Entertainment has a long and storied history of nasty Christmas tales. There’s “Bad Santa,” piles of slasher movies devoted to the season (I stopped counting at ten), and I personally think the Little Matchstick Girl is all kinds of twisted. Now “American Horror Story” is adding its two cents to this dispiriting niche, and after watching this Very Special Christmas Episode I’m about ready to lock myself inside my home until we’re safely into February.
The good news is that on this episode of “AHS” Santa is played with sadistic glee by Ian McShane (“Deadwood”). No matter how bad his Santa is, that’s still pretty damn good. The episode kicks off with a very unmerry retelling of how Santa (aka Lee Emerson) ultimately ends up at Briarcliff, shooting and slashing his way through 18 people shortly before Christmas 1962. It’s a spectacularly gory feat, and all the more impressive given that it’s accomplished while he’s dressed in a Santa costume. The Santa at my mall appears to get winded just hoisting fat kids into his lap, so really, not bad.
I’m also amazed at how pithy serial killers are in movies and television, and McShane’s Santa is no different. “The difference between Santa Claus and me is he only comes once a year,” psycho killer Lee says to a terrified, tied-up couple shortly before he kills them. I’m guessing real serial killers aren’t so witty, but if they are it’s really a shame, as no one survives to repeat the quips.
We skip forward to Briarcliff 1964, where Sister Mary Eunice is bringing Christmas back to the asylum. It seems Sister Jude had banned the celebration following an “unfortunate incident,” but darn it, the Devil just loves a good party. Unfortunately, the deposed sister tossed out the ornaments, leaving Sister Mary Eunice no choice but to appropriate rubber gloves, dentures and inmates’ hair to decorate the tree. It’s these moments of sick humor (Sister Mary Eunice happily adorning the tree with false teeth) that either bring a smile to your face or make you want to turn the channel. Or both, which might be the point.
Even in this gruesome setting (or maybe because of it), Frank is trying to make his peace with God for having shot Grace. He prays over her body, then begs Dr. Arden to call the police. Dr. Arden suggests he may not want to involve authorities, given that he’ll be first in line for jail time given that he shot an unarmed woman, but Frank doesn’t care. Frank is willing to pay for his sins, but I’m not sure he realizes how steep the price will be now that Dr. Arden knows he’s a problem.
Another threat to business as usual at Briarcliff is, amazingly, Sister Jude. She pops up to do battle with Sister Mary Eunice, an endeavor I can’t help but think is doomed. When she puts a blade to the young nun’s throat, security comes in to haul her out. When she begs the Mother Superior to help her, the older woman seems powerless to do anything other than listen to Jude rant about how “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is the devil’s handiwork (not a fan of stop motion animation, that Sister Jude). She’s determined to get back into Briarcliff, and while her character is making less and less sense with each passing week, she definitely gets points for determination.
After Dr. Arden informs Sister Mary Eunice that Frank is going to create problems for Briarcliff, the devil woman puts a plan into action. First step: spring Lee from solitary and give him his very own Santa costume. Why is this a bad idea? Well, that “unfortunate incident” that inspired Sister Jude to go Grinch was Lee biting off the face of an orderly who had the temerity to wear a Santa cap in his presence. We soon learn why Lee hates Christmas so very, very much — when he was in jail on a minor charge, the guards went caroling and five thugs took that opportunity to relieve Lee of his virginity. Thus, theme killing! “I knew who deserved to live and who deserved to die, who was naughty and who was nice,” he sighs to Sister Mary Eunice.
Some other residents of Briarcliff are feeling downright sentimental about the season, however. Dr. Arden presents Sister Mary Eunice with a pair of ruby earrings. Where did he get such finery? Oh, a lady in the concentration camps had them. To keep them away from the Nazis, she swallowed them (and eliminated them) on a daily basis. Eventually, she died of stomach problems, and Dr. Arden kept the baubles. In the homage drinking game that is “AHS,” this would be the shout out to “Pulp Fiction.”
But does this icky backstory gross out fair Sister Mary Eunice? Of course not! Rubies is rubies, yo! Dr. Arden needs no further proof that his sweet-natured nun isn’t exactly herself. “I so dearly hoped you’d throw them back in my face,” he says. “I was hoping there’d be a glimmer of horror, a glimmer of that previous girl who was too afraid to even take a bite of my candy apple.” Yeah. That girl? Gone, gone, gone.
It almost makes a strange kind of sense, then, when Dr. Arden goes to Sister Jude (yes, Sister Jude) and begs her to help the new and not improved Sister Mary Eunice. He can’t babysit a deranged nun all day! “I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in evil. I’ve seen it, up close and personal,” he explains. “That’s why her purity meant so much to me. She had this light in her. The light’s gone out. Please, I’m begging you, please help me.” This is hard to believe, but Sister Jude only hesitates for a moment. After all, this is the chance she’s been looking for — an opportunity to be a soldier in God’s army. If Dr. Arden can get her into the Devil’s orbit, she’s willing to make that deal no matter how dicey it might be. When Dr. Arden sneaks her into Briarcliff through the death chute, she enters the facility with a grim determination. She’ll wait for Dr. Arden to send Sister Mary Eunice to her, then have the door locked behind them. It seems like a suicide mission — and that, of course, is if everything goes according to plan.
While Monsignor Timothy presents Sister Mary Eunice with an ornate (and sharp) star to put on top of her hair-and-dentures tree, he lavishes her with praise. “Even your tree shows imagination and resourcefulness,” he gushes. “It reminds me of Marcel Duchamp!” Well, that’s about right. I guess ol’ Tim likes to lay it on thick with any nun who comes into his orbit, which makes me feel even more sorry for Sister Jude. She’d been sure one day she’d be his right hand woman, but clearly she was no more special to him than his morning breakfast. I wonder if the Monsignor doesn’t find himself missing Sister Jude just a bit when Lee lunges at Frank, cutting him deeply with that ornate star and sending the inmates screaming in all directions. If the goal was to get Frank killed, though, the orderlies (who are probably a little more observant this year) restrain Lee so Frank can haul him off to solitary. This couldn’t really be what the sister had planned, could it?
Lee is quickly locked away, and now Frank can go get his wound stitched — except Sister Mary Eunice pops by, slits his throat, and releases Lee. “I pray we’re not looking at a rampage,” she says in her most innocent voice. So it’s not exactly a huge surprise when Sister Jude finds that she’s locked inside a room not with Sister Mary Eunice, but with Lee. “I’m here to open my present!” Lee jokes. See what I mean? These serial killers, so funny!
Outside, Dr. Arden tells Sister Mary Eunice he hopes that delivering Sister Jude to her on a silver platter has made it clear he’s loyal to the cause. Well, you’d think being a former Nazi would be enough. Still, I’m not sure he has quite as much passion for destruction as the gig requires. He decides not to stick around to listen to Sister Jude shriek in horror as she’s tossed around. Not that it bothers him — it’s just “tedious.” And he is so busy, don’t you know, with his heavy schedule of mutilating inmates and such.
The chaos taking place around the creepy ass Christmas tree gives Lana a chance to find Kit, tell him about Thredson, and point out that no one knows either of them is locked up at Briarcliff. As we know, when no one knows you’re there, your expiration date becomes just a tad shorter than what you’d find on a container of sour cream. Lana has to find a phone. Even though Kit is afraid of the cops, she assures him she can clear his name. Oh, Lana. Clearly, she still hasn’t accepted that she’s no longer a reporter in the eyes of the world, but a raving lunatic.
Speaking of lunatics, when she does finally locate a phone, guess who walks in? Dr. Thredson, of course. This is a tad convenient, as many things in this episode are, but it’s such a surprise we don’t have time to question it. He’s been busily cleaning up his house and burning his human skin collection, knowing Lana could send the cops to his home, not that anyone would believe her anyway. “Do you believe in fate, Lana?” he asks in that silky purr that is so definitely creepy and makes Zachary Quinto one of the best bad guys I’ve seen lately. “We’ve been drawn together like magnets. Bloody Face had to burn so he could be born again. Your skin will be the start of a whole new Bloody Face!” Well, that’s a nice honor, isn’t it?
It looks as if “American Horror Story” is celebrating Christmas with a non-stop parade of mutilation and a possible offing of some key characters. But wait! It isn’t over until the credits roll, and just as Dr. Thredson seems to be getting the best of Lana, Kit walks in and clocks him. Lana may be the unluckiest girl in the world, but she’s gotten out of more scrapes than the Road Runner. In another upbeat (sort of — you take what you can get on this show) twist, Sister Jude manages to turn the tables on Lee, stabbing him in the back. I wonder if this is all we’ll see of Ian McShane, which seems a shame. We got more backstory on his character in one episode than we’ve gotten on almost anyone else in eight, and for him to be so easily dispatched is just plain disappointing.
But just as the so-called “good guys” survive to moan another day, that doesn’t mean curtains for our villains, either. Even as Lana prepares to kill Thredson, Kit stops her. He needs him alive, as he’s “the only thing standing between me and the electric chair.” That may be true, but I’m not so sure Thredson won’t find a way to worm out of his restraints. “One day I’ll bury you,” Lana growls at her persecutor, and though I’d like to see Lana stand victorious, I don’t want Thredson to be dispatched until the bitter end. His portrayal by Quinto has been too delicious to cut short. The same for Sister Jude (who, like Lana, just won’t go away or die). Though her character has become erratic in ways that suggest flip-flopping writing as opposed to Sister Jude coming unraveled, it was good to see her live to fight another day, renewed in her faith knowing she didn’t kill the little girl she ran over all those years ago.
Another character also makes an escape, of sorts. As Dr. Arden wheels Grace’s body down the death chute, we see a flas of light, little alien hands, and poof! Grace’s body disappears. What the aliens hope to do with a dead Grace I have no idea, but I hope the experience gave Dr. Arden a good scare. I’m still not sold on this whole alien plot line, but, like some of the show’s more determined characters, it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, either.
What did you think of Ian McShane’s Santa? Were you surprised by Dr. Arden’s treachery, or did you see it coming? How did you like that Christmas tree?