Season 2 of American Horror Story is set in Briarcliff Manor, an asylum for the criminally insane in 1960s Massachusetts run by the Catholic Church. While Leo (Adam Levine) and Theresa (Jenna Dewan-Tatum), the newlyweds intent on visiting America’s most fearsome sites, are in the present day, the rest of the characters exist in the heyday of Briarcliff in 1964. The central theme pervading each scene and character is sanity; yet, battles between the sexes, between church and science, and between sexuality and purity ensue tangentially throughout.

A cross of twigs, a discarded baby doll, and an IV hanging from a barren tree open the season premiere of Asylum. Leo snaps photographs of the discarded relics while bantering with Theresa. They’re on their honeymoon of horrors — a trip to the 12 most haunted sites in America. The couple is beginning their ritual frisky christening of the haunted locale on an electroshock table, when Theresa is startled by a noise. They make their way to the death shoot door. Leo opens it and thrusts his arm into the shoot, videotaping the cavernous tunnel. He staggers back screaming, as his arm is savagely torn from his body.

Then, thrown back to 1964, Kit Walker (Evan Peters) is closing up a gas station, crooning along to The Drifters' “There Goes My Baby “ on the radio. After a verbal scuffle with a handful of guys, Kit returns home to his interracial marriage. While his wife goes to finish dinner, lights trap the house in opaque whiteness and deafening sounds blare uncompromisingly. Kit is lifted to the ceiling, then free falls back to the floor. It’s unclear if this is all happening in Kit’s imagination or if surreal forces are indeed at work here. Regardless, it becomes apparent that Kit Walker will be Briarcliff’s newest resident.

Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) is an aspiring journalist who arrives at Briarcliff intent on meeting Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), the head of the asylum. She encounters Sr. Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) who leads her into the institution where insanity abounds. The pair enter Sr. Jude’s office to catch the nun shaving the head of Shelley (Chloe Sevigny), an alleged nymphomaniac. Lana wants to know about the patient arriving at Briarcliff that afternoon — Bloody Face, a man accused of skinning and murdering three women. Contemptuously, Sr. Jude leads Lana to the front steps where he’ll be arriving.

Out from the police cab steps no other than Kit Walker. After he’s been checked in, Sister Jude asks him about the murder of his wife: ”Did her dark meat slide off the bone any easier than your other victims?” When Kit enters into the common area later that day, Shelley comes on to him, Grace (Lizzie Brochere) befriends him, and Spivey (Mark Consuelos) issues him a welcome beating. “They say I chopped up my family,” Grace says before claiming the charges are untrue and questioning Kit of his own guilt. Asylum is definitely not eager to distinguish the truly insane from those caught in circumstance and wrongfully admitted.

Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell) leads the charge for scientific study at Briarwood. His credentials are immediately called into question when Sr. Jude enters his quarters demanding to know what happened to the four patients that have died under his watch. His answer is cremation, to which Sr. Jude replies with her Boston snarl full of suspicion: “I’ll always win against the patriarchal male."

If it wasn’t obvious before that Asylum would be rife with contextual contradictions, it certainly is when Sr. Jude prepares dinner for Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes). The aging nun douses her leathery chest with perfume, and dons a scarlet red slip beneath her habit before setting down with the father. While the black robed servants of the church eat and discuss their future in the ministry, we’re treated to the fantasy of Sr. Jude shedding her habit, releasing her auburn hair, and planting her lips on the youthful monsignor before she shakes herself back to reality.

Meanwhile, Lana Winters returns home to her partner Wendy (Clea Duvall). They lovingly tease one another, embrace after closing the blinds, and discuss Lana’s career aspirations. “This is my shot,” says Lana, referring to the asylum and Bloody Face. Lana then returns to the asylum and catches Sr. Mary dropping buckets of bloody contents in the woods. She uses this to persuade Sr. Mary to give her a tour of Briarwood. But Lana is soon discovered, and awakens with her blurry vision landing on a sniveling Sr. Jude, as she’s strapped to a bed. From there, Sr. Jude pays a visit to Lana’s house to have a discussion with Wendy about Lana’s “inversion.” She blackmails Wendy saying she’ll lose her teaching job if people knew of the “shenanigans that took place in this little love nest.” A distressed Wendy gives Lana her “in” to the asylum with a single condemning signature.

The episode ends back in the present with Leo bleeding out from his arm, and Theresa running for help only to meet Bloody Face in the flesh. The cast, many of which are returning from last season to play new characters, give downright eerie performances with impressive nuance. Lange is undoubtedly meant to be the star of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s second installation of the hit series, and she owns every scene in which Sr. Jude appears. The coming weeks of American Horror Story: Asylum are sure to be filled with more gore, physiological thrill, and thematic exploration that makes for some of the best frightful entertainment on the small or big screen.

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