'American Horror Story' finale recap: 'Madness Ends'
The second season wraps up with both some bitter and some sweet
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So, season two of "American Horror Story" wraps up tonight in all its gory, erratic glory. As we learned last week, Johnny (whom I like to think of as Bloody Face 2: Electric Boogaloo) is ready to face off with dear old Mom, and I am not counting out Lana to pull off a last minute save. Not that I don't think Johnny can pull the trigger; I just think Lana has proven, though surviving Briarcliff and Johnny's dad, she can handle almost anything anyone, her kid included, dishes out.
We kick things off with Johnny wandering around Briarcliff, listening to Lana's book on tape and imagining his troubled parents talking to him. He hallucinates Lana looking up at him from her hydrotherapy bath to declare him an abomination born of hate, then evisions Dr. Thredson declaring his love for his only son. "I would have given anything to be a real father to you, but she kept us apart," this fantasy Dr. Thredson whispers. "I had so much love to give you, son. She stole it from you. From both of us." I will give Johnny credit for imagining something Lana and Thredson might have actually said, which is surprising given his crack usage.
Because it's not "American Horror Story" unless we skip around on the timeline, we shoot back to poor Leo (Adam Levine) and Teresa (Jenna Dewan-Tatum) wandering around Briarcliff. In case we were unsure, Johnny was the one who hacked off Leo's arm. I'm not sure what purpose this segment serves, except to stick Leo and Teresa in the ending so that some writer can say, "Hey! They were a framing device!" I guess I should be glad to see them again, given that they serve to remind me of how much the show evolved this season, dumping predictable, typical teen horror movie schlock to move into the realm of sometimes operatic drama.
We jump forward to Lana, looking exceptionally good for her age, preparing for an interview promoting her upcoming Kennedy Center Honors appearance. She kisses her girlfriend farewell in front of the reporters, proving the point that Lana, who rendered Wendy an asexual roomie in "Maniac," is now out of the closet.
When the reporter wants to talk about Bloody Face, Lana's lifted-and-tucked face tightens just a little more. "I refuse to give him one more second of airtime," she says firmly. What she is willing to talk about is how she shut down Briarcliff. Ah, Lana recounting her life and times will be how we wrap up a whole lot of story lines, and it's not a terrible conceit. She is, after all, the character who has held the show together, sympathetic but hardly unflawed, and now, at the end of her life (maybe literally), we can see her life through a survivor's eyes.
Lana returns to Briarcliff with a camera crew, using the death chute to sneak inside. Even though she tells her sound and camera guys, "I want the footage to shock the public out of their complacency… I want to put America in the asylum," what she now admits is that it wasn't justice that made her go back to Briarcliff but ambition. Lana, always thinking of her next move, somehow turned into Barbara Walters (or maybe Diane Sawyer), a pretty face exposing ugly things through a more powerful medium than the written word -- TV.
The '60s style TV footage we see of Lana in the asylum is beautifully shot -- it looks like the real thing, making the horrors of Briarcliff (which I had honestly started to get used to in their artfully underlit gloom), newly horrific. Lana is literally shedding light on a nightmare, and kudos to cinematographer Michael Goi for making it vividly, horribly real.
When we watch Lana "rescue" Sister Jude/Judy Martin, it's more powerful for the cinematic device. Shielding her face from the intense glare, Jude/Judy is exposed as the tragic figure she's become. Of course, for her to whisper "Lana Banana" to her former inmate as she's carefully guided from the room is probably a strong enough hint that what we're seeing is just Lana's wishful thinking. When Lana returned to Briarcliff, Jude/Judy was gone. "It was a hell of an ending," Lana admits. "Just not the one I wanted."
Lana takes a water break -- and JOHNNY, yes, Bloody Face the sequel, hands her a bottle. Lana doesn't blink, but we know that face-to-face-to-murder meeting he so badly wanted is now on the table.
So, what happened to Jude? Lana finds out from an old file that Betty Drake was released to the care of Kit Walker in 1970. I can see why Kit was so beloved by the aliens, because the guy doesn't have a bad bone in his body, even though some reluctance or at least resentment would make perfect sense. I have to give Evan Peters big props for making a character who could have been painfully one note (granted, "American Horror Story" needs all the nice it can get) more complex and nuanced than what's on the page.
Anyway, Kit took Jude/Judy home, got her through detox and let her terrify his kids. When she chases them around with a broom, they actually take her hand and lead her into the woods. And when she returns? Well, she wants to give everyone swing lessons! "Grace was right," Kit says. "Those children are special." Alien children rock!
Then Jude/Judy gets a nose bleed and takes to her bed. These last scenes with Sister Jude are beautifully shot and, while they take up a disproportionate part of the finale and veer into maudlin territory, I can't say I mind. We've been through so much with this character, and she's been so beautifully portrayed by Jessica Lange, I can't even bring myself to roll my eyes when the disgraced nun urges little Julia not to let a man make her feel like less than she is and cautions little Thomas never to take a job just for the money. When the Angel of Death finally comes for her, it's another artfully shot scene that perhaps lingers too long but also one I can't stop thinking about. While "American Horror Story" has been campy and frequently silly, it has never missed an opportunity to get us in the gut with a big, overwrought moment that we can't help but tap into emotionally.
But what of the man who made Sister Jude see herself as less than she was? Well, Lana got to Cardinal Howard, too, dogging him about Dr. Arden and Briarcliff until he slit his wrists in a warm bath. "Lies are like scars on your soul," Lana admits in the interview. Nice segue, Lana!
Lana admits to the interviewer that she lied about Johnny dying in childbirth. Yes, she gave him up for adoption and, in the 70s, used her investigative skills to find him. By chance she defends him from a bully in the schoolyard and takes a moment to caress his face. It's a moment that would play plenty sweeter if we didn't know what became of the poor kid bullied on the playground. Lana admits she never saw him again. We're not sure if Johnny hears all of this, given that he's tucked away in a side room, but I have to wonder if this confession is for his benefit.
Then, the greatest hits of our favorite characters starts rolling again. At this point I'm starting to feel like I'm watching "Napoleon Dynamite" or some other comedy that, so entranced with its characters, it has to tell us exactly what happened to them even as the credits roll and we're filing out of the theater. Thomas became a law professor, Julia became a neurosurgeon, and Kit developed pancreatic cancer when he was around 40. Then, he disappeared! "No one could explain exactly what happened," Lana sighs, though we know white light equals aliens. So, that ends the aliens storyline. They didn't call back the kids, we don't know what their mission was, and they got Kit. So… that happened.
Finally, it's the end of the interview and everyone packs up to leave. Lana makes a drink, then speaks to the seemingly empty room. "Can I pour you a drink?" she asks. "Why don't you come out now? You don't need to hide, not anymore. Let's get this over with, shall we?" Yes, Lana is made of pure steel. Her hands don't even shake as she puts down the bottle of booze.
Johnny comes out, too angry to be overly impressed with Lana's psychic abilities. Lana tells him she knew it was him the moment she saw him. "How can I not recognize my own baby boy?" she asks. Actually, in flashback we see that she recognizes him because the cops brought her a picture of him and told her he'd killed a bunch of people. So, Lana is a little more prepared for this than she's letting on. Good to know she's not psychic.
Johnny tells Lana he knows that she tried to kill him -- he found the tape of her goading Thredson's confession via wire hanger (which really ought to be in a police file somewhere, right?) on eBay. You really can find it all on eBay!
He pulls the gun on Lana, who just keeps talking. It's not like she hasn't done this before, after all. She calls Johnny's dad a monster. "Yes, he was, baby," she purrs. "That's not you. You could never be like him." And, just like that, she slips the gun out of Johnny's hands as he starts to cry. "It's not just him that's in you. I'm a part of you, too."
"I've hurt people," he sobs, collapsing like a poorly-made souffle. Although I usually hate it when bad guys drag out the moment before they try to kill someone (usually just long enough for the almost-victim to get away or turn the tables), it works well enough here. As much as Johnny thinks he wants to kill Lana, the reality is that, more than anything he wants connection. When she calls him baby, it's the same head game she used on Thredson. She knows a weakness when she sees it.
"It's not your fault, baby. It's mine," she says… just before she shoots Johnny in the head. I can't say I didn't see it coming, but it's still a shock, a shock that she could pull the trigger on her own kid as he's crying to Mommy. Still, I'm sure this was all too similar to her interactions with his dad. He may be her child, but she knows who she is, too, and that's someone who's capable of killing instead of being killed, for better or for worse.
Lana sits there, the gun still smoking, thinking. Finally, for all her efforts to become a TV personality far removed from Briarcliff, in the end she can't escape the place and its nightmare legacy. Whatever her ambitions, she is ultimately someone who clawed her way to fame as a survivor, no matter how many hastily scrawled sketches by Bono she may have framed on her wall.
And then, we jump backwards one last time, to a time before the story really began. Lana is begging Sister Jude for an interview. As we know, Jude refuses. "I don't think you and I are destined to meet again. But I do hope you know what you're in for. The loneliness, the heartbreak, the sacrifice you'll face as a woman with a dream of her own."
"You don't have any idea what I'm capable of," Lana, bright-eyed with ambition, says. And, of course, she doesn't.
Sister Jude smiles. "Just remember. If you look in the face of evil, evil's gonna look right back at you." It's a nice capper for a season that was, honestly, a little more upbeat than I expected it to be. Everyone didn't die at the end, for starters. Though some characters were more symbolic than real (Kit, Sister Mary Eunice) and some got exits that either didn't ring true or came too quickly (Grace, Alma, Dr. Arden), the season gave Lana and Sister Jude a playing ground of surprising depth and complexity.
I'd forgotten about Leo and Teresa (who really didn't need to come back), but their return just reminded me of how much better the show had become than the first few episodes suggested. And while this finale became drippier (and not in the gory sense) than I expected, it seemed fitting that pivotal characters got a lavish, operatic send-off. And, in some cases, a sorta happy ending. That "American Horror Story" had much more than simple horror elements driving its plot -- a mash-up of tragedy, heartbreak, ambition (both thwarted and realized) and cruelty -- made it more than the sum of its parts and, in the end, infinitely watchable.
Now the question is, what the heck are they going to do next season?
What did you think of the finale? Were you satisfied with the final scene between Johnny and Lana?