For the second time this season, American Horror Story: Asylum unintentionally tapped the zeitgeist in a way only super-psychic Billie Dean Howard could have foreseen. On Halloween, we watched a “Nor’Easter” lash Briarcliff Manor Sanatorium during a black mass movie night as Hurricane Sandy completed its terrifying week-long rampage up and down the East coast. Last night, less than a week after Lance Armstrong spilled his guts (or tried to) with Oprah Winfrey about doping his blood to achieve cycling greatness, we watched a seventy-something superstar journalist Lana Winters look back on her eventful life during an epic TV interview and “come clean” about the lies and massaged facts that shaped her lucrative, illustrious brand. But was confession her intention all along? Or was she influenced by the unexpected presence of her most shameful secret, Johnny Morgan, the rape-seeded son of Bloody Face? At what point during the sit-down did she come to the chilling realization that once the cameras stopped rolling, she’d once again have to fight for her survival against another mad and monstrous Thredson?
It all made for a spectacular climax to a spectacular season, one that slammed home with head-spinning, heart-rending hurricane force its epic yarn about the lunatic legacy of corrupt ambition and unchecked injustice. It also affirmed the powerful potential of American Horror Story’s anthology format. Special commendations to writer Tim Minear and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon for some bravura storytelling. It was wicked smart and unabashedly show-offy and I loved every crazy-angled, vertiginously shot, time toggling, stories-within-stories-within stories minute of it. Holding the center of this yarn-spinning storm were remarkable performances by Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange. But what was most meaningful about the finale was its biggest surprise: An emphasis on redemption – well earned and unsentimental – that helped to produce a moving, emotionally resonant experience.
The time: Now. Lana Winters in her twilight years was still one tough (don’t-call-me-a) cookie, thanks in some small part to plastic surgeon in Paris and a talented dermatologist who kept her well preserved. Okay, she looked a little frail with that shuffle and slight hunch, but fire still burned in her eyes. She had love, if not marriage, with a vibrant woman, a celebrated opera singer named Marion. The crimson carpeted parlor of her deluxe apartment was adorned with awards and mementos of a career spent profiling the world’s most powerful people, world leaders and celebrities, most of them men. (I loved the inspired touch of Bono’s framed cocktail napkin doodle, drawn for Lana while she shadowed him on one of his humanitarian globetrots – an allusion to either the U2’s singer’s work on behalf of The ONE Campaign or Jubilee 2000. More on the possible thematic significance, later.) She was about to add one more medal to her chest – a Kennedy Center Honor – and this alterna-world Barbara Walters agreed to turn the tables on herself and give a TV interview to mark the occasion. I loved the moment when the dope show pro coached the crew on how to hang the lights and make “an old gal” look gorgeous. “Higher, babe. Atta, boy. No, higher still,” said Lana with a croak she owed to cigarettes and bourbon. “What are they teaching these kids in film school?”
A brief backtrack for some context. When we last saw Lana, the year was 1969, and she had just rocketed to fame as the best-selling author of Maniac: One Woman’s Story of Survival and was planning to write even more True Crime books about more sick psychos like Lee Emerson. “The stunted male psyche,” she told Kit Walker, was her great subject. She was no longer interested in taking down Briarcliff, as she had promised, or becoming a do-gooder investigative reporter. Defeated by so much profound loss, the Asylum survivor wanted assured success at what she did and she wanted to profit from it, and she knew she could make it rain with so much Helter Skelter and In Cold Blood. Lana Winters, it seemed, had sold out…
But she didn’t. Not totally. Perhaps Kit had gotten under her skin. Perhaps she had momentarily allowed sudden, newfound prosperity – well-earned and profoundly needed – go to her head and stun her with cynicism. Regardless, Lana decided to take a different path. For starters, she became do-gooding investigative journalist, after all, specializing in take-downs of corrupt institutions and naughty overgrown boys. She began by settling some old scores. First, there was Briarcliff (more on this in a minute). Then, she exposed the sins of Dr. Arthur Arden and Cardinal Timothy Howard – a pitiless skewering that drove the latter to slit his wrists. (“Happy Easter!” to you too, asshole!) In more recent times, Lana made headlines with a “nail-him-to-the-cross” prison interview with Ponzi Scheme king Bernard Madoff. (The interviews that got away: Mao; Rielle Hunter, John Edwards’ mistress; and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, although she’s still trying to bag him.) But she did all of this as a broadcast journalist: Despite the six best-sellers (including Maniac and Tales of Briarcliff, also available as a Book On Tape, read by the author, no less), the McLuhan-era product come to believe that images were more powerful than words, and that electronic media was the medium that could massage the most change in the global village. (When Lana told April, her Kennedy Center interviewer, that “my future wasn’t in print,” I recalled the last episode, when we learned she had stretched the truth in her book, and her conscience wouldn’t let her forget it. I wondered if she gave up writing because she found it too easy, too tempting to confabulate in this medium, especially given her penchant for ripe, purpled prose (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), whereas visual storytelling kept her honest – “the camera doesn’t lie” and all that (even though it can) – and living honestly mattered to her. More on this as we go.)
NEXT: Why Lana Winters isn’t a big fan of The Dark Knight