American Horror Story: Asylum – Welcome to Briarcliff Season 2 Premiere Review

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The anxiously awaited second season of American Horror Story premiered tonight, and the anticipation built with their brilliant marketing techniques more than paid off. The key to this series is the element of surprise, and the first episode was full of them.

It opened in modern day, with a couple on a haunted honeymoon, touring the most haunted locations in the country. They find themselves at Briarcliff Manor, a former tuberculosis ward turned Catholic run asylum for the criminally insane, now completely abandoned. Their curiosity gets the best of them, and the husband, played by guest star Adam Levine, ends up with his arm torn off…but we have no idea how. In their scene we learn what will perhaps be the most important element of Asylum: the rumor than once you enter Briarcliff, you never get out.

Cut to 1964, when the majority of the episode takes place. Evan Peters, who was a standout in the first season, returns this season in a very different role. He’s a sweet young man working at an auto body shop, hiding his interracial marriage from the world. He’s the victim of what appears to be an alien abduction, but is set up to look like the perpetrator in a string of brutal murders, including the death of his wife. He’s admitted to Briarcliff with the notorious nickname of “Bloody Face” and is by fair their most high profile resident.

Briarcliff is run by Sister Jude, portrayed perfectly by Jessica Lange. After her Emmy winning performance in the first season, expectations were high for her new character, and she delivered.

Lana Winters is a lesbian journalist, played by another season one alum, Sarah Paulson, who has big aspirations, mostly of getting to the bottom of what’s going on at the insane asylum. She meets with Sister Jude under the ruse of writing a story about their renowned bakery, a way of instilling a sense of productivity in the incarcerated. She returns to the facility after hours, trying to get an interview with Bloody Face and an inside scoop on the general workings of the facility, but gets caught. The Sister blackmails Lana’s girlfriend into having her committed, and detains her in hopes of curing her homosexuality as well as ending her journalistic investigation.

We meet a few other inmates as well. Most memorable and seemingly most important are Shelly, a nymphomaniac played by Chloe Sevingy, and Grace, a woman who though she was accused of chopping up her family, claims innocence seems perfectly sane. It’s hard to tell though, as nothing is ever what it seems on American Horror Story.

The other key player is Dr. Harden. Patients are dying mysteriously under his care, all drifter patients with no family to ask questions. But Sister Jude has questions, and after his sketchy late night dealings employing Sister Mary Eunice, Sister Jude’s young sidekick, to assist him, the viewer is left with more questions than answers.

Between Sister Jude’s lustful fantasies, very mysterious creatures lurking in the woods, Dr. Harden’s unauthorized and secretive late night operations, the strange microchip and flashbacks from what we assume is an alien abduction…it’s hard to tell where the line between reality and fantasy lies. But there is a much clearer struggle demonstrated by Sister Jude and Doctor Harden, that of religion versus science. Though her methods of punishment are medieval, severe and horrifying as she may be Sister Jude’s  motivation for her actions does truly seem to come from a sincere but fanatical devotion to her religion. It’s hard to tell yet where Dr. Harden’s motivations for his experiments on humans lie, but it is pretty clear that he is the true villain of the series.

What makes this season almost more terrifying than the first is just the basic concept. Last season the root of all the evil was in hauntings by murderous ghosts, but this time it’s all human. Sex, gore, and violence don’t ever really seem gratuitous in this show; they always serve to enhance the plot and the sheer terror. I didn’t know if this formula would work as well sans evil spirits, but it certainly did. The chronology, the music, the captivating camera work, all of the masterful elements of the show serve the same purpose: keeping the audience on the edge of their seats. Which is where we’ll remain until next week. Grade: B+

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