For the past three years, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk‘s gleefully unhinged genre anthology American Horror Story has truly been the television gift that keeps on giving. No other show has delivered the heady brew of laughs, scares, sex, and WTF that AHS serves up on a weekly basis. Nor has any show nurtured such a wonderfully offbeat stable of core performers (Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson, Zachary Quinto, Frances Conroy, Lily Rabe) while delivering some of the best guest stars around (Jessica Lange – still a grand dame Special Guest Star in the classic sense, in my book – Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Danny Huston, Chloe Sevigny, Gabourey Sidibe). What might have started as a sly genre experiment (“Can we really kill off the entire cast before anyone realizes it’s an anthology?”) has evolved into a bold, boundary-shattering, and totally unique meditation on the skeletons in America’s closet – including, to name just a few: racism, homophobia, bullying, religious intolerance, misogyny, infidelity, school violence, and our treatment of the mentally ill and differently-abled.
Fans of the show would likely agree that almost every episode of AHS is worth a watch. But we’ve picked through the entrails of Seasons 1-3 (so far) to highlight a few of the best episodes… and one of the weakest. Let’s sharpen our knives and dig in!
5. “Burn, Witch. Burn!” – Season 3, Episode 5
It’s interesting – while the current witch-centered season has been far and away the most popular and commercially successful, it hasn’t been particularly standout in terms of actual quality. Which is fine – not every episode needs to be a game-changer, and they still have four episodes left to really land one if they so choose. But with all this season’s bitchy backstabbings, clumsy race conversation, and zombie porn, “Burn, Witch. Burn!” (named after an excellent film of the same name that we recommended watching before the series kicked off) has been the standout so far for perfectly executing a full-scale undead invasion and making both Nan (Jamie Brewer) and Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) into kick-ass horror heroines, giving otherwise bland Cordelia (Paulson) the gift of second sight, showing Fiona’s (Lange) softer side (in a brilliant scene where she breathes life into a stillborn baby), and giving some due screen time to the gloriously batty Myrtle Snow (three-season vet Conroy) before lighting her up like a Char-Broil. A great balance of scary, campy, and genuinely touching, which this show can do better than any other when it puts its deranged mind to it.
4. “Pilot” – Season 1, Episode 1
Let’s give credit where it’s due – the pilot episode for the show was one of the most buzzed-about of 2011, and for good reason. The first episode of the storyline that was eventually to become known as “Murder House” (though let’s remember that at the time nobody knew the show was an anthology series, the first of many genius twists) broke just about every established rule of televised drama. It was paced like an ADD fever dream, leaving us gasping for breath and struggling to keep track of multiple plot threads from behind shielded eyes. It was extremely violent and legitimately scary, what with the thing in the basement killing the twin kids and the first appearance of Rubber Man and everything. And it of course gave us the image of a bare-assed Dylan McDermott crysturbating onto a baby’s changing table, which could pretty much serve as a primary metaphor for the entire show.
3. “Birth” – Season 1, Episode 11
At the other end (almost) of Season 1, the show really put it all on the table (sorry, Dylan!) in this gut-wrenching episode, where it did the unthinkable: it killed of its leading lady (single-seasoner Connie Britton). “Birth” brilliantly pulled a dozen equally crazy threads together (remember psycho Hayden? Chad and Patrick? the dead nurses from 1968?) and bookended the Harmons’ tragic tale by bringing the family back to the moment of Violet‘s birth, even as her ghost watches her own mother die in childbirth and joins her in the afterlife to comfort her. In a season already chock full of “I can’t believe they just did that” moments, this one took the ipecac-laced cake.
2. “Madness Ends” – Season 2, Episode 13
After a bleak, brutal, and meandering second season that left a lot of viewers frustrated or turned off entirely, the “Asylum” season finally – and triumphantly – reached its finish line in the brilliant “Madness Ends,” which found plucky lesbian reporter Lana Winters recalling her trials at Briarcliff and facing down old demons during a late-career interview. It was a bold and inspired way of tying up a season’s worth of mayhem, and it stuck the landing with aplomb. Finally, with the distance afforded us by the gauze of a survivor’s memories, we were able to step back and see the season for what it was: an acid-laced commentary on how mental health is dealt with in America, especially when discussing women and minorities. The finale was as cruel and clear-eyed as it needed to be while still offering some respite for its beleaguered players (Kit Walker, Sister Jude, and even Son of Bloody Face), and Sarah Paulson kicked serious ass as one of television’s – and the horror genre’s – only bona fide LGBT heroes.
Next page: The very best and very worst of AHS!