesbian partner into committing the journalist into the asylum so she can be “cured” of her disease. Other patients include Grace (Lizzie Brocheré), who may or may not be sane, and nymphomaniac Shelley (Chloe Sevigny).
The first episode is also peppered with allusions to what lurks in the woods surrounding the institution: bloodthirsty cannibalistic creatures, all former patients created from the failed experiments of Dr. Arden, who wasted no time in introducing Kit to his treatment (anesthetic not included). Sedated and tied down in a manner similar to Alex DeLarge from “A Clockwork Orange,” Kit gets a futuristic, mechanic and decidedly alien object cut out of him, which recalls the whole alien abduction thing that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the show.
The overall feel of “Asylum,”, at least the first episode, is drastically different from season one. While season one’s theme was infidelity, “Asylum” focuses on the sane and insane. “Asylum” is reminiscent of “Shutter Island” and “Hostel,” but without the unnecessary bloodiness of the latter (so far). What makes “Asylum” different is that it’s more in your face and relies on shock value, whereas season one was subtler and slowly crept into the viewer’s psyche.
The show is certainly not for the faint of heart. Despite being on TV, it holds scares, images and themes only appropriate for mature audiences. It’s also a show that demands your full, unwavering attention as every line holds weight and those who change the channel out of fear or cover their ear and/or eyes will surely miss something of importance. “Welcome to Briarcliff” is a great first episode, setting up the tone and storyline for the rest of the season.