Episode Title: “I Am Anne Frank, Part 1”
Written by: Jessica Sharzer
Directed by: Michael Uppendahl
Previously on “American Horror Story: Asylum”:
Well, that’s a cute idea.
Franke Potente joined the cast of “American Horror Story: Asylum” this week as a holocaust survivor claiming to be Anne Frank… that Anne Frank. Her story – she survived the holocaust, but so ill that she was unable to tell anyone her real name, and then held her tongue because her diary and “death” were an inspiration – would be ridiculous if she didn’t have the Auschwitz tattoo to back it up, and the accurate information that Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) is a Nazi war criminal.
It’s easy to believe her story from the comfort of your couch with a cup of hot cocoa in your hands, but when you run a mental institution it’s a little harder to suspend your disbelief, and that makes for delicious suspense. Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) calls her story “obscene,” and even on TV it would be if Frank was the main character. Can you imagine? “This fall on NBC… Her diary inspired the world… Her real life was a mystery. Franke Potente stars in ‘Anne Franke: The New Mysteries.” Audiences would break out the pitchforks, and rightly so, if only because it’s a stupid idea. But as a subplot on a series where there are no rules, and mad scientists, demonic possessions, aliens and serial killers share the same frame every week, it’s just plausible enough to be an intriguing “What if?”
“I Am Anne Frank, Part 1” opens with Anne being committed to an asylum for stabbing some men in a bar for making anti-Semitic remarks (irony!) and revealing her “true” identity after seeing Dr. Arden in the halls and attacking him. She shares her story with Sister Jude – Arden was there at Auschwitz and performed experiments on the prisoners – and makes it sound just plausible enough that her already raised suspicions go to the top floor. (Arden’s real name sounds like, although I didn’t catch the exact spelling, “Hans Gruber.” Yup, like in Die Hard. It’s intensely distracting.) Later in the episode, detectives show up to investigate the allegations of the prostitute from “Nor’Easter,” who, we only just now discover, found Arden’s Nazi memorabilia before she escaped his clutches last week. Sister Jude attempts to tell the Monsignor (Joseph Fiennes), who accuses her of bias and letting her alcoholism skew her judgment. Then he calls Dr. Arden, apparently knowing full well of his past, and warns him that the walls are closing in.
“American Horror Story: Asylum’s” biggest problem is the series’ pacing, which ramps up and down haphazardly as the show’s increasingly uncountable subplots vie for equal screen time and emphasis. The series could have coasted for an entire season on the storylines introduced in the first episode, of “Asylum” that is, but keeps dumping information, new characters and increasingly exaggerated plotlines on us in a frantic attempt to remain shocking. Anne Frank, whose story we’re inclined to just buy because why the hell not at this point, is just the latest in a long line of wrongly persecuted inmates at the asylum. Her backstory is niftier, but it boils down to a plot device polished to a sparkly shine; they needed someone to actually recognize Arden as a war criminal, and they decided to make it Anne Frank. They must have giggled up a storm in the writers room that day.
Meanwhile, Dr. Thredson (Zachary Quinto) is committed – all puns intended – to getting Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) out of the asylum, but can’t do so unless he actually “cures” her of her homosexuality. She’s desperate enough to escape that she commits wholeheartedly to Thredson’s monsterous “aversion/conversion” therapy, which involves dumping poisonous chemicals into her body while she looks at pictures of sexy ladies, and then forcing her masturbate while staring at a naked man in front of her, and yes, even doing stuff to him while Thredson watches. My knowledge of psychiatric treatment for homosexuality in the mid-20th century is limited, but the idea is clear: even the real psychiatrists were pretty monstrous from a modern perspective. It’s an extremely uncomfortable scene, and by extension actually horrifying, but my god, after a minute you just avert your eyes thinking “they’re really going here, aren’t they?”
Also meanwhile (there’s a lot of “meanwhiles” when you’ve got this many stories competing for your attention), the romance between Kit Walker (Evan Peters) and Grace (Lizzie Brochere) comes to a carnal conclusion, but instead of being caned for their indiscretions, Sister Jude decides to “sterilize” them. Yipes. It’s a rough episode for Kit: Thredson seems convinced that he killed his wife and suppressed the memories, suffering a psychotic break from the pressures of keeping their mixed-race marriage a secret. It seems plausible enough that Kit starts to believe him, even though the audience largely knows better (and so should Thredson, since he said in the last episode that he suspects Kit is innocent). Meanwhile, again, Grace reveals her own backstory – she was framed for her parents’ murder – before Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), largely absent this week, shows Kit her file, in which he learns that she really did kill them herself. Grace confesses, revealing that her father raped her and her mother believed but did nothing about her accusations, reclaiming the sympathy of both the audience and Kit.
“I Am Anne Frank, Part 1” is a cluttered episode. The good stuff is often overplayed, the overly familiar gets too much screen time and one gets the impression that the series could have been structured in such a way as to give each storyline more room to breathe. I’m certain that the showrunners are in a bit of rush to do everything they want within this world, since they only have one season to play around in it, but there are so many strong characters and intriguing subplots that they could have easily carried the whole series to their conclusion without constantly (at least) deluging the audience with more melodrama. But it’s eventful enough to be an improvement over last week’s overwrought “Nor’Easter,” so I’ll cut it a little slack and hope the conclusion to this two-parter makes all the craziness worth it. Again, all puns intended.
Photo Credit: Byron Cohen