This American Horror Story review contains spoilers.
American Horror Story Season 8 Episode 2
Things always go badly in an apocalypse survival bunker. I cannot tell you that from personal experience, but if television and movies have taught me anything, it’s that trapping a bunch of people in a facility for long-term survival is just asking for someone to eventually go off the deep end, even without supernatural interference. Not even a fresh bowl of snake stew can brighten that kind of environment, especially considering that the environment is lit only by candles and fires and the occasional red-tinted Edison bulb.
Aside from a mention of perfect DNA within the bodies of Timothy and Emily, there wasn’t much cross-over yet in the vaunted cross-over season between Murder House and Coven, aside from the presence of Michael Langdon at the end of the first episode. That changes immediately in the cold-opening of “The Morning After,” when Emily’s preparation for bed is interrupted by a gaggle of snakes slithering out of her closet. Those snakes, chopped into snake stew by Miriam, don’t stay dinner for very long, as the pots are opened up and snakes immediately emerge and congregate on the dinner table, interrupting an awkward discussion between Emily and Venable about just who showed up last week to set off the perimeter alarm.
It’s a credit to Apocalypse that the show wastes no time in kicking off Langdon’s mission. He gathers the group in the library and gives them the low-down on just why he’s there and what he hopes to accomplish. There are a limited number of spots available at The Sanctuary, and he’s there to decide whether or not they deserve a spot in paradise or a slow death via radiation poisoning (or a quick death via mutant cannibals or suicide pills). Langdon sows dissent among the population of the Collective’s redoubt and the supernatural shenanigans begin almost immediately upon his arrival.
There’s nothing groundbreaking in “The Morning After.” It’s a pretty standard locked room scenario, with everyone turning on one another (even more so than before) once the carrot of survival is dangled in front of them. Michael Langdon is in the middle of all of it, starting his interview process and squaring off immediately with Venable. He knows that she’s been making her own rules, and he’s been sharing that information with the rest of the Collective via email. Apparently, there’s still some sort of infrastructure out in the world, because he’s able to get online and he has a brand-new Apple laptop (a nice bit of product placement, as there’s a great shot of that glowing apple logo).
Clearly, Venable has been writing her own rules, and that creates some friction between her and Michael. Sarah Paulson is great at these stare-down moments, and while she shows vulnerability and fear, there’s steel in Venable’s core and she refuses to submit completely to Michael. For his part, Cody Fern plays Michael as knowing more than he lets on, even after he reveals to Venable just how important he is within The Collective’s organizational structure. He already has files on everyone, but he’s more interested in provoking responses from others than actually finding out information about them. He figures out how Venable ticks within moments, and manipulates that into getting her to reveal her scoliosis-curved spine only to deny her a place in the sanctuary. Langdon pulls the same stunt with Mr. Gallant later in the episode, seducing and dismissing both of them with impassive coldness.
“The Morning After” is heavily loaded with dialog scenes, and seems to be a bit short on horror (unless you’re afraid of snakes). James Wong is an old hand in the AHS writing room, and his name on an episode is always welcome, because his episodes are always solidly written. “The Morning After” is no different. There’s a lot of wit and dark humor in Wong’s script, particularly the scene in which Mr. Gallant is being tortured, each crack of Miriam’s whip accompanied by an impressive shriek and the yelled name of a gay icon from the 70’s and 80’s.
Yes, it’s corny, but it’s the sort of corn that someone like Gallant would deliver. As seen in his flashback sequence—establishing why Gallant and Evie don’t like one another—Gallant’s homosexuality is as much about shock and political action as it is his actual sexual orientation. (I guess it can be two things?) Evan Peters does a great job selling these over-the-top characters, and when you pair him with Joan Collins, the queen of arch delivery, well… the two of them feel like natural characters, even if they’re both ridiculous people at their very core. Vain and petty and performative, it’s clear that they don’t get along because they’re just a little too much alike, and neither one is able to communicate their actual wants and needs in a way that the other can understand and empathize with.
The supernatural elements of the episode are carried by Jennifer Lynch’s directing choices. She’s a solid director with a knack for weird visuals, and she makes good use of the set in her episode. There’s a particularly good shot of Venable through closing doors that’s fun, and whenever the Rubber Man makes an appearance, it’s dramatically out of the shadows or in a doorway where he really stands out. She also uses the depth of the set to her advantage, with Venable summoning and dismissing The Grays with her cane. The Grays blend into the walls, essentially, as they’re supposed to; at times, I didn’t notice they were even there until they started moving away. The stratification of this new world extends even to the viewer in that respect.
I’m certain that the shocking and confusing events of this episode will come into play later in the season. It’s early, and things are still building. What’s confusing now will make more sense later, or will be buried beneath much more confusing things later on. Either way, “The Morning After” is a satisfying enough episode that lacks the initial hook of the first episode, but adds plenty of weirdness into the snake stew.