American Horror Story season 2 episode 8 review: Unholy Night

Ian McShane. In a Santa suit. Terrorising innocent people. Christmas episodes don't get much better than this...

This review contains spoilers.

2.8 Unholy Night

One of the weakest episodes of the first season of American Horror Story was Piggy Piggy. Attempting to inject a little randomness into the show near the end of the first season’s run, it wasn’t entirely successful. It was still a good episode, mind you; it just wasn’t really integrated into the main storyline of the Harmon family, random appearance of Ben and company notwithstanding. It felt like padding and didn’t really provide any extra zing to the story. 

Unholy Night is proof that Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and writer James Wong have learned from the mistakes of the first season. Given Wong’s experience working on The X-Files, if anyone could pull off a monster-of-the-week story while still integrating said monster into the plot, it would be him. He does this brilliantly, thanks in no small part to the sheer brilliance of Ian McShane, who takes on the role of Leigh Emerson, a Santa-suited multiple murderer who killed dozens of people during the holidays circa 1962 and ends up in Briarcliff for his troubles. 

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I will freely admit to thinking Ian McShane is one of the best actors to ever appear on television, thanks in no small part to the unadulterated brilliance that was his Al Swearingen on the late, lamented Deadwood. However, he’s just so gleefully evil during this episode that I can’t help but feel like he’s a major part of why this week’s episode of AHS: Asylum was just so good from beginning to end. Perhaps I’m biased by the creative use of the Murder Santa trope or the way the show has gotten so good at teasing particular moments (deaths, in this case), then circumventing that tease just long enough to make you believe a character has been given a reprieve, then offing said character in spectacularly gleeful fashion. 

Even without McShane’s crazed brilliance, the episode was a great one. Every aspect of the show’s multiple plots seemed to work, and as the episode proceeded, they all seemed to hit high points at the same time, be it Lana, Kit, and Thredson or Emerson and Jude and the plotting of Sister Mary Eunice. The show both focused on its brilliant guest star (as it did last week with Frances Conroy) and also advanced the show’s central narrative forward in a relatively seamless way. Or, at least, doesn’t detract from the episode while offering up an awesome opponent for Sister Jude (and a great scene partner for both Lily Rabe and Jessica Lange; the entire scene with Frank, Killer Santa, and Sister Eunice was brilliant, if only for the awesome way Ian McShane leered out of his cell peephole). 

Director Michael Lehmann sprinkled multiple clever shots like that throughout the episode. This was another well-paced episode of a show that, aside from The Origins of Monstrosity, seems to be zooming along this season. The show’s various confrontations were well-staged, and cleverly edited together. Even the pretty familiar “Santa suit terrorizing a house of innocents” was given extra life by some clever shooting techniques. 

That’s what this show does really well. It takes familiar concepts and presents them in a novel, entertaining, and very energetic way. American Horror Story isn’t afraid of craziness, gore, or cheesiness; it’s also not afraid to take on the holiday season in grand fashion. That’s certainly something to appreciate. From Halloween to Christmas, American Horror Story seems to be the only genre show of its type on television willing to entertain a “very special” holiday episode. I guess that fits into the show’s drive to mine traditions and familiar topics and present them with a fun new twist. 

In American Horror Story land, murderous Santa psychopaths just scream heartwarming, heart-stabbing holiday special, and that’s why I love this sick, twisted, brilliant programme. 

Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Dark Cousin, here.

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US Correspondent Ron Hogan would love to see Ian McShane back on weekly TV again, perhaps as the antihero of next season’s variation of American Horror Story. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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