‘American Horror Story: Apocalypse’ Is the Craziest, Best Installment Since ‘Coven’
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and it’s a hoot. At least it is through the prism of Ryan Murphy’s mind—a harrowing hoot, really, which is what we’ve come to crave from a season of American Horror Story.
Wednesday night’s premiere of American Horror Story: Apocalypse marked a welcome return to camp for the long-running FX franchise. Murphy apparently hates that word, which is fair. It’s become lazy shorthand that’s siphoned meaning from the descriptor and minimized the scale and ambition of his work, not to mention dismissed its quality in homophobic fashion. Recent seasons of AHS have been more baroque and stylized than they are truly campy.
But when the opening to your show has Leslie Grossman, playing a wealthy aspiring Instagram influencer named Coco St. Pierre Vanderbilt, spitting “This tastes like turtle shit!” at an assistant who gave her a green juice right before a ballistic missile siren sounds and the entire world is demolished... pitch a tent because you’ve arrived at camp.
Much of the first hour of Apocalypse reminded of Coven, which for most (at least me) is the standout season of Horror Story. It thrilled and was rich with mythology and estrogen-charged, sinister creepiness, all lacerated with a sarcasm and cheekiness—culminating in an endlessly quotable, meme’d, and yaaas’d embrace of camp.
It’s no accident that the Apocalypse premiere evoked so much of the vibe of Coven. This is the long-awaited crossover season between the first American Horror Story season, Murder House, and Coven, which is ostensibly exciting news for those who have actually managed to finish a season of American Horror Story.
That’s the bitchy tea about this series: Each season starts phenomenally—a concept so high you can see it from space and a vision so meticulous you want to lavish in its spooky, headiness—and then goes off the rails faster than Neil Patrick Harris can fuck a circus freak with two Sarah Paulson heads. The mythology becomes convoluted and over-complicated, the dialogue wilder and weirder, and the narrative unfolds as if it’s being made up as it goes.
That’s what makes this crossover season especially intriguing: It suggests that there is, indeed, a roadmap.
The episode starts with the end of the world. We meet Coco, her assistant, Mallory (Billie Lourd), and her hairdresser Mr. Gallant (Evan Peters) at a chic salon in Los Angeles when the news hits that World War III is happening. The missiles are already demolishing cities around the globe.
But Coco’s father, who has an ungodly amount of wealth, has a contingency plan. He bought four $100 million seats on a private plane that would take the family to a secret safe house. Since he and the rest of Coco’s family are trapped in Hong Kong and won’t make the flight, Coco takes it with Mallory, Gallant, and his grandmother, Evie Gallant, played by JOAN COLLINS.
Meanwhile we learn that some scary organization has flagged a teenage boy and teenage girl, Timothy Campbell (Kyle Allen) and Emily (Ashley Santos), for their perfect genetic makeup, and dramatically whisked them away from their doomed families to the fallout shelters, presumably to help jumpstart a new human race. Neither one had any idea about this; Emily’s DNA was in a database because she was in jail, while Timothy had done one of those online ancestry tests. (Watch 23andMe sales spike now from doomsday preppers trying to survive the end times.)
Two weeks later, nuclear winter has set in, and Timothy and Emily are taken to what’s called Outpost 3, which is run by Ms. Wilhemina Venable (Sarah Paulson, in the first of at least three roles she’ll play this season) and her minion, Kathy Bates’s Miriam Mead. The rules of the Outpost are laid out (it speaks to what we’ve come to expect from this series that “no copulating” seemed the most disturbing) and, once the young, genetically-perfect hostages are united with the rich escapees, punishments are malevolently doled out. (Neither murder nor cannibalism are off the table.)
The sense of dread in these scenes is a tonal whiplash from the riotous pandemonium of the opening act, and appealingly so.
We watch a show called American Horror Story because we want darkness, to feel unsettled. While still surreal and dripping with outlandish style—we’ve yet to mention the horse-drawn arrival of the Antichrist through a nuclear haze—this is where the season, at least conceptually, capitalizes on our visceral anxieties. Surveying the gross injustice, be it through class entitlement or government force, that unites the people in Outpost 3, you get shades of the same palpitating stress you might from watching The Handmaid’s Tale.
It’s a canny concept for a franchise that has evolved its take on genre to incorporate political and cultural commentary, especially with its recent Roanoke and Cult seasons. You’d be a fool not to see the resonance here. Murphy is trading, with his signature blend of whimsy and barbed truth-telling, on our greatest prevailing fear, a fear all the more consuming because of its root in rationality. We watch what’s happening around us, and we’re certain the world is going to end.
It’s a fear at once ludicrous and overwhelming in its possibility, and those opposing forces seem to inspire the tone of at least the first episode of the series.
Vignettes of people reacting to the world’s end carried more emotional heft than Horror Story is known for, and the depravity that follows doomsday is, as depicted here, suitably chilling. Yet at the same time, we’re watching Leslie Grossman shriek hilariously entitled freakouts and Joan Collins purr sassy one-liners while a Ryan Murphy-approved troupe of impeccably bone-structured twinks preen in fabulous clothes (and occasionally without!). It’s fun!
That marriage of the grim and the grinning comes most majestically at the end of the hour, when Cody Fern’s Michael Langdon was introduced, with a proper, “Hail, Satan,” from Bates’s Miriam as the familiar music from Murder House played.
A CliffsNotes explainer to keep this from spiraling into an American Horror Story Wiki: Michael Langdon is the Antichrist. He is the surviving son of Tate Langdon, Evan Peters’ evil spirit from Murder House who impregnated Connie Britton’s character. During that season, a medium warned that “a child born of human and spirit will usher in the end of times.” End of times: Meet Michael Langdon!
And this is just the tip of the mushroom cloud, folks.
We haven’t even seen how Emma Roberts’s Coven character Madison Montgomery—Roberts is billed as a series lead in the opening credits—and the confirmed returning coven of witches factor into the plot, what to expect from a Murder House-themed episode that brings back Britton, Dylan McDermott, and Jessica Lange, or what, really, Ms. Venable and Miriam’s endgame is yet.
But this is looking like an American Horror Story season we might actually follow to its end of days.