Ian McShane guest stars as a homicidal Santa in an episode that doesn't really know what to do with him.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Episode Title: “Unholy Night”

Written by: James Wong

Directed by: Michael Lehmann

Previously on “American Horror Story: Asylum”:

Episode 2.07 'Dark Cousin'

Why has there never been a horror movie called Unholy Night? I suspect that’s what the creators of “American Horror Story: Asylum” were thinking when they came up with this week’s episode, in which essentially the killer from Silent Night, Deadly Night (or the new remake Silent Night, if you must) turns out to be living in Briarcliff and wreaks a little havoc for the yuletide season. And since he’s played by the great Ian McShane (“Deadwood”), he may be the best “Scary Santa” in history. I just wish the episode was worthy of him.

“American Horror Story: Asylum” exists in this strange nebulous space between episodic television and the purely serialized variety. There’s the “X-Files” route, in which almost every episode is self-contained but subplots continue throughout the series, highlighted in “very special episodes,” and then there’s the “Breaking Bad” route, where every episode bleeds into the next, furthering the main story whether or not the actual events of an episode is actually self-contained. For large stretches, that’s what “American Horror Story: Asylum” seems committed to, but many episodes seem to focus on a new, or at least previously unseen inmate at Briarcliff, tell their story and then end with them disposed of in one way or another, but mostly using those characters to push the story forward.

The result is a frustrating storytelling method that simultaneously tells you that new characters like “Anne Frank” and “Santa Claus” are both important and completely inconsequential. When Leigh (McShane) appears at the beginning of the episode, blowing the brains out of a Salvation Army Santa and then invading the home of a superficially Christmasy family, threatening rape and then (presumably) only killing them, we’re very interested. It’s not the most original idea we’ve ever seen, but it’s rare to see a television series tackle the Christmas horror genre without submitting to a happy holidays ending, although it might actually have been more perverse if “American Horror Story: Asylum” had tried one in its own, inimitable fashion.

But when Leigh turns out to have been in solitary confinement in Briarcliff this whole time, only to be released when Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) and Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) have someone they need disposed of, it feels like a waste of McShane’s talents and the audience’s time. The series establishes an interesting new character and then only exploits him as a minor plot point. Why bother? With a cast this broad, were there no other ways to dovetail an existing story element into the episode? Sister Mary Eunice has no compunctions against murdering someone herself, as we see when she kills the security guard, Frank (Fredric Lehne), who is willing to turn himself in to the authorities for accidentally killing Grace (Lizzie Brocheré) in the previous episode, thus potentially exposing the asylum’s horrible secrets.

The main plot of “Unholy Night” deals with Sister Mary Eunice and Dr. Arden’s plans to remove any obstacles from their path to… continue being evil, I suppose. What is Sister Mary Eunice’s plan? We get the impression that she doesn’t really have one, and just likes acting as a beacon of chaos. Dr. Arden at least has goals – terrible, disgusting goals – so his machinations feel motivated by need. But Sister Mary Eunice is just a plot device walking around in a habit at this point. Last week we got through a whole episode focusing on one her angelic counterparts (since, as we all know by now, Sister Mary Eunice is possessed by a demon), and learned nothing about what really makes her tick.

I digress. The plot of the episode centers around Dr. Arden and Sister Mary Eunice’s relationship. He seems to lament the disappearance of the original, sweet nun who has been replaced with a monster. He presents her with a Christmas present, beautiful ruby earrings cut from the intestinal tract of one of his concentration camp victims, and is disappointed that she’s not disgusted by the gift. So he goes to Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) in order to form an alliance against Sister Mary Eunice, but as the episode unfolds we discover it was all a ruse to get Sister Jude into Briarcliff, where she could be murdered by Leigh, newly released into the main populace for the holidays. When Leigh attacks a guard, Frank puts him back into solitary, where Sister Mary Eunice murders Frank, so Leigh can be blamed, then puts Leigh in the same room as Sister Jude, where they fight to the death. Leigh’s, naturally. You can’t kill Sister Jude before she gets institutionalized for the purposes of dramatic irony.

Meanwhile, Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) and Kit Walker (Evan Peters) realize that nobody’s done anything about Dr. Thredson, aka “Bloody Face” (Zachary Quinto). Thredson shows up secretly at the asylum, telling Lana that he’s destroyed all the evidence of his past transgressions, but before he can kill her to keep his secret, and punish Lana for “making” him have sex with her, Kit jumps Thredson and they tie him up, hiding the real killer in the asylum and deciding that they’ll figure out what to do with him later. Elsewhere, Dr. Arden has a close encounter of the third kind in the tunnels, but we have no idea what effect this alien contact will have on Arden – or the plot – until next week at least.

It’s a pretty straightforward episode of “American Horror Story: Asylum,” and by that I do mean very conventional. There’s a done-in-one storyline, the plot moves forward a little, and a minor character dies. At least everything progresses, but the trademarked anxiety and “what the hell-ishness” is absent. I blame the structure the series is falling into, an imperfect balance of standalone episodes and serialized momentum, for keeping “Unholy Night” from going anywhere particularly interesting. McShane is great as always, and gets to say things like, ““What do you say we blow this pop stand, go savage a few elves and then suck on each other?”

Yeah, I suppose that might have been a little preferable. 


Photo Credit: Byron Cohen/FX

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani