Sunday, January 27, 2013

Review: American Horror Story: Asylum "Madness Ends"

Non Spoiler Review:
The end is here, and we leave the 60s to join an extremely well-preserved Lana in the present, interviewed for her life's work as an author and investigative journalist. Johnny is there, too, among the crew, waiting for his opportunity to meet his mother. In a series of flashbacks, Lana recounts the fates of Briarcliff, Jude, Kit and Cardinal Howard, and finally a reckoning with her son.

The last couple of episodes have have gotten us accustomed to a variety of styles and time jumps, and this is no exception. Asylum brings us to the 1970s for a beautiful set of scenes to resolve the lingering plot lines. Kudos to the costuming and colourful settings that added a new layer to this sprawling season.

The biggest critique for some may come in the realization that Asylum is ultimately Lana's story and not Jude's. It's all seen through Lana Banana's perspective in this finale. Does everything get wrapped up neatly in a bow? No. But unlike many endings, I believe most (including myself, who is hard to please) will be satisfied with what is a cathartic resolution. Madness Ends is an apt title.

Spoilers Now!
Four months earlier—Johnny breaks into the ruins of Briarcliff as he listens to an audio book of his mother's story. As he imagines seeing his mother and father, he's interrupted by the arrival of Leo and Teresa so hides in the solitary cell. As Leo sticks his hand in to take a photo he pulls on the Bloody Face mask and slices his arm off with a machete. And that's how Leo lost his arm.

Lana has had six bestsellers and is about to be honoured for her work as a television journalist. She's also in a comfortable relationship with a woman named Marion, and is being interviewed about her career, starting with the early years. But she doesn't want to talk about the Bloody Face saga. He's become a household name in the years since, and she doesn't want to give him any more publicity. She moves on to the infamous Briarcliff expose instead. Lana admits it was ambition that got her back into the asylum. She moved into television rather than pursue writing, as she needed something people could see. That would be Sister Jude.

Back in 1970 Lana was ready to bring a camera into Briarcliff to shock the public, and she brings her crew in through the secret tunnels. Her intent is to rescue Jude and get it all on tape. They move through the asylum which is full of squalor and decay with patients left on their own. Eventually an orderly walks in on their filming so Lana interviews him. He claims there are too many to take care of and they do the best they can. She demands to see Jude. 

Lana succeeded in shutting down Briarcliff, but it wasn't the ending she wanted. While she would have loved to have led the defrocked nun out of the asylum, that's not what happened. Jude was long gone, but she did find something else interesting...

Lana goes on to see Kit, who saw on the news she shut down the asylum. But she's brought her camera crew with her to capture their reunion. She wants to know who Betty Drake is and if she's there. Kit agrees to talk to her in private.

Lana explains she had gone through the records at Briarcliff and found the file on Betty Drake released into Kit Walker's care in 1970, just months after she saw him at the book signing. Kit explains he couldn't shut the place down, but he could save Jude, and she never belonged there. He had started visiting her after Alma died and saw that there was still a spark of life in her. He knew she wouldn't last long if he didn't get her out. Briarcliff was happy to have one less patient to care for, so he brought her into his home.

He did it for his kids. He needed to be there for them, and the only way to leave Briarcliff behind was to find someone to forgive. But Jude had to detox first, and after that things went well for awhile. The kids adored her, though Jude had her bad days when she flashed back to Briarcliff. On one particularly violent outburst, Kit was about to send the kids outside, but they went to Jude instead and calmed her, leading her into the woods. Something was different when they came back—Jude was different. He knows the kids are special.

Jude got better and stayed with them for six months. One day when they were all swing dancing her nose began bleeding. As she rested in bed with the two children, she gives them some final advice. To Julia—never let a man tell her who she is or make her feel less than him. To Thomas—never take a job just for the money. Find something that he loves and do something important. 

Kit comes in with dinner, but she doesn't need it. She sends the kids outside to play but Kit tells her he won't leave her alone. But Jude isn't alone. She's here for me, she says. The Angel of Death stands at the foot of her bed, asking if she's sure she's ready. Jude is sure. She kisses her. 

Lana tells Kit she knows who she was talking about.  

Back in the present, the interview resumes after a break (where Lana is brought a water by Johnny). Her next expose after Briarcliff was controversial—Cardinal Howard. At the time he was a rising star. He had avoided her requests for an interview so she cornered him on his way to Easter Mass. She was prepared to run a report on Dr. Arden's experiments they had uncovered. Everything that happened at Briarcliff happened under his authority, and the police found human remains in the woods. She calls on Timothy to answer for the missing patients under Arden's care. Timothy fled the interview. Afterwards he slit his wrists in the bathtub and Lana suffered a lot of public outrage blaming her for his death.

Lana muses that he was a particular kind of liar, one who believed his own lies. Then she comes clean about her own lie—her baby she claimed died in childbirth is alive. When she breastfed the child for the first time she sent it away, praying someone else could give him the mothering he needed. She admits in the 70s she suffered remorse for giving him up and attempted to track him down. On a playground she found him, being taunted by several other kids. So she goes to his rescue. Unfortunately he still reminds her of his father. That was the last time she saw him. She couldn't be his mother in any meaningful way, but she always wondered how he turned out. Johnny listens to the interview as she talks. 

She never had children, but Kit asked her to be godmother to his kids. He got married to a girl named Allison. Thomas grew up to be a law professor at Harvard and Julia was a neurosurgeon. Kit developed pancreatic cancer at 40. He wouldn't have his children looking after him, so lived out his days in his home. In the last months Lana visited him and said he was the most at peace she had ever seen him. But one night he disappeared without a trace, and no one could explain what happened.

As Kit sat alone in his house the aliens came back for him. No clues were left. And no funeral. The kids insisted there was no reason to mourn.

As the interview concludes the reporter is quite pleased with how it's turned out. As they leave Lana returns to her empty living room, pulling out two glasses, and asking if she can pour him a drink. She knows her son is there.

Johnny walks in, announcing her great life is about to end. He cut the throat of the guy who brought donuts and came in with the rest of the crew. That doesn't surprise Lana, though. She knew him the moment she saw him—The police had come to her when he'd first begun his murder spree, revealing he was responsible for the death of five people, including the ones who owned Oliver Thredson's old house. She told them she didn't know who he was, but they warned her he might be coming after her.

Johnny reveals that day on the playground he realized who she was, and saw her on television. He also found Thredson's confession tape on eBay, where she recounted how she would never love their child. 

Lana explains she gave him up so he'd have a shot at a life. That only enrages Johnny. He takes his gun and puts it to her forehead. He wants his father to be proud of him. Lana says Oliver was the monster, and that's not him. She slowly takes his hand and tells him he's the sweet little boy she met on the playground. Johnny breaks down as she lowers the gun in his hand. She tells him it's not his fault. It's hers. And as he looks up at her she puts the gun to his head and kills him. 

1964. Jude is escorting Lana out of the asylum after she asks about seeing Bloody Face. Jude can see the ambition in her, and as they exchange banter, Jude tells her she's in for heartbreak and sacrifice as a woman with a dream of her own. If you look in the face of evil, evil is going to look right back at you. Both women stare at one another. Lana is sent on her way, and Jude briefly glances at the statue of Mary as Dominique plays.

The Verdict:
Lana proves she's a survivor. While her methods were self-serving—fame and acolades—she did bring down Briarcliff and Timothy. In the present she's managed to be at home with her homosexuality without worrying about sacrificing her career for it. And she's steadfast enough to end the threat her son poses.

I don't know how I feel yet about Jude's end. It was a beautiful wrap up in many ways, having her end up with Kit and a grandmother to his children. The music accompanying the scenes of her and the kids heading to the woods and her death were the best part of the episode. But aside from that I was left wondering what tied this to anything else from her past. She always seemed to have some unfinished business (namely destroying Timothy), but that all fell to Lana.

I had my wish list of arcs I wanted wrapped up. Arden's ghost (and the remains of his experiments) came back to doom Timothy, even though he didn't meet his end at Jude's revenge. Why did Pepper get enhanced by the aliens only to have her die off screen? We never learn just what the aliens really want with Kit, and I would have preferred seeing his grown up children in some sort of world-affecting role (beyond lawyer and neurosurgeon) to really make that all matter. The aliens remain a plot device to resolve loose ends—taking Kit, healing Jude, resurrecting the dead...

But I can't fault this ending. Lana proves she and Jude weren't that far apart at all. That final scene in 1964 was a perfect ending. I had my reservations about the new story lines for season two, wondering how it could possibly match up to season one. But it surpassed it with a more epic tapestry of characters and events beyond the more intimate events of last year's murder house. The returning cast excelled in new roles, and I was gripped by the journeys of redemption brought to us by Jessica Lange, Evan Peters and Sara Paulson. The unrelenting build up of madness, violence and despair was purged in a very satisfying finale.

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