This review contains spoilers.
2.10 The Name Game
One of this season’s themes on American Horror Story: Asylum is the fluidity of memory and perceptions. From Kit’s alien hallucinations that turn out to be more honest than first imagined, Dr. Arden’s fictional personality, Lana’s fun with electroshock therapy and illusions of Stockholm Syndrome, Dr. Thredson’s dual sides and the way he apparently hovered off-screen for most of the first episode, and even the is-she-or-isn’t-she-deathstravaganza of Grace, American Horror Story‘s second season is a show proving that you can’t trust what you see, even when you see something definitive.
Even the opening credits contribute to this uneasiness. Every week, they’re different, but not so different that you immediately pick out what’s changed. It’s subtle, as far as this show can be subtle, and immediately puts you in the right mindset for the program because you find yourself questioning if the credits are always like that, or if some particular scene or allusion is new.
It also leaves you questioning if what you’ve seen is real (in the AHS universe). The show took a great deal of twists and turns this week, ending some story lines while bringing others closer to the end. At least, for the moment. There are a lot of hanging threads left to be dealt with, and while we may not get all of them tied off or trimmed away, we’ll get more of them before the season is over. Not everything in the first season was tied off neatly, either, but after this week, there are many fewer threads left dangling thanks to Jessica Sharzer’s pen and Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s collective brain.
Director Michael Lehmann has contributed two of the show’s best moments of the season this week. One of them is a madcap, completely unexpected, completely wonderful Bollywood-style song and dance routine featuring the former Sister Jude, Lana, Kit, and the inmates all dancing to Judy Martin’s dulcet rendition of The Name Game (once again, I’m reminded of how fit Jessica Lange is, and how nice her singing voice is). The other is a stellar Vertigo-inspired shot that transfigures a shocking moment into something both surprising and beautifully touching. There are myriad clever little editing tricks, camera angles, and moments this week, from the startling cold opening onward, cribbing little bits of pop culture to add to the show’s meta movie loaf existence.
The writing and direction are both very clever this week, and are generally at a high level when compared to other genre series of its type, but as usual, the show is defined by its acting. Lily Rabe has some achingly beautiful scenes tonight, from the sublime to the disturbing to the funny. Ditto Jessica Lange, who seems to be able to do anything within the walls of Briarcliff and come out looking like a million bucks, particularly during the song and dance scene. They all look like they’re having so much fun during filming, especially Evan Peters and Sarah Paulson, both of whom keep breaking into grins at various shots. It takes a lot of work from everyone in the cast and crew to make a scene like that work so completely well, but nothing sells it like the performances.
This show has nothing but good actors on it, and the worst aspects of some of the performers (accent work, mostly) can be overshadowed by more powerful visual signals. I shouldn’t feel heartbroken over the fate of, say, Dr. Arden, yet I do because while he is not a good man, he was still human. He feels things and loves in his own strange ways, and it’s the presentation of his humanity—rather than one-dimensional villainy—that keeps the impacts of the twists and turns intact even if the bulk of the characters reside in a gray, immoral fog where good and bad are tough to distinguish.
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