In the first episode of its new season, “American Horror Story” made a case for itself, once again, as a series designed to make us our greatest fears, even if the cure it provides at the end of the journey is merely witty distraction.
Caution is warranted: The previous season, subtitled “Cult,” had seemed in its early going like a sharp and shrewd comment on the collapse of mutual trust among Americans in the aftermath of the 2016 election, before collapsing itself. But the early going of “American Horror Story: Apocalypse” was, if nothing else, made with clever timing to confront an issue as pressing this year as post-election anomie was last year: The idea that things might finally, actually, just end.
The episode was bifurcated between real fears and “AHS”-esque fantasies, taking a sharp turn after its first commercial break. It began with a gripping sequence imagining, in manners both outlandish and humane, what the end of the world would practically look like within the Ryan Murphy universe. The series, and its co-creator, have long specialized in showing people at either their most ill-behaved or their most vulnerable: What better setting for both than the end of the world? High-decadent Murphy was in evidence, as in the case of a spoiled diva (Leslie Grossman, effectively carrying over her role from “Cult”) barely pausing to mourn her family and husband before figuring out how to squeeze her hairstyling team into their spots on the plane to the emergency shelter. But so too were the flickers of painful vulnerability, as when a newscaster captured on camera announces, after realizing the world has effectively ended, “I’m not going to make it home. So if my children are watching this: Daddy loves you very much.”
This much tenderness was not widely in evidence in an episode largely focused on brutality, but it struck a chord all the same. A franchise that had for so long seemed fueled in almost exclusive part by archness showed its softer side when contemplating the end of the world. But much of the season premiere cohered to form. The action of the series began with late-era-“AHS” level lack of structural explanation—the characters, including those who bought their place in a post-apocalyptic landscape and ones who were genetically selected to be there (giving rise to another of the episode’s more moving scenes, as a young man was torn from his family by armed guards representing moneyed interests), end up in a fallout shelter for a sentence that ends up, in the pilot, spanning eighteen months. Little is known about those who brought the genetic elite to the shelter or those who guard its exterior; perhaps more will be revealed as we move forward, but the premise is shakier, allowing in more doubt, than those of past seasons.
The chieftains of the shelter are Sarah Paulson and Kathy Bates, serving together in a double act that will sate any franchise fan’s taste for camp—Paulson’s triangular haircut seems delivered straight out of a Dr. Seuss novel, and Bates’s general mien seems better equipped for a prison film than for a luxe shelter in which the elect dress for dinner while awaiting the end of the world. But that’s the point; both effectively convert a “Hunger Games”-style elite zone into a nightmarish psychological minefield by the time they run out of food. Their rituals that disinclude murder and cannibalism are so bizarre as to be inexplicable as anything else but torment, up to and including requiring formal dress at all times and constantly replaying the cheesy single “The Morning After.” And the murder and cannibalism, killing off a houseguest early and serving him as stew, is pretty bad too.
As ever, “American Horror Story” is to be admired for covering so much ground so quickly; the pilot gets us from actual apocalypse to the period, a year-and-a-half later, at which the shelter we’ve been viewing faces a run on rations and a psychologically broken cohort. And, as ever, its ambition promises to be its downfall, as the first of what promise to be many pivots announced themselves at episode’s end. (Michael Langdon, a character who shares his name with the Antichrist baby born towards the end of the first “AHS,” arrives at episode’s end to promise a decade’s worth of food to those he deems worthy of survival.)
It’s early yet, but the moments of genuine pain gleaned from the first moments of the episode redeem the somewhat aimless, camping next 45 minutes. Indeed, they help explain them: None of us can bear to think about what the end of the world could really look like for too long, so why not come up with the most outlandish survival story we can? “American Horror Story,” which effectively created the boom in anthology series, has told just about every story short of the end of the world that it can; in beginning to tell the story of the end of the world, it’s first moving, pulling out the last heart-tugging tricks that it has, and then movingly out of ideas.
But a franchise that’s been around since the simpler times of 2011 using a very rusty toolbox to entertain us has its charms, even and especially when it comes to telling stories that feel like a finale for the species, if not for the show. In the absence of a greater theme announcing itself, “American Horror Story: Apocalypse,” ringing in the end of days with weird hairdos and an unbelievable story of the devil himself, counts as something close to escapism.