This American Horror Story review contains spoilers.
American Horror Story Season 8 Episode 1
I’m a member of the last generation that had any real fear of global thermonuclear war. I’m well aware that nuclear proliferation has been a bad thing, and there are more and more rogue states attempting to get their hands on nuclear weapons, but I’m not talking about some sort of limited exchange between two countries. I’m talking about a world-shattering throw-down between two superpowers with enough atomic weapons to turn the earth into a glowing cinder. Even in the ’80s, that fear was there, and it shaped popular culture. More than that, it shaped me.
One of my favorite movies of all time is Mad Max, and I own two versions of it. I’ve seen The Day After and Testament more times than I care to admit. I’ve willingly watched Threads, The War Game, and When the Wind Blows in the same day. I saw the phone call scene from Miracle Mile when I was 15 at 5 am, and it stuck with me so long that I hunted it down on Netflix when I was 30 just to see how it ended. I have spent hundreds of hours playing through the Fallout series. I have a fever, and the only cure is apparently watching the world die in atomic fire.
It goes without saying that the first five minutes of American Horror Story: Apocalypse hooked me immediately. The opening is pitch-perfect. Socialite and Instagram influencer Coco (Leslie Grossman) is getting her hair cut by Mr. Gallant (Evan Peters) when her phone—and everyone’s phone—starts going haywire with warnings about a missile attack. It’s a hoax, right? Or some screw-up by the government like in Hawaii, as one character says. Turns out, it’s not a hoax or a mistake. A surprisingly sad final phone call between Coco and her father confirms it: the world is coming to an end. Fortunately, there’s a sanctuary for the super-rich, and as we see later, the chosen few who have the right genetic profile, namely Timothy (Kyle Allen) and Emily (Ash Santos). Coco and her assistant Mallory (Billie Lourd) rush off to the airport; Mr. Gallant and his grandmother Evie (Joan Collins) join them, while Coco’s driver draws a gun and holds off airport workers trying to commandeer their private plane.
In the hands of long-time AHS director Bradley Buecker, the opening segment is one of the most horrifying things on broadcast television due to just how uncomfortably plausible it all is. Everyone’s screaming and running around, traffic jams keep people from fleeing, people leap from tall buildings, while Coco and company race for survival. After the initial madcap rush to escape, and the kidnapping of Kyle by anonymous MIB types, things settle down into something a little more darkly comic (though not without unsettling moments sprinkled throughout). The entire sequence with the armored vehicle rolling up and the entrance of Timmy and Emily is very well crafted, and serves as both a good introduction to the safe haven and an ominous portent of things to come under the despotic rule of Wilhelmina Venable (Sarah Paulson) and Miriam Mead (Kathy Bates).
As always, American Horror Story looks great. The radiation suit plague doctor outfits worn by the guards are top-notch, looking both fairly realistic and disturbing. There’s just enough Nazi storm trooper in the costumes to make them terrifying, and they also look like an effective shield against the dangers of this new world. The set design is completely over-the-top in the best possible way, right down to the dinner dresses worn by The Purples. I’m not sure how candles and fires could last for as long as the assembled are trapped within the safe haven’s walls, but the lighting looks great and adds to the occult ambiance of the former school for boys turned fallout shelter.
One thing that can be said for American Horror Story, regardless of the setting, is that Ryan Murphy assembles great casts of interesting actors. Clearly, he has a type, and his penchant for strong female performers is on display here. Leslie Grossman is easy to hate as the hilarious Coco. Her asking Mallory to stick her fingers down her throat after eating what might be human stew was one of the funniest moments of the night, and she’s a treat in every scene she’s in. Sarah Paulson, after having played the victim role for six of the seven previous series, clearly relishes playing the role of the villain, as she glides through every scene, tapping her cane on the floor before delivering her lines as coldly as possible. She’s not subtle, but there’s nuance enough when she has her private moment with Miriam and they are both glammed up in their finest purple cosplay. She’s able to smile and be human, but by being human she reveals herself to be a monster. Joan Collins is a bloody treasure, and every acidic joke that passes from her lips hits like a ton of bricks. She’s comic relief, but she’s effective comic relief (her line about fake news and making a call to Donald required pausing the television to give myself a chance to stop laughing).
The script, from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, weighs heavily towards comedy over terror, but it has to. After all, this is the end of the world, which is not a light subject in the best of hands. Without the black humor (the 18 month time jump chyron is really funny), being trapped in an underground chamber eating food cubes and occasionally indulging in cannibalism while the world outside slowly dies would be entirely too dark. The world-building is efficient, and the exposition is handled as well as can be expected via the introduction of Timothy and Emily into the Cooperative’s world and Michael Landon’s visit to inspect one of the few remaining Outposts.
Even without the supernatural elements of Murder House and Coven, I am invested in the new season of American Horror Story. I’m not sure how those elements will play into the setting, but I’m interested in finding out. I’m also interested in finding out more about the fates of the people on the outside of the Outpost, as you don’t bring in scene-stealers Billy Eichner, Cheyenne Jackson, and Dina Meyer only to dismiss them after the first episode.
Ryan Murphy’s shows tend to start out strong and then the cracks begin to show, but I think with the short season order (10 episodes) and the very strong premise, he’ll continue his recent trend of stellar storytelling and not get too bogged down with aliens and assorted unrelated weirdness. Even if it goes off the rails, Apocalypse will go off the rails in entertaining Murphy fashion, with a brilliant cast to bring that inspired weirdness to life. The best is yet to come.