This season has been a snappy, sharp return to form for FX’s “American Horror Story.” Which is exactly why the show should end.
It’s nice to go out on a high — and “Apocalypse,” the eighth installment and an imaginative comeback after the shoddily made “Cult” season, is certainly that. But at a moment at which “Horror Story” maestro Ryan Murphy has stepped away from FX, the show seems coincidentally enough to have reached a completion of its vision. “Apocalypse” doesn’t just bring together disparate beloved corners of the show’s mythology, from its first-season “Murder House” to the witches of fan favorite season “Coven”; it depicts the literal end of the world. Where can a story go from there?
From its earliest moments — a premiere depicting the fall of civilization and generating, for the first time in at least a season, genuine terror and not just campy spookiness — “Apocalypse” was evidently doing something different. Weaker recent seasons had sought to recreate past success with diminishing returns; “Apocalypse” featured both a compelling new villain in the form of the son of Satan (a magnetic Cody Fern) and remixed the show’s own history in intriguing ways. Characters had returned before, but never at such length or with as much depth. Even if the intent hadn’t been to give one last look at past favorites before the show wraps, the effect was pleasantly valedictory. We got glances at many characters from the show’s history, and saw where they ended up — with Jessica Lange’s Constance Langdon, for instance, a more-troubled-than-ever prisoner of her own demons. And the show, so often worth criticizing for its manic shifts in attention, here used its lack of focus to bring different past storylines into relief. It was a fitting use of the show’s format, and would provide a fitting goodbye to many characters fans have come to love.
“Apocalypse’s” hairpin turns, depicting first one of the last outposts sustaining the fragile flame of humanity and then delving back in time to show the origin of the end of days and how “Coven’s” witches were involved, turned one of “American Horror Story’s” weaknesses into a great strength. This series has long been both overplotted and feebly structured, throwing tons of ideas into a season and letting them, eventually, wither. By completely resetting the gameboard every few episodes, transforming from a series about cataclysm into a show about that cataclysm’s origins into a “Coven” sequel, “Apocalypse” proved, after a down season, that its scattered approach to storytelling can surprise and delight.
Viewers knew that, of course, but could be forgiven for having forgotten. It’s been a while since “American Horror Story” burst onto the scene: so long, in fact, that its format, with a repertory company of actors telling entirely new tales each season, felt revolutionary then. (It’s since yielded such franchises as FX’s “Fargo” and ABC’s “American Crime.”) Drawing together its disparate stories into a single narrative — encompassing the witches of “Coven,” the cursed family of “Murder House” and the hellish inn of “Hotel” — is another wild paradigm shift for a show whose inventiveness tends to be a bit underrated by those telling the recent history of television.
Over the course of the season, we’ve caught up meaningfully with the witches of “Coven” and seen how Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) exists in her capacity as a leader: Her loyalty to the sorceresses under her easily becomes fecklessness when faced with real evil. We’ve returned to where the show began in “Murder House.” And we’ve enjoyed a story that, skittering between Murphy preoccupations, ends where all stories, carried to their absolute conclusion, must: With everyone dying. Every horror story has to end somewhere; particularly scary ones find the end of life on earth and the ascension of Satan an apt place to stop. What better time to close the curtain on an era of television, and to look ahead to what Murphy will innovate next?