'American Horror Story: Asylum' Review: "Dark Cousin"

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The angel of death drops by and visits just about everyone on this week's episode of 'American Horror Story: Asylum' because hey, they've got everything else -- why not add an angel, too? And while we're at it, an encounter with a mutant cannibal!

"Dark Cousin" sure is a marked improvement over last week's lackadaisical outing, and there's plenty of suffering to go around. In fact, it seems that all anyone does this week is suffer miserably, making for quite a bleak hour.

I think we spend a little too much time hanging out with Sister Jude and her alcoholism, but man, no one has a booze problem like Jessica Lange. The outcome of her arc this week is ultimately rewarding, as we discover the little girl she thought she killed turns out to be alive and all of her endless suffering crystallizes when she meets the grown-up girl and her family. Still, the pacing of the individual plots this week felt too labored -- we get a few quick stories, then a long stay with Jude, and then back around to tie some things up. The pacing is perhaps too paint-by-numbers.

And then there's the angel of death, played by 'American Horror Story' vet Frances Conroy, who visits Grace, Lana, Jude, and an unnamed patient at various points throughout the episode. The black wing effect coupled with the old-time glamour job they did on Conroy is exquisite, but I'm also quite taken with the way they've chosen to romanticize death by having her appear to kiss the dying goodbye and welcome them to the afterlife. It accomplishes something this show has yet to really attempt -- a marriage between the macabre and the whimsical, and it succeeds.

But the best stuff occurs to poor Lana this week, whose suffering is starting to rival Shelly's, even though she still has legs and her skin is sort of impeccable for being locked in a sweaty basement for so long. I take some issue with how much Ryan Murphy and Co. chose to show while Thredson raped Lana (and that's more to do with the taste level of Murphy, who I just don't think can pull this off with much skill or efficacy), but it was almost worth it for the shot of the angel of death appearing to Lana in the corner of the room -- a haunting image, for sure. And just before Thredson can kill her, Lana wrestles away his syringe, knocks him out, and barely manages to free herself in one of the most intense sequences we've seen this season. It didn't seem that Lana had a fighting chance between Briarcliff and Thredson's nightmare basement, and with all the fake-out escape attempts that preceded her time away from Briarcliff, I certainly wasn't counting on Lana finding a way out of this mess, but the show gives us a moment to really root for her...

Until she gets in a car with a misogynist whose wife left him (guest star William Mapother), who of course has to spout off some very unsubtle stuff about how women are always to blame and deserve whatever they get before shooting himself in the head, wrecking the car and sending Lana back to Briarcliff. And of course the devil-possessed Mary Eunice believes her story about Bloody Face and Thredson, but she's not going to be any help.

Mary Eunice is a busy little devil, you know -- ripping out Grace's lady parts and blaming the botched surgery on Thredson, toying with Judith and enticing her to drink and maybe kill herself, and then there's her delightful encounter with the angel of death. The exchange between Lily Rabe and Frances Conroy was another highlight this week -- we've already seen how dynamic Rabe can be (and I'm starting to side with a friend who thinks she's the show's MVP) squaring off with Jessica Lange and James Cromwell, but putting her up against Frances Conroy and letting the two sides of Mary Eunice fight each other in the presence of this pure and darkly beautiful entity was something else. It's almost as if the writers keep introducing new challenges for her, and week after week she just knocks it out of the park.

Oh, and Kit is back, too. It seems that unless he can change Thredson's mind, he's going to the electric chair, but once he finds out that Grace has fallen ill, Kit breaks out of prison and heads back to Briarcliff to save Grace, only to accidentally let one of those cannibal mutants in and then he gets Grace shot by a guard -- and just when Arden had fixed her up and made her all better!

The only running theme this week seems to be that aforementioned suffering, whether it's Judith's inner demons, Kit's struggle to maintain his innocence and refusal to let another woman he loves get hurt, Lana's torment at the hands of both the asylum staff and Thredson, or Mary Eunice's poor tortured soul. But there's also the eternal struggle between good and evil within each of these stories, with the fight between life and death and light and dark. It's an obvious theme for the show, and one I'm surprised it's taken them so long to explore, but no one's story expresses this infinite struggle more than Judith's -- no matter how much you try to fight evil, you can't erase its existence, and these folks live in a time and place where the two simply cannot coexist.

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