Every week in Slate’s American Horror Story TV club, J. Bryan Lowder will have an IM conversation with a different AHS fan. This week, he rehashes episode 2.2 with Abby Ohlheiser, a Slate contributor.
J. Bryan Lowder: Good evening, Abby! The final thwack of Sister Jude’s cane on Kit Walker’s bare bottom is still resonating in my ears. How are you feeling after that failed escape attempt?
Abby Ohlheiser: It seems like this season is carrying over the kinky spirit of the latex suit from the “Murder House” story line, at least.
Lowder: Someone on the production team clearly has an interest in S&M. I thought this episode’s demonic possession subplot was a pretty compelling take on the old Exorcist trope. What say you?
Ohlheiser: Definitely, especially considering the way in which the possession scene threw a spotlight on the science/religion duality that I’m sure we’re going to see a lot more of as this season continues. This episode had me at the MAN OF SCIENCE forcing a nun to eat the candy apple (of knowledge of good and evil).
Lowder: I know, right? That candy apple was really tweaking me out, and lo and behold if Sister Mary didn’t “fall” (possessed herself, I believe) by the end of the episode.
Ohlheiser: The good doctor likes to wield his symbols with a pretty heavy hand—I also chuckled at the giant knife in the dinner scene later on. It’s delightful.
Lowder: I like the science/religion conflict too, especially now that we have Zachary Quinto as the good doctor Thredson to complicate “reason” a little more beyond the mad-scientist cliche of Dr. Arden. I was really taken with the arbitrariness of his diagnosis of Kit; it seemed just as groundless as the religious dogma he’s so critical of. “Acute clinical insanity”: What does that even mean?
Ohlheiser: I wrote down that exact question! It sounds like a whole lot of “I don’t know.” I also thought it was great in this episode how they brought out some of the internal tension in Jude’s character: She started to get a bit Walter White-esque in the electroshock therapy scene. And Holy Moly on her back story as a lush lounge singer!
Lowder: Commenters weren’t convinced last week that Jude is morally complicated, but I think this episode clearly shows that to be the case. She exhibits such a riveting mix of sadism and mercy—or at least sympathy. The electroshock scene you mention was key for that, but it was evinced elsewhere as well. She’s always overstepping moral boundaries and regretting it and trying to atone. It’s all very Catholic, which I guess makes sense.
Ohlheiser: I buy that Jude is a true believer, or at least really good at repenting.
Lowder: Speaking of Catholicism, I wanted to note that the demonic possession is the first truly supernatural event we’ve seen this season (I’m counting aliens as natural). Ryan Murphy has stated that the horror this season comes more from real-life situations (forced incarceration, medical malpractice, etc.) than from ghosts and goblins. What do you think about that choice? I’m kind of into the balance so far—I hope Sister Mary’s apparent possession doesn’t become too much of a driving force going forward.
Ohlheiser: I was disappointed to see the exorcist fly across the room, actually, for that exact reason. While clearly possessed teenagers are great ways for writers to get some expository information out on the main characters (like that “I’m glad I gave you up” comment he made to Threadson), I was kind of hoping someone would at least mention schizophrenia or some other explanation for the boy’s behavior before we went right into the supernatural. But maybe that’s the X-files fan in me getting ahead of myself on this one.
Lowder: I have to admit that I love that demon-knowing-your-dark-secrets-trope. It reminded me of Stephen King’s Storm of the Century. There’s something far more violent and creepy about that kind of violation than physical harm, at least to my mind. One last theme I’d like to pull out—one I mentioned last time—is this show’s very unique feminist streak. I think we saw that again tonight in both Shelley’s little back-story about just loving sex and being the victim of misogyny, as well as in Sister Jude’s being excused from the room during the exorcism for not being “strong enough.” Do you find this theme compelling at all, or out of place? Female desires of all kinds are clearly marked as frightening to those around them in this show’s universe.
Ohlheiser: I find it extremely compelling, because it connects nicely into the knowledge and power undertones of the show. It was really interesting to me, for example, that the demon in the possession scene tells Jude “It drives you crazy, doesn’t it? To be the smartest person in the room…but with no real power.” Of course, when she’s found in the room with the boy after being told not to go in there, her excuse is “I was weak.”
Lowder: I’m wondering if Jude’s last admission of frailty is going to get her in trouble with her beloved (be-lusted?) Monsignor on the next episode.
Ohlheiser: Speaking of which, I’m also wondering if in Sister Jude’s red negligee, the writers are playing with the plot of Bette Davis’s Jezebel—the film where a red dress leads to the complete destruction of the protagonist’s life, and then her repentance.
Lowder: Ooh! Given Murphy’s camp credentials, I’d bet a night in Briarcliff that he’s seen every Bette Davis movie. Maybe our commenters can scour it for more clues. But before we go, I have to ask it: Is Dr. Arden our friend Bloody Face? The show is certainly pushing us that way, which makes me inclined to doubt it…
Ohlheiser: I’m also thinking it’s a fake-out. Bloody Face reminds me, I’d completely forgotten about Wendy. I wonder when we’ll find out what happened to her.
Lowder: Good question. I fear she may gone the way of Adam Levine, which is to say probably dead. But you never can tell on this show.
Ohlheiser: Yeah, I’d hate to lose Clea DuVall so early on in the series, so I’m hoping against my better instinct that there’s a reason the writers have left her fate ambiguous. Or maybe it’s just their sadistic side coming out once again.
Lowder: I fear the latter—there’s enough sadism in this show to make the Marquis de Sade wince.
Thursday: What other writers and Slate commenters thought about Episode 2.