This review contains spoilers.
Michael’s plan is in a shambles. His associates, both magical and Satanic, are in ashes after being captured and burned at the stake by Cordelia and the coven. Michael is helpless, directionless; the people he’d been leaning on to guide him in his plan to end the world are gone, hidden away from him by magical spells, and as such, Michael is adrift in a literal wilderness. Dropping to his knees, he carves a pentagram on the ground with a rock and prays to his father for guidance. After a series of temptations, Michael stumbles back into the city, stumbles back into the good graces of the Church of Satan, and uncovers a secret network of Satanists that will prove incredibly useful for Michael’s purposes.
There’s a lot to be said for the way Michael’s temptation in the wilderness is structured. It’s a mirror of the temptation of Christ in the garden, albeit twisted. The visitors that come to him don’t offer him power and glory, they offer him water, food, and the chance to have eternal peace and love (Michael responds to this angelic visitation by strangling the angel, however briefly). It’s similar to the offer Cordelia makes him that he rejects in front of the scene of the burning; Michael has a chance to give up his unholy crusade, to redeem himself, to embrace the humanity and not the inhumanity of who and what he is, and he refuses it to give into his hate, fear, and anger. Those emotions are what he knows more than anything else, and without Miss Mead to guide him, it’s easy for someone like Michael to fall back onto his old patterns. Fortunately, he’s got a surprisingly wide network of allies out there, if he’s willing to look for them.
Michael’s trip back into the arms of the Church of Satan is one of the funniest things I’ve seen on American Horror Story. In true Satanic fashion, the gathering of Satan’s flock of goats is essentially a mockery of a standard church service, with an offering plate being passed around and a sermon being delivered by the high Priestess (a really funny Sandra Bernhard). Certainly, things seem to be going Satan’s way; Donald Trump is in the White House and global warming is beginning to regain its footing. But it’s not enough. Bernhard paces the front of the room, extolling her flock onto greater and greater sins, dismissing their efforts as pathetic.
In the back of the room, Michael stumbles in and finds an unlikely ally in another kindly middle-aged Satanist, Miriam (Harriet Sansom Harris). She takes Michael in, feeds him, comforts him, and introduces him to a more useful group of followers than the ones he’d had previously. Taking care of the needy and downtrodden is a very traditional church activity, but it wouldn’t seem to fit in with the Church of Satan’s stated mission of sowing the seeds of Earth’s ruin. In a cracking one-liner, Miriam responds to questions about her helpfulness with an amusingly dismissive, “Nobody’s perfect.”
That’s part of the charm of Josh Green’s script. The Satanists as depicted are as well-meaning (after a fashion) as any saccharine-sweet religious organisation could be. Sure, they have the occasional human sacrifice, and the members are yelled at for not sinning enough, but they gather together for Wednesday pot lucks, and every Satanist is incredibly proud of their food and does their best to feed the Antichrist their best soup, casserole, and spinach lasagna—truly, Satan’s favorite dish—while hanging on his every word and just hoping to secure a nicer spot in Hell because of their delicious decadent desserts. Even their church service seems vaguely familiar, and it’s nice to see that the mirroring of the temptation in the garden continues on to the slightly twisted services of the grotto.
Granted, it’s broad; Sandra Bernhard delivers a combination sermon and stand-up comedy act, but it’s effective. Bernhard is a lot of fun, and is well overdue to show up in the Murphyverse as someone. Harriet Sansom Harris is as wholesome as could be (aside from the heroin use and the weekly sex appointment with Ryan Reynolds), slightly off-balance and a zealous missionary for the Church of Satan. Cody Fern really shines in his interactions with Harris, as it gives the character a little more depth. Certainly, he’s worthy of adoration in the eyes of the Satanists, but as he reminds Miriam, he’s still the same boy she met at the back of the church, for all his evil majesty. His humbleness, after his impotent raging at his father, is almost sweet; Michael is very much a young man looking for his place in the world at this point, and while he’s got big dreams, it’s not always easy to see the steps needed to bring those dreams to life. (Having a couple of coke-snorting sex-bot manufacturer tech bros played by Billy Eichner and Evan Peters would help anyone bring evil dreams to life.)
Some of the comedy doesn’t work. Eichner and Peters are a lot of fun, but the joke is a little thin at times. Ms. Venable as their secretary is a nice touch, admittedly, but Sarah Paulson isn’t given much to do except look great in purple and berate underlings. It is kind of fun to watch Michael light a poor prostitute on fire with the power of his mind, and I did enjoy the little flicker of face filter when he wanted to impress the tech bros with his evil bonafieds, but the church services worked better.
Bradley Buecker does a good job at getting a sense of weariness out of the actors in the services. They’ve been doing this for years, and while I am sure there’s fun to be had doing evil things, no one seems to be having a very good time with what they’re doing until they get a chance to show off for someone else. Otherwise, they’re clearly bored, and trying to keep just busy enough to keep from getting yelled at. No one seems to be getting enjoyment out of anything, except for perhaps doing rails, but even that seems more like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Tech Bros aren’t happy, they’re just manic from cocaine consumption.
No one’s really happy if they don’t have a purpose, or a clear plan on how to get to that purpose. Michael is about to provide a bunch of directionless people a real game plan for the future, once he figures it out for himself. People with motivation, means, and method can be incredibly dangerous, even dangerous enough to end the world in a nuclear firestorm.
Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Traitor, here.