Last night’s American Horror Story was the show’s Christmas episode. It was the scariest episode of the show yet. It was grotesque, mean-spirited and had an honest-to-God unsettling villain. What made this episode so effective was the minor theme of powerlessness that ran through all of the characters, bad or good.
The characters are reminded time and again that being in a mental hospital means that their words have no power. Dr. Thredson tells Lana that no one will believe her story about Bloody Face because she’s a mental patient, and he uses Kit’s taped confession to frame him, knowing no one will believe Kit either. He accuses Lana of taking his power away as well, and to a certain extent, that’s also true. No patient has control over their daily life, and we see Sister Jude cane them like children when they “misbehave.” Ian McShane’s Serial Killer Santa reminds Jude that she threw him into solitary confinement for a year without medical care, and his wounds are now beyond treatment. Grace’s attempt to control her own life (ending her abuse by killing her abuser) ended with her helpless in Briarcliff. Sister May Eunice is under the control of the Devil, and Dr. Arden is being blackmailed by his Nazi past.
This concept of powerlessness is perhaps the only thing about mental health that the show has gotten right. Society mistrusts people with mental illnesses and fears them. They lose jobs, homes and friends when others find out about their illnesses, never mind the fact that 1) mental illnesses are brain diseases; 2) there is a broad spectrum of illnesses, symptoms and functioning; and 3) they aren’t contagious, so working with, living with and being friends with a person with mental illness is not going to infect you. Mental illnesses are chronic diseases that are diagnosed and treated the same way diabetes, heart disease and cancer are treated, with lifestyle changes and medication.
I’m sure that American Horror Story doesn’t have a point to this discussion because they never have a point to any of their character arcs. The idea worked in the writer’s room, so they went with it. Being powerlessness can be scary, and so it fits into the “throw everything at the wall” writing style they have. It is inadvertently making an important point; that everyone needs to be valued. Society and the individuals within it have to work hard to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. Leave it up to this silly show to make an important point in a very scary manner.
Next week, we find out what happened to Dr. Arden in the tunnel, and whether Sister Jude can take on the Devil.