Divine intervention broke into the bedeviled world of American Horror Story: Asylum, but she did not come bringing truth for the deceived, or justice for the wronged, or liberation for the oppressed. The only balm she had for the suffering, the only release she had for the stricken, was a kiss of death. She called herself “Shachath.” In ancient Aramaic, the word means “destroy” or “spoil” or “go to ruin.” She insinuated that she was a member in good standing of the creator’s heavenly host (as opposed to her cousin, the fallen star that dwells within Sister Mary), but she certainly didn’t look the part. Instead of white robes and golden halo and forever-young visage, this otherworldly attendant with piercing blue eyes and alabaster skin wore bereavement black and ravage me red lipstick – the grim reaper as film noir femme fatale – and when she delivered her breathtaking vampire’s smooch, black wings unfurled with a snappy-campy dramatic flourish. The more she shadowed the desperate and the despairing – including Grace, Lana, and Judy –the more she seemed like a mean buzzard circling carrion than an benevolent agent of deliverance. Francis Conroy’s sweetly sinister psychopomp symbolized a couple ideas that I think AHS supports (the right to die; a Flannery O’Connoresque belief in brutal grace) and a couple concepts that I think AHS has always held in contempt: A romantic view of death as reward or escape; and “The Woman” as mythic succubus, a ruinous seductress. In a bleak episode filled with cruel twists, none was crueler than the passing of Grace, poor gutted Grace, who was on the verge of being rescued from the Briarcliff hellhole by wannabe savior Kit Walker when she flipped the script and took a bullet for him. She yielded to the ironic seraphim’s annihilating affections, then announced: “I’m free.”
Seriously, God? This is as good as it gets?
“Dark Cousin” began with two nuns geeking out on Lilies of the Field, the 1963 drama (adapted from a 1962 book inspired by allegedly true folk lore) starring Sidney Poitier in a role that won him a Best Actor Oscar, a widely celebrated, too-long-in-coming achievement that should have changed much in Hollywood for black actors, but didn’t. (For more on the relevancy and legacy – or lack thereof – of Lilies, I heartily recommend Pictures At The Revolution by my colleague, EW columnist Mark Harris.) One nun just saw the film. Loved it. The other nun said she was working her way through the book. “I’m right at the part where he starts to build the chapel,” said The Reader. Replied The Moviegoer: “I won’t ruin it for you then.” Okay: I will, because “Dark Cousin” and Lilies share several themes. Pride and prejudice; power and fairness; what it means to be a good neighbor; society’s responsibility to the individual (and vise versa); our want/need for role models, heroes, and saviors. Haven’t seen/read Liles of the Field? Well… SHACHATH ALERT! (Also? Lengthy Tangent Alert. The recap proper begins at the start of the next page.)
Lilies of the Field tells the story a proud drifter named Homer Smith (Poiter) who lives out of his station wagon and makes money doing odd jobs where he can find them. In need of a Good Samaritan to lend him some water for his overheated vehicle, Homer meets the acquaintance of some nuns – Eastern European immigrants who endured much hardship to reach America – who’ve been praying for a Good Samaritan themselves, a “big strong man” to accomplish something they can’t do themselves: Build a chapel, one that will benefit the entire community. Homer reluctantly accepts the assignment, but he expects to be treated fairly for his time – which is to say, he expects to be paid. The nuns have no money, but they resort to various strategies to keep him around, like trying to manipulate him with scripture, including a theologically suspect application of the verse that gives the movie its title.
Homer decides to build the chapel, anyway, for his own reasons. The work will allow him to fulfill his unrealized dream of being architect. The work will also give him a sense of importance. These ambitions make sense, and more, we support them: Homer, after all, is a black man in mid-century America. His opportunities for dignity and esteem in a racist society are, at best, limited and challenged. Homer’s personal relationship to the chapel project puts him at odds with the woman who is his boss/patron/client, Mother Maria, an equally headstrong spirit, whose brand of idealism – moralistic; humble; pragmatic – isn’t well suited for nurturing individual flourishing. And so ensues a highly metaphorical battle of wills between two flawed but well-meaning people. At stake: Control, mutual respect, and the future of a potentially great society. Or so it feels.
The climax of the story hinges on an aspect of Homer’s chapel-building plan that is essential to his personal project: He wants to do it all by himself. His hunger for significance is that great. But what happens next – and this is the part, I think, that Moviegoer Nun didn’t want to spoil for Reader Nun – is that Homer can’t do it alone. The work is too arduous; he’ll surely destroy himself from the effort. And there are people who want to help him. People who’ve been inspired by his example… as well as a few spurred by a certain kind of self-interest that borders on superstition: At least two characters who lack faith in God believe that by helping Homer, they will gain some credit – “insurance” – just in case this religion stuff turns out to be true and they find themselves needing some compelling arguments to get into Heaven. Homer isn’t wild about accepting their assistance – he spends a few scenes striking and pouting – but when he sees that they are screwing up and making a mess of his masterpiece, he takes charge, and under his direction, they make a sturdy, pleasing structure. Still, Homer demands the final stroke. He signs his name in the cement at the base of the cross atop the chapel, like an artist applying a signature. He crosses the T in “Smith” with a proud flourish, evoking the cross itself. The implication, to me, is that when Homer looks at the chapel, he sees a monument to his great work, a work of man, not God.
This gesture lends provocative subtext to the final scene of the movie. Homer – who’s been teaching the nuns English with call-and-response interaction and gospel songs of his Baptist tradition – tricks Mother Maria into finally thanking him (as opposed to God) for his labor. He then segues out of the awkward moment by launching the nuns into a rousing chorus of “Amen!” As the nuns continue praising God for his provision and salvation, Homer sneaks to his station wagon: The dude is getting out of dodge like a proverbial thief in the night. But Sister Maria is hip to his exit plan, and she’s disappointed. She wants Homer to stay. He’s become essential to the community – the great society – she’s been trying to organize. In fact, this secular superman is more of a compelling inspiration/rallying point than the priest (and God) she serves. Yet she won’t ask him to stay. Perhaps she’s too proud. Perhaps because she respects his freedom/self-determination. Perhaps because doing so would mean affirming his heroic human agency in such a way that feels like a violation of her theology. Homer’s motives are equally open to interpretation. Is he skipping town because he’s just humble enough to reject the role Mother Maria wants him to play? Is he skipping town so he can have victory on his own terms? Or is he skipping town because he feels like he just doesn’t belong? He takes one last look at the chapel, then drives off into the mountains, “Amen!” playing him up and out as the movie fades to black.
One more note: My understanding is that the movie is pretty faithful to the book… except for the very end, which according to Wikipedia omits a curious postscript. In the novel’s epilogue, we learn that after Homer’s departure, the townspeople transformed Homer’s brief, accidental stay and very human example of flawed heroism into a religious myth. Homer, they came to believe, was no mere Good Samaritan, but a mini-messiah who came to fulfill the will of God. Even the nuns embraced this fabrication by placing a painting in the chapel depicting the man they called “Schmidt” as a saint. They could never get his name right. Why not his life, as well?
And in this way… religions are made? (Or maybe just the bad ones.) I wonder if Reading Nun will come to the same conclusion when she reaches the end of the book?
NEXT: We shall overcome. Someday.