American Horror Story recap: Cinema No Paradiso

Devil-possessed Sister Mary turns Sister Jude's movie night into a bloody black mass in 'Nor'easter'
Ep. 03 | Aired Oct 31, 2012

What Evil Lurks In The Hearts Of Men? Only Sister Mary (Lily Rabe) knows. AND THE DEVIL INSIDE HER.

Byron Cohen/FX

We see the troubled nun trying to distract herself from her curious case of conscience by working in the bakery. Yet no matter how hard she massages and kneads, the memory of 6-22-49 beats on her like a rolling pin to the head. What she needs is a session with a gracious Alienist to process her sore psyche. What she gets instead is Dr. Oliver Thredson, who enters the kitchen and inquires about her noticeable agitation. She dodges, denies. She says the “inclement weather … upsets the natives, they’re fragile souls.” Thredson seizes the opportunity to confront Sister Jude about how she disciplines Briarcliff’s sensitive unfortunates. He asks her to abandon corporal punishment and adopt a policy of “positive reinforcement,” citing the work of B.F. Skinner, a psychologist, social philosopher, and proponent of radical Behavioralism, the belief that the study of human behavior should focus first and foremost on environmental histories and reinforcing consequences. (B.F Skinner -- Bloody Face; skin masks. Is there a connection?) “In lay terms, sister,” says Thredson, oozing righteous condescension, ”a little compassion would go a long way.” It’s enough to make Sister Jude’s eyes roll…

But she doesn’t completely disagree. She reveals she’s got a treat in store for inmates – something to elevate their spirits. It’s a quintessential Friday evening ritual – a movie night. St. Angelo Parish is loaning her the projector, and the archdiocese is lending a film from its library: Cecile B. Demille’s The Sign of the Cross, a kitschy classic from 1932 that was famously censored after the Motion Picture Production Code -- largely informed by Christian moralism -- became stringently enforced in 1934. The film also helped catalyze the formation of the National Legion of Decency in 1993, dedicated to staunching the "massacre of innocence" and promoting the  "purification of the cinema." It was until the mid-sixties -- about the time of Asylum -- the Hollywood shed the Code and hardened itself to the Legion's influence. And then everything got better, and everyone lived happily ever after. Right?

The subtext deepens and thickens when Sister Mary hits the Common Room to interrupt the maddening bleat of The Singing Nun and make an important announcement. “There’s a big storm headed our way. And when it hits, half of you are going to be too afraid to move, and the other half won't be able to stop moving. It would be chaos. And that won't do. So, Sister Jude has arranged for a distraction. A movie on Friday night when the storm is at its worst. We’re all going to be together, in the dark, watching The Sign of the Cross. A movie full of fire, sex, and the death of Christians. What fun.”

“The big storm” is a metaphor for crisis (existential or social), and “movie night” is A SATANIC BLACK MASS a metaphor for the things we do to run away from our problems (figuratively or literally), instead of dealing with them, to the point that our escapism become debilitating problems themselves. Over the next several scenes, we see Sister Mary acting devilish, even despicable, and yet her terrorism also exposes and reflects back the weakness or corruption of the person she’s terrorizing. What evil lurks in the hearts of men? Only Sister Mary knows! Is this her intention? An important big picture question, for sure. For now, irrelevant. What’s important is how her targets respond to the scary images – the cracked yet truthful mirror -- she puts before them. A quote, from the episode's featured author, Anais Nin: "From the backstabbing co-worker to the meddling sister-in-law, you are in charge of how you react to the people and events in your life. You can either give negativity power over your life or you can choose happiness instead. Take control and choose to focus on what is important in your life. Those who cannot live fully often become destroyers of life.”

Sister Mary's day of mayhem begins with The Mexican (real name not given), an elderly female inmate who loves to sway to The Singing Nun and whose seemingly devout Catholicism feels more like superstition. After Sister Mary issues her severe weather advisory/programming announcement, she beelines toward The Mexican, flashes her with evil snake eyes. Confronted with palpable evil, The Mexican shrinks from fear, and retreats to her cell like a survivalist to a bomb shelter.

Next: The Boss. As an increasingly paranoid Sister Jude orders Frank to keep a wary eye on Dr. Thredson, Sister Mary barges into the room holding a decanter of communion wine. She claims someone has been sneaking sips and adding water to cover it up. She places the bottle within tempting reach of Sister Jude – not a nice thing to do an alcoholic. Sister Mary fake apologizes. She knows better, and proves it by reciting Sister Jude’s conversion story, about how she renounced all worldly pleasures, including a booze addiction, after receiving “a calling from Jesus Christ” in 1949. Hearing this, Sister Jude’s guilty conscience flares. SCREECH! SLAM! SPLAT! Time to confess, yes? No. Sister Jude eyeballs and fixates on the “ravish me red” lipstick on Sister Mary's mouth and blasts her for looking “like a street walker” – which is to say, the floozy tramp that Judy used to be, and still is, at least in her mind’s eye. Time to deal, yes? Again: Nyet! Sister Mary springs a twist: The lipstick was a gift… for Sister Jude… from Dr. Arden. Sister Jude burns indignant. She now has a new prime suspect for her phantom menace – a new scapegoat for her own demons. (Note: Much later in the episode, we get a reference to C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, so it's probably relevant to note the notorious "Problem of Susan." In The Last Battle, we learn that Susan Pevensie, the eldest girl of the four kids from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, was not permitted to re-enter Narnia as a teenager because "she's interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.")

NEXT: Red Scare


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