American Horror Story recap: Downfall Abbey

Death and regime change come to The Asylum, as the powerful take a tumble and the misfits take charge. And dance!
Ep. 10 | Aired Jan 2, 2013

Damn Plucky. Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) conspires to take control of her fate in "The Name Game."

Prashant Gupta/FX

It wasn’t the counsel Monsignor Timothy wanted to hear, but he knew it was the course of action he needed to take. Sister Mary wasn’t going to make it easy. In fact, as she found him later that night, girding himself for spiritual warfare, she mocked his prayers, and told him she could see all those desperate little death plots percolating in his murky little mind. Father Howard was ready to give up, but he rallied to heroism when The Devil said that despite his want, he was stuck with her: She was going to make him stay the course to The Vatican, and make him take her along for the ride. Timothy had enough moral clarity to know that this would be a bad thing. He could not let The Devil rape any more meaning out of The Church. (I’ve appreciated how American Horror Story has shaded its portrayal of this craven man by making it clear that his belief that The Church should be -- and can be -- a redemptive force of good in the world is quite genuine.)

He went after The Devil’s weakness: His/Her/Its humanity. Which is to say, Sister Mary, the blind faith bride of Christ that The Devil was holding hostage within her own body. Satan – who could barely roll her eyes when Timothy invoked the name of God earlier in the episode -- got downright pissed when he name-checked Sister Mary. The demon pinned the priest against the handrails of The Stairway to Heaven and threatened to “devour the last morsel” of Sister Mary’s soul right then and there. The monster must have gagged on it, because suddenly, The Devil was gone, and Sister Mary was back in control of herself. At least, for the moment.

She apologized to The Monsignor. She said was so tired of fight. She also said she “couldn’t let go,” which I took to mean that she couldn’t bring herself to pursue the quick fix solution of suicide. “Then let go of me, Sister,” said Timothy. Sister Mary released her grip, and he threw her off the stairs. The first fallen angel fell all over again, this time taking an innocent mortal with him. But her eyes flashed with gratitude the whole slow-mo way down. They landed and shattered.

Shachath was upon them in an instant. “Take me,” Sister Mary begged.

“I will take both of you,” replied the grim femme fatale. She smooched the nun, and Sister Mary was taken from the Earth. Ditto The Devil? Was the implication of Shachath’s valediction that Satan no longer haunts the world?

With Sister Mary gone, Dr. Arden had no reason to stick around. He convinced Monsignor Timothy to let him burn the body – even though cremation was in violation of Church teaching (or so Father Howard said) – and to perform the operation solo. Down in the death chute, the former death camp doctor prepared Sister Mary’s corpse for disposal… and then climbed on top of her. He had yearned for such a hot moment for quite some time – minus the part where she was dead. Oh, and the part with incinerator, too. The door closed. The flames did their work. Hans Gruber screamed like a man burning in hell. Next stop: The real thing.

So it went that The Asylum’s dynamically dysfunctional power couple – an alliance of spoiled faith and foul science -- was deposed and disposed. I saw another transition, too. Both represented some old school horror tropes: The Devil, the world’s first bad guy; The (Nazi) Mad Scientist, a Modern era rogue. Who will take their place? Most likely Briarcliff’s newest staff member: Dr. Oliver Thredson, the post-modern bogeyman -- the serial killer. You'll be seeing a lot of him on TV this spring, from The Following to Hannibal to Bates Motel. One trait they all have in common -- a kind of evil that seems to never go out of style -- is misogyny. The season's not over. Maybe the aliens can help us find a cure for that.

How to measure the legacy of The Devil’s reign of terror during her stint as Briarcliff's major domo? At times, The Adversary was a counter-culture iconoclast, rebel/radical, or militant liberator. Her alliances with ambitious, awful men – most notably, with Arden; less successfully, with Howard – seemed to be driven by some shared or parallel purpose, but were ultimately in service of bringing them down, along with everything they represented. By the end, though, what little good came of her impish work was incidental and irrelevant to the primary agenda of promoting irreverence and cynicism, meaninglessness and faithlessness. Her parting gift struck me as a symbol for all of that...

NEXT: The Great Big Music Box

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