With any luck, Ian McShane (Deadwood) will have enjoyed his time on American Horror Story: Asylum enough that his dance card won’t fill up to the degree he can’t take part in the as-yet undisclosed lunacy of season 3.

While AHS has enjoyed the presence of other guest stars during the course of its two seasons, none have so gleefully bought into the madness, and enhanced the proceedings quite like the man who made ol’ Al Swearengen such an iconic piece of television history.

At any rate, it’s time to celebrate Christmas at Briarcliff, and, as you’d expect, ‘Unholy Night’ gets off to a typically dark start and just gets darker from there. We begin with a glimpse into McShane’s violent, holiday-themed obsession, which sees him murder some poor schlub dressed in a Santa outfit taking donations. The guy’s only there to get out of the house and avoid his wife, so while he’s free with the Santa-like advice to a pint-sized Davy Crockett wannabe, soon-to-be-dead-Santa isn’t too keen on McShane’s criticism of the “win-win” racket St. Nick’s got going on. He’s also not around long enough to offer much of a counterattack.

Homicidal Kriss Kringle then makes his way into a suburban home, explaining to an inquisitive little girl that Rudolph had messed up Santa’s itinerary – which is why he’s hanging out under the tree several days before Christmas. All told, Santa murders 18 people in their homes, and earns himself a one-way ticket to Briarcliff.

As much as ‘I Am Anne Frank’ cleverly managed to deconstruct the basic set up of Asylum, at the expense of the last two episodes –’The Origins of Monstrosity‘ more so than ‘Dark Cousin‘ – things have essentially returned to normal. Of course, Grace (Lizzie Brocheré) is still dead from the gunshot wound inflicted by a very repentant and mournful Frank (Fredric Lehne), and Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) has been cast out of the sanitarium by the devilish Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) and Dr. Arden (James Cromwell). So by ‘normal,’ I mean the action is once more centered inside the walls of Briarcliff.

But this Christmas romp is also a return to form after Asylum took a short break to get things lined up for the final push toward the end of the season, and what we can only imagine is also the end of the Briarcliff storyline. While it lacks the more artistic nuances or cohesiveness of ‘I Am Anne Frank,’ ‘Unholy Night’ makes up for it with a swiftly moving plot that manages to expose more of Dr. Arden’s twisted past, while acknowledging that everybody is pretty well aware that pure evil is using Sister Mary Eunice as a vessel for general mischief and a whimsical misappropriation of Briarcliff’s facilities. It’s very nearly a random entry in a series that has frequently been filled with them, but somehow, this episode manages to bring most of the major plot points together for the next installment. Besides, it’s a Christmas episode; everybody goes a little crazy over the holidays.

Who knows what the endgame is, but hopefully it’ll involve Frances Conroy and a whole bunch of aliens (who’ve taken Grace’s body, by the way) storming Briarcliff, while Dylan McDermott reveals his character to be the vengeful son of Sam Goodman (Mark Margolis)…or something like that.

Various other items:

  • Sister Jude’s rant about the devil orchestrating society’s decay through things like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer sounds a bit like another television-centric rant that’s been in the news lately.
  • So, Lana (Sarah Paulson) and Kit (Evan Peters) have Dr. Thredson/Bloody Face (Zachary Quinto) right where they want him and they decide to lock him in a storage closet. For once, the reasoning behind such a thing sounds somewhat reasonable.
  • The look on McShane’s face when the cabinet of caning rods opens before him is absolutely priceless.
  • “I can’t be babysitting a deranged nun all day.” Dr. Arden is a busy man, Sister Jude.

American Horror Story: Asylum continues next Wednesday with ‘The Coat Hanger’ @10pm on FX. You can take a look at the episode below: