To be honest, there were signs that American Horror Story: Asylum was running out of steam when it surprisingly killed off its two primary antagonists, Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) and the possessed Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), at the end of 'The Name Game.' From then on, the series began playing with its structure, formulating an unconventional, but sometimes visually stimulating road to the story's eventual conclusion.
For the season finale, Murphy and Falchuk brought in Tim Minear – writer of several episodes of Asylum, and AHS season 1, as well as episodes of The X-Files, Firefly and Terriers – to construct an ending to this piece of the anthology that essentially was tasked with wrapping up the tales of the three main survivors of Briarcliff: Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) and Kit Walker (Evan Peters). (Though, after the events of the time-hopping 'Continuum,' the audience is left as unsure about Jude's place as she is.)
In order to help bring out Minear's story – which shares a lot in common, structurally, with episode 12 – the finale brought in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, director of 'I am Anne Frank: Part 2,' which was, up to this point, perhaps the most visually arresting episode of the season.
'Madness Ends' manages to stand out in the same manner as the two episodes before -- which is to say: the interest in it comes from the creators' decision to have fun with the episode's structure. While Minear and Gomez-Rejon don't play with the arrangement with quite the same energy as Murphy did in 'Continuum,' the season finale still doesn't come through as being another typical episode of American Horror Story. And that could be thought of as a positive, considering how the season wraps up.
One of the more interesting and frightening moments of last week's episode was the way in which time felt compressed: years passed for Sister Jude, but they felt like days. It was a dynamic way to illustrate Jude's predicament, and worked to augment the disorienting effect that her drug-induced hallucinations had on her psyche. Minear is working with similar elements here; he's playing fast-and-loose with time, setting and structure, but it's not intended to bewilder or draw out a notion of confusion. It is, a mixture of hopefulness and misery that close out the season.
All obligatory comments and objections about facial prosthetics aside, the choice to set 'Madness Ends' in Lana's present works not only because she's one of the two most reliable figures left to fill in the blanks (mostly because the audience has been made aware her lies, and the fact that she's cognizant of them as well certainly helps), but since the season premiere, Lana's plight, as played through her character's social status and career ambition -- which were certainly important given time period -- has been a primary Asylum storyline. Additionally, at this point, it allows her to resolve the Kit and Jude threads, as well as the dangling issue of Son of Bloody Face, a.k.a. Johnny (Dylan McDermott). But the episode is also centered on Lana because the conclusion of her narrative hinges on the completion of her initial task: to expose the wrong doings of Briarcliff.
There was a moment in 'Continuum' where Kit calls Lana out for choosing personal gain over the well-being of those caught inside the psychological meat grinder that was Briarcliff – especially Sister Jude, who'd been stamped with a new name and her existence essentially forgotten by the staff and certainly by Monsignor Tim Howard (Joseph Fiennes). Much of what 'Madness Ends' works to do is see the surviving characters reconcile their (subconscious?) guilt over those who'd been left behind or had perished at the sanitarium when things had gotten particularly hairy. Jude is remanded to Kit's care, because, apparently the Walker family residence just isn't a home anymore unless an unstable person is part of it. Meanwhile Lana sets her sights on bringing down the institution and, in particular, Monsignor Tim. But that's only part of the story.
Had Johnny turned out to be something other than what the show presented him to be (a prospect that seemed likely given American Horror Story's twisty nature), it feels like Kit could have easily taken center stage in the finale. Instead, he's relegated to being just another part of Lana's story. If Lana is Asylum's plucky, but sometimes morally ambiguous central protagonist – or at least the closest thing this series can come to having one – then Kit has been the show's emotional foundation. His scenes recounting the last months of Jude's life nearly became too saccharine – especially for a series with the word "horror" in the title – but the episode managed to pull back and offer something thematically and visually interesting in Jude's final moments.
As striking as the conclusion to Jude's tale was, Kit's felt almost like a footnote, as mysterious and mysteriously underdeveloped as certain aspects of the Asylum storyline had been. By the end of the season, aliens, demons, Nazis, killer Santas and mutants all felt like fringe elements heaped on to an already overloaded premise. Perhaps the Ryan Murphy kitchen-sink style of horror ultimately suffered under the weight of all of these extraneous plot devices and familiar horror tropes. One of the key problems with this everything-that's-scary approach to the season is that the thematic weight and importance the show attempted to apply to these separate, and somewhat disparate elements, didn't really fit with the amount of time ultimately granted to them in the overall storyline.
Instead, by 'Madness Ends,' Asylum was far more interested in Lana's forsaken offspring. Essentially, the finale, in addition to significant portions of 'Continuum' and 'Spilt Milk' – if we want to take it back that far – came off like they were trying too hard to heap the season's questions and examinations of mental illness and the roots of evil onto a relatively minor character whose introduction occurred more than half way through the season.
Although the Johnny arc may have failed to excite in terms of offering a truly comprehensive climax to the Asylum chapter, it did its best to bring the Lana character back to Briarcliff (emotionally, anyway) one last time – which had been an ongoing theme throughout the season, and no small feat, considering the institution no longer existed at this point. However, it was in these moments that it became clear just how much weaker Asylum became when the characters and storylines were taken out of Briarcliff. Even when Lana turns the tables on her son and would-be killer, and then does what, in any other show, might be deemed unthinkable, 'Madness Ends' still has to circle back to the moment when the madness first began. It makes one wonder how much stronger the season might have been if it hadn't been necessary to turn the proverbial car around so many times.
- A great deal of credit should be given to Gomez-Rejon and his cinematographer, Michael Goi. There were several visual elements at play in 'Madness Ends' that really enhanced the episode. The way Jude's bed, in her final moments, were pulled toward the screen and the Angel of Death (Frances Conroy), or the twisting and inverting of the camera as it crept under Lana's coffee table to sneak a peek at Johnny's rap sheet are just two examples of how the imagery helped make this an enjoyable episode to watch, even if some of the story elements didn't quite match up.
- Leaving no horror stone unturned, 'Madness Ends' even managed to slip in a brief moment of found-footage shock horror during Lana's expose that would eventually shut Briarcliff down.
American Horror Story season 3 will bring with it an all-new storyline this fall on FX.