Sunday, July 21, 2013

FILM REVIEW: The Conjuring (2013) - James Wan

The horror genre is one that suffers from weight issues. It's a genre that is difficult to find craft and balance in. Many of the films take themselves too seriously or not seriously enough. A tinge to the left can have the audience laughing at it's disingenuous, while a tinge to the right can have them groaning in disgust. In essence, in the horror genre, it's very easy to break the diving board.

Now, I've been a fan of James Wan's since his career began. As anybody who knows me knows, I am an avid fan of the Saw franchise, in particular, the first three films (the first directed by James, and the original trilogy all written by his longtime partner in crime, Leigh Whannell). With his second film, I thought Dead Silence took itself a little too seriously, but it established an almost vaudeville voice in horror for Wan that separated itself from Saw.

Wan's fourth film, Insidious, saw Wan finally being taken seriously outside of his Saw fame. While lightning doesn't strike twice, it was Wan's second horror film (the first being Saw) to be made for under $2 million and making back around $100 million. One of the selling points of Insidious is that it tries something new with horror, and where that is concerned, I give it all the credit. Personally, I felt Insidious lost it's traction in it's third act, mainly because of the decision made to CGI the demon, and the amount of horror that was lost to the imagination. 

James Wan's balance is perfected in The Conjuring.

While The Conjuring isn't the perfect horror film, it is by far and away one of the best in the last few years, and definitely the best in Wan's history to date. It continues to feature Wan's vaudeville-type demons that started in Dead Silence, but it doesn't go overboard by showing them too much, and it has just the right amount of humor to balance out it's darkness.

The film follows the story of the Warrens (portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), real-life paranormal investigators who researched several famous "hauntings" (The Amityville Horror, and The Haunting In Connecticut being two other media pieces based off their cases). In The Conjuring, they come to the assistance of the Perron family, who begin experiencing disturbing things at their new home in Rhode Island.

While I don't praise many horror performances, I have to continue to give Vera Farmiga (Orphan, Up in the Air, Bates Motel) the credit she deserves. She has been one of my favorite actresses of the past decade, and she definitely doesn't disappoint here. 

In contrast with Insidious, and for the sake of argument, The Conjuring isn't anything new. But where some see this as a detractor, I see it as a perfection of approach to styles and tropes within the horror genre, similar to how Alfonso Duralde defended the film with, "...but Fred Astaire didn't invent tap dancing," James Wan did not invent the ghost/demon/exorcism style, but he damn near perfected it. 

While James Wan is now moving on to doing bigger budget films (Insidious 2 comes out in September, but Fast & Furious 7 is next on his production list), I personally cannot wait to see what else he comes up with in the horror genre. I would love to see him move outside of ghosts and try a thriller, as he is quite on point with his techniques in building suspense. 

Go see this film and support well-done horror films. Or be stuck with remakes of When A Stranger Calls. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Buy This Land (2013) - Chi-Dooh Li

This book is the summation of the American dream - an incredible, unexpected unlikely journey that ends with giving back, with paying it forward for future generations. It is the autobiography of Chi-Dooh Li, a man whose beginnings were just as extraordinary as his achievements.

When he was just a baby, he was to be left behind in China, with his grandfather, while the rest of his family traveled for his father's new job. Chi-Dooh's stepmother kidnapped him and brought him with them just before the Chinese came under Communist rule. Had he been left behind, as his grandfather wanted, Chi-Dooh's life path would have been very, very different. The family traveled often as Chi-Dooh grew up, going through Sydney, Taipei, Guatemala, and Bogota before Chi-Dooh followed in his brothers footsteps and traveled to America for higher education. While here, Chi-Dooh got his degree as a lawyer, found God, and started a family of his own.

When an Argentinian pastor spoke at his church, Chi-Dooh felt called to find a way to help the poor in Central America. This is what led to the founding of Agros International. What started as an experiment in Guatemala blossomed and expanded to other countries. Focused on long-term sustainability, Agros buys a parcel of land and provides expertise to farmers who then gradually pay for their portion of the land out of the profits they make on their crops.

Anyone who has tried to fight poverty knows that this did not come easily, but Chi-Dooh's experience with founding Agros has proven effective. It changes the system which has kept people poor, and it motivates the poor to work for land of their own. Chi-Dooh does not summarize in his book, either, which is fantastic if you are someone who desires to take on such altruistic goals yourself. He details all of the steps, each foot forward that was met with several steps back, each victory and each frustration, before being able to make a difference.

If there's anything to be taken away from Chi-Dooh's story, it's that anyone can make a difference.  The news has been filled with a lot of depressing stories recently, but there is still good going on in the world. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to see how they can make a difference, who want to read about the good that is going on in the world, or to people who just want to read an inspiring, uplifting, true story.

Agros International still operates and expands today. More information here:

Thursday, July 11, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Way Of Men (2012) - Jack Donovan

What is masculinity? This book claims to have the answer, and Jack Donovan gives his version of the truth in a way that reads unbiased. He even prefaces the book with commentary, stating that the book is less about touting and self-pity, and is more geared towards answering the simple question: "If men are a certain way, and there is a way to be manly then 'What is The Way of Men?' While reading, I found truth in Donovan's words even when I didn't want to, and although the book claims to be a treatise on masculinity, it reads more like a commentary on modern Western society.

It delves heavily into the concept of alpha and beta males, and one of the more interesting epiphanies of the book is it's discussion of how most men who would have been considered alpha, and spread their seed successfully in primitive days are now the men behind bars.

Boys need to run, play, and engage in their environments in ways that offer danger, struggle, but most importantly, risk. Donovan describes how modern society has made war too dangerous, how technology has driven exciting jobs into safety and boredom, and how, for the first time in history, the average man can afford to be careless. "Would pornography lose it's appeal without the possibility of sex?" Donovan asks, and offers similar questions about war and survival. This isn't just about men, though, this is about our society as a whole. There is a world outside of the cubicles and boxes many of us find ourselves stuck in, a world full of danger, hope, and love, but because of that awful thing - comfort, many of us will not find it.

In regards to masculinity, this begs the question, can masculinity exist in an intellectual society? What I mean by this is, can we ever reach an equilibrium that offers a world where boys can experience life, in all of its danger, at the same time that we live in a world that maximizes efficiency? I remember going camping as a young boy, and my friend and I, much against the wills of our parents, would go climbing on the side cliffs above Lake Superior. If we fell, we would have most definitely died, but it was fun, exhilarating, and remains a fond memory. If we coddle and protect each other too much, we'll find ourselves lacking both experience, joy, and passion throughout life, which also affects efficiency. So, in essence, yes, masculinity is necessary in an intellectual society even though it is painted as a negative or is only socially acceptable when it's been emasculated or feminized.

The Element Of Women In Competetion

One of my favorite sections of the book talks about how placing women in competition with men changes men's focus from impressing other men to impressing women, or losing interest altogether and doing just enough to get by. Either way this inevitably ends up changing strategies. Being someone who doesn't particularly enjoy peacocking, I can relate to this apathy on the grounds that I've seen what a pair of breasts does to coworkers.

Yet again, though, this begs us to answer how to integrate masculinity into modern society. We live in a world where all jobs and careers are viewed as competitions between sexes (some more than others... see: Engineering and Nursing). This applies to college, especially. We say things like, "Oh, more women are going to college than men and getting degrees, that must mean that because we now live in a more feminized society that men are just becoming lazy." None of these answers strives to look at the "WHY," behind why men are dropping out of society, colleges, marriages, commitments, fatherhood, etc. and they only further attempt to say that the only way we can get them back is by teaching them "compassion" and "non-violence" and "how to be a good role model (as long as that role model is a feminized version of a man)" 

The Demonization

Here's the thing I think Jack and I both agree on - masculinity and femininity are not subjective things. You can't do one thing and say that that's your redefined definition of masculinity or that that's your definition of femininity. Life, biology, and history just don't work that way.

Masculinity has become something that is progressively demonized by modern culture, but is still heavily respected amongst men, which has lead many men into a depressing silence, where they feel they must comply with the expectations and demands of society in order to properly be integrated and accepted in the modern world. You don't have to look much further than the recent, "Don't Be That Guy," campaign to see that men are always the default aggressors and women are the default victims. Strange, how that seems so anti-feminist in and of itself.

The second half of the book spends much of it's time focusing on how one can stand up and be a paragon of masculinity in the modern world compared to the days of tribes. You might have to sacrifice comfort, especially since you're more than likely to deal with radicals claiming that by you acting a certain way that you're imposing on their rights, but it's worth it in the end, and you'll be a much happier man for it.

There's too much fantastic content in this book for me to review it all. I could honestly sit here all day, and type half a novel myself on all of the amazing points in gender topics that Donovan brings to light, but I'd be doing the book a disservice, so I'll just recommend it highly. It's a great book for men to know that they're not alone, and it's a great book for women to better understanding the modern male, how gender relations have worked in the past comparatively with how they work today, and how they benefit a lot more than they probably think from our current government.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

FILM REVIEW: Pieta (2012) - Kim Ki-duk

Each year, there's always a standout film that is easily my favorite film from that year. Last year it was Moonrise Kingdom, the year before that it was Melancholia, before that it was Black Swan, and before that it was Slumdog Millionaire. Pieta has given Moonrise Kingdom a run for it's money on that list, but inevitably does not succeed to usurp it.

The South Korean revenge drama by seasoned director, Kim Ki-duk, is about Kang-do, a young man who takes pleasure in the brutality he inflicts on debtors to loan sharks. One day, a woman shows up at his front door, claiming to be the mother who abandoned him when he was a boy. 

Whenever I recommend films for people, or I say, "We need to watch this movie!" a lot of my friends are accustomed to saying "No," not because they don't want to watch a movie with me, but because I've more than likely selected a brutal, depressing film, and people don't always like to watch that.  One time a friend suggested I watch "House of Sand and Fog," and that I'd like it, because "it's depressing." I disliked that film a fair amount because it didn't feel genuine. It was sad, yeah, but that's not what makes a film great. I felt like the director was standing over my shoulder, whispering in my ear throughout the entire film, "Are you sad yet? ...How about now? ...And now?" It felt like the director was trying to make me sad, and not trying to tell a great story.

Pieta is well done enough for me to be okay with what it gets away with it, but it was riding dangerously close on that line. There is lots of great symbolism, and forehsadowing, and I can't tell whether it was the film's brutal grit, or the ending that got to me. I think it was the ending, because this film is kind of split into two halves, and it's the second half where I felt this film kind of derailed. There is a significant point where the film stops being a psychological drama and instead becomes the revenge flick that South Koreans are quite well known for. While this is an interesting turn of events, and it flows quite naturally in the context of the film, it feels a hair too predictable, and by that point, it felt the writer/director had painted himself into a corner, and so the ending ends up feeling a little disingenuous.

This far from ruins the film, though. It is an extremely well done piece of cinema, and if you can handle all of the grotesque and sexually explicit situations that this film presents, I recommend it highly.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Ham On Rye (1982) - Charles Bukowski

I've read many of Bukowski's short stories and poems, but I figured I should start his novels with the one that's hailed as his best. Ham On Rye stars Bukowski's alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, who is seen throughout his other novels and short stories, following him from his earliest memories up until his first job.

The book continues Bukowski's straight-forward prose, but within his tales of teenage angst and budding sexuality, as with all of his work, there's a unique poignancy to the characters Chinaski encounters (and Chinaski himself). Perhaps the most telling thing of Chinaski is not how he thinks, but how he acts towards women.

Being able to get inside his head, we hear his intense attraction towards almost every woman he meets, yet every time he is offered sex, he refuses. One example is when a teacher of his offers him sex in order to get him to keep up with his studies. Another time, he stays at a friends place, and hits on his mom until she offers him sex (which he then refuses). It could be because his parents Christianity is so far embedded in him, that he feels shameful, although I doubt that, considering how vehemently he despises his parents (and religion). I think there's a romantic deeply engrained in Chinaski (as I believe the same with Bukowski) but he cloaks it behind his idea of stoicism in masculinity, and while he has the burning temptation to have sex, he wants it to be genuine and not something cheap, bartered with a teacher, or taken from an easy cougar.

The most telling part of this is Chinaski's love for literature, and writing. It seems to be the only thing that helps him escape this imprisoned idea of stoic masculinity, the bluffing, the fighting, the sport. And so he begins his own set of stories and poems, which his abusive father eventually finds. Disgusted by their content, he throws Chinaski out of the house, where Chinaski fends for himself, barely surviving hotel room to hotel room, living off of alcohol and writing.

One of the reasons why I love Bukowski's writing so much is that he finds beauty in the mundane, the poignancy in every day life that others would just write off as "boring." The same vein contains the equally passionate love I have for David Lynch's film work, and it's no surprise that Bukowski named Eraserhead as one of his favorite films (although he hated film, in general). Both Lynch and Bukowski explore the surreal, idiosyncratic nature of humans, but instead of it coming across as forced or simply done for the sake of being different, as many artists who try to imitate them come across, both Bukowski and Lynch have a genuine heart for their work, and it shows.

The story ends on an equally mundane and poetic note. Chinaski walks into a penny arcade and begins playing a boxing game with a young Mexican boy. He feels this drive to pummel the Mexican boy into the ground, this drive to win. He philosophically questions why it's so important to win a stupid boxing game, and he answers himself with, "...just because it is." Chinaski loses, and leaves.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

MUSIC REVIEW: Ice On The Dune (2013) - Empire Of The Sun

The follow-up to the successful Walking On A Dream, Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore return after 4 years of silence. They've been known for combining experimental electronics with groovy riffs to form their unique sound, but this time around sees them dropping the avant-garde experimentation for a more mainstream pop approach. As Steele said in an interview, they'd like to see some top 40 action with this album.

Album opener, Lux, and album closer, Keep A Watch are really the only two tracks that have some semblance of their earlier work. DNA is a nice transition from Lux into the rest of the album, as it's a sort of segue between the two sounds.

Where this album falters is that almost every song sounds the same, and each seems to be compressed to all hell. Each track has a set of sparkling, glossy synths that wash in and out and really drown out any specifics in many of the chorus', making many of the songs feel very one-dimensional, in spite of their layers.

The middle of this album is the best part of it. I could see myself jamming to Awakening through Surround Sound any day, and is where Steele's goal of top 40 action seems possible (although Old Flavours, Celebrate, and Disarm have practically the same chord progressions in their chorus). I do have to give Old Flavours credit, though, as it's been my summer jam. I've been blasting it out of my car every chance I get - I can't get enough of it!

Undoubtedly, though, the best track on this album is I'll Be Around. It's a modern take on the 80's; one of the few to actually make me feel like I'm in a time period prior to my conception. A very romantic slow jam that screams to be a single.

Overall, I really enjoyed Ice on the Dune, it's a lot of fun, but that's about it. Steele may be aiming for top 40, but Walking On A Dream did great for all of it's weirdness! I hope with their next effort, they bring back some of the avant-garde elements that make people say "What the hell?" Because that's what their best at, and I think that's what will get them attention. In their defense, though, everyone keeps comparing them to MGMT, and they probably just want to run as far away from that as possible.

Best tracks: Awakening, I'll Be Around, Old Flavours

Saturday, February 16, 2013

FILM REVIEW: PressPausePlay (2011) - David Dworsky, Victor Kohler

Technology is great, but the industry is dead. All things are possible, but all things are potentially pointless. This seems to be the thesis behind PressPausePlay, a documentary on how technology has turned the world into photographers, filmmakers, and musicians, and inevitably, how we're faced with the harsh reality of what that means for art culture, as a whole.

The film itself remains unbiased despite it's varied, biased interviewees, containing a good blend of positivity and pessimism. For this reason, I found the film to be incredibly disheartening and reaffirming at the same time. It's disheartening to see so many artists, and people who I respect have such a bleak perspective on the future of art, but I feel this comes from an inherent misunderstanding of art that is found in both elitists and colleges that teach art.

Often, I find myself at odds with professors, because I disagree with the way they teach their students. Personally, I find myself getting the most heated in regards to screenwriting and fiction writing. We teach students about structure, and about conflict, and about what's integral to a story, but along the way I find other students losing sight of what's really important - is this something that connects, that resonates? I understand why professors teach structure to begin with - to provide students with foundation, but I find more students getting confused by it, because they lose their way from telling a good story to just telling a story that fits within a certain pathway, and that's the last thing that art is.

One of the more ironic points the film makes is how technology can sometimes dilute art. In regards to music, it talks about how auto-tuning and fixing every little sound with some sort of patch strips away the performance. I agree with this, but this begs the question of audio editing and sound design as a form of art. Is there a difference between superb audio editing to the point of superficiality, and something so stripped down and raw and flawed? Why is it that we berate amateurs for not having crystalline sound or audio quality at the same time that we lambast larger artists for adding glitz and glam to their songs? Where is the point where we, as artists, can stop saying, 'This is poor art, because I don't like it,' and instead say, 'This is interesting. Why did you do this?' and this is in regards to all art, not just music. Just because something is poppy and artificial doesn't mean it's necessarily bad, just as something that's stripped down and raw doesn't mean it's necessarily poor.

The film addresses how since everyone can be an artist, then audiences are inevitably going to be left with this sea of mediocrity and amateurs, and I find that statement really pretentious. Nobody starts off as a professional. Many people who post their music or their art online are looking for critique, and they know they're not perfect, but that's the great thing about being an artist and working with art is that with each project, you get a chance to improve yourself. A great antithesis to this is when one of the interviewees comments on how Bon Iver wrote and recorded his hit debut in a cabin. He questions, "Does that make it any less of a great record? I think that record was amazing!"

It's especially difficult to hear people talking that way about passionate amateurs, when there's so much mediocrity in the limelight. Personally, I'm not concerned with amateurs who think they can make art and can't - I'm concerned with professionals who think they can make art, have the means and funds to do so, and can't.

It's like working a muscle - each time you go to work out, the end goal is always to do better than last time. Sometimes you succeed, and sometimes you fail, but the important thing to take away from that is to not stop trying, and for a bunch of seasoned artists to make statements about how all of that effort is mediocre seems quite lazy to me. Maybe it's like teachers who start off as vibrant and fun, but become bitter with age, but I almost feel personally attacked by those artists who still can't get excited about art. Yeah, there's a lot of it now. Yeah, there's so much you're never going to be able to get to all of it. I fail to see how that makes it less exciting. However, I am still young. Perhaps I'll get bitter with age, and become an elitist like some of the people interviewed in this film, but I'll try my damnedest not to.

One of the points that does hit home for me, and has the potential to possibly make me into a bitter artist, is the subject of the death of movie theaters. That's a very viable concept that could happen within the next couple of decades, and if it does end up happening, you'll probably find me in a situation much like the Unabomber, where I'm holed up in a cabin somewhere, planning revenge on Netflix and iTunes. Don't get me wrong, I love having such easy access to all of this content that's being created, because it gives me more opportunities to be inspired, but there's just something magical about going out to see a film. One of my favorite things to do is treat myself by going to the theater by myself. It's incredibly relaxing to sit, enjoy, and digest a movie by yourself (it's doubly enjoyable if you buy two hot dogs to enjoy the movie with, although it does leave a gaping hole in your wallet).

The film ends on a positive albeit ambiguous note, stating that the future of art truly cannot be predicted, but that we live in an exciting time where we have access to the tools that allow us to create and connect to one another. It's a great film that I recommend to both artists and critics if for nothing else than the charming music and beautiful cinematography.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

MUSIC: How To Destroy Angels Debut Album New Song and Video 'How Long'

It's hard to believe that a single unit could contain the genius of Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Rob Sheridan and mix it with the glitzy made-for-pop range of Mariqueen Maandig, Reznor's wife.

While Reznor always dabbled with the obscure and surreal, ever since Year Zero he's spent more time with focusing those energies in emotive minimalism instead of angst-ridden trip hop (although elements of both remain consistent in his style). This has culminated in Reznor and Ross collaborating on multiple, gorgeous ambient projects, two of which were film scores, one of which won them a Grammy, and eventually resulted in the formation of How To Destroy Angels, their current project.

They released their first, self-titled EP back in 2010, and it showed a lot of potential, but was lacking a certain punch that was present in Reznor and Ross' other work. It was apparent a large focus of the band was on the drums. By comparison to how Florence + the Machine use heavy live drums that have the strength of an army march, How To Destroy Angels focus their electronic programming to have both a dance and funk vibe.

They released their second EP, 'an omen,' in November of last year, and came out with 'Ice Age,' a track that will also appear on their debut album. The track features string plucking that sounds like it could be straight off Nine Inch Nails, 'The Fragile,' and yet, the track feels entirely modern and new. A 7-minute minimalist epic, the track features some of Angels best and most poignant lyrics to date.

Now, the band is set to drop their first album, 'Welcome Oblivion,' in March of this year, and they've just released their next video for a track titled, 'How Long,' which seems to find their unique minimalism and poppy undertones coalescing into something that's a mix of new and old, and yet remains entirely catchy and sing-a-long-able.

If you've been a fan of any of Reznor and Ross' work, I strongly suggest you guys check these out. Welcome Oblivion is set to release March 5, 2012.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Love Does (2012) - Bob Goff

My good friend Aaron Schendel got me this book for Christmas, and it's been a great read. It's written in a similar format to the incredible New York Bestseller 'Blue Like Jazz' which is written by Goff's close friend and uncredited editor Donald Miller. The format they share structures a series of personal memoirs together in an attempt to pass both lifelong lessons and spiritual epiphanies to the reader. The lesson of this book, of course, being that love doesn't wait, love does.

Goff tells heartfelt tales that detail both love's whimsical nature, and it's need to endure. The way he strings the stories together is very linear, starting with his adolescence, when he was first learning of love from his family and friends. In particular, he talks about a friend who, on a whim, follows him on a Chris McCandless-esque endeavor (to leave life behind and live on his own). Goff fails, and the man supports him on his way back. When Goff drops the friend off, he finds out that his friend followed him in the midst of his honeymoon - and his new wife is OK with it, and with his lifestyle, because she, too, understands love's whimsy, and doesn't try to control it.

What I appreciate about Goff's tales is that, while they seem to romanticize details in the first few stories (there's one particularly hard to believe story about a man who makes ridiculous demands of Goff in order to propose to his wife) the later stories take on a more realistic approach. Goff, as an adult lawyer, tackles hard issues in Uganda, takes his kids to meet world leaders after 9/11, and shows his kids the meaning of 'paying it forward.' Through Goff's openness to life's ever-changing ways, he allows himself to flow with the whimsy of life, at the same time that he takes responsibility as a father and as a husband.

The one area of the book I found disappointing was that it never really delved deep enough into the grit of loving. This, is, of course, to support Goff's thesis that love and whimsy bring about positivity, and that positivity must beget positivity, right? This is where I have trouble with the book. It brings up love like a glitzy glam product - love does, and if you're so willing to do then things will turn out okay.  I think Goff can support this thesis at the same time that he describes it more realistically.

At times, I felt like I was reading fairy tales instead of real life stories, and maybe that's Goff's point. Maybe he wants to convince people of love's power through exaggeration (let's be honest with ourselves, if you want your message to get noticed, you need to kick people in the teeth). But some of the stories would have definitely had tragedy in them (such as Goff's interactions with some of the Ugandan children), and I felt like I was denied the experience of understanding that following love and whimsy can end badly, or unhappily because Goff wanted that omitted.

For those who struggle with books that heavily involve religion or theology, this can be a tough book to get through, especially in the latter chapters, but it helps give perspective on what Goff's point of view is, and why he thinks that way. I, personally, find Donald Miller's books more accessible, because while Miller brings up theology, he approaches it from a more skeptical lens.

All in all, though, it's an incredibly uplifting read that will make you want to go outside and follow whatever path the day takes you down. What you find in this book may not change your outlook on life - it didn't for me, but at the very least, the experiences Goff describes in this book may open your eyes up more to the whimsical, loving, nature of life, and in essence, become a 'yes' man like Goff.

Thanks Aaron, for the lovely read.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

American Horror Story: Asylum Season and Season Finale Review and Analysis [SPOILERS]

 "If you look in the face of evil, evil's going to look right back at you."

The final line of this season of American Horror Story is also a summation of it's theme. Does this line sound a little familiar? It should. Most English teachers like to hammer a little of my favorite nihilist, Nietzsche, into their students. Here's a famous quote from him: 

"He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." -Nietzsche, Beyond Good And Evil

One of the trickiest parts of understanding this season, is that it will probably take multiple viewings to fully comprehend it's implications in relation to the characters. In my own personal experience, I kept watching this season, looking for clues about sanity, because that was the theme right? Are these people crazy? Did Kit really murder his wife? Is Dr. Arden Bloody Face? Was that actually Anne Frank? Has Sister Jude lost herself completely? Is this season really going to end being all 'in someone's mind'? These were all questions I kept asking myself. 

The problem is that I was asking these questions in the first place. 

This season is not about insanity. It is about our preconceived notions of what is right and what is wrong. 

Our protagonists tackle various demented demons (both actual and literal) and we find them lying in the moral grey. The writers successfully cloak this topic by having our characters placed inside of a mental institution, so that, for the majority of the season, we are not questioning their character, but their sanity. Grace has a line in the first episode that sums up another one of the major themes of karma: "What you put out in the world comes back to you." Let's go down a list of the principle characters and see how they represent the battle between good and evil.

Kit Walker - I'm starting with Kit because I'd like to start on a light note. He's the icon of goodness and empathy. All Kit wanted was a quiet life with his wife. Instead, his wife is taken from him, he is misidentified as Bloody Face, locked inside Briarcliff, takes beatings for Grace because Lana believed him to be Bloody Face, and I could probably sit here all day listing all the horrible, unjust things he went through including, but not limited to, having his baby taken away, his wife chopping up Grace, and his wife dying inside the mental institution he left (and he blames himself, on top of it all).

So what does Kit do? Does he go after Bloody Face? Well, yes, that's the only way he can NOT DIE. Does he go after the Monsignor? No, he strikes a deal with him so he can save Grace and his baby. Does he go after the government? Reparations would've probably been nice, but Kit's completely content to going behind his truck and chopping wood. And now for the biggest one...

Does he go after Jude? No, he sits with her, day in and day out through her stay at Briarcliff to make sure she still has somebody beside her. Through his efforts, he detoxes her, and gets her back to reality so she can finally experience the one thing she's never really had - a family. 

Kit is the example of the man who stares into the abyss, and comes out better from it.

Dr. Thredson/Bloody Face - A cornucopia of Ed Gein and several other serial killers, Dr. Thredson is a difficult character to rally behind. It's very easy to call him a monster, but I don't think he's that much of a caricature. The Devil, arguably the greatest evil of all, even taunts him, "I'm glad I gave you up, Oliver." 

The difference between Dr. Thredson and the rest of the main characters, is that, for the most part, the other characters are on a journey of making choices that align with whether they lean toward a good or evil way, where with Dr. Thredson, he's already made that choice, and were watching him live out his potential capacity for evil.

The great thing about his character is that he is completely convinced that what he's doing is right for him. Does that make him insane? What does this say about his own ideas of right and wrong? 

One of my favorite things about this character was his line, "I don't believe in guns," and then four episodes later, Lana shoots him in the face.

Sister Mary Eunice/The Devil - A character that's meant to be a fantastical representation of the duality inside each character. Sister Mary Eunice represents the pure choice, the choice to seek truth over fame (Lana), the choice to seek justice over power (Jude/Monsignor), or the choice to seek humanity over "the greater good" (Arden), whereas The Devil, of course, represents the opposite. Her arc doesn't interest me so much as what she, herself, represents. 

Her character arc could be summed up as "becomes possessed by the devil, and then stirs the pot until it dies," but for the sake of argument, I'm going to offer up one devil's advocate I read. Somebody wrote, questioning whether Sister Mary Eunice was possessed at all. I enjoy this for the discussion it raises, but considering my interpretation, I consider it irrelevant. If Sister Mary Eunice "just lost it," it would ruin the point of this season. As an icon for the season's duality, she becomes much more.

Arden - Arden was one of my favorite characters this past season and here's why - he's probably the easiest to hate. The guy was a Nazi, experimented on Jews, never paid for his crimes, experimented on tuberculosis patients, experimented on mental patients, and is the biggest hypocrite. I love the duality with his character of him being this visceral, violent, vulgar, person, and yet the only people he truly finds joy in are those with innocence and purity. He knows he's emotionally fragmented, and he hates it. He even shouts at Sister Mary Eunice one night, "I'm not a monster!" and goes on to open up to Sister Jude, his rival, about how he wishes he had more innocence as a boy.

Sister Mary Eunice was Arden's only joy in life at that point, the one thread of innocence and purity he was able to cling on to. Upon seeing her, demonized, giving her virtue to a man she didn't love (while, pretty much raping him) caused him to completely lose faith in everything, resulting in him destroying his experiments (which was also brought on by aliens laughing at him), and committing suicide alongside her corpse. Of course, because he was a Nazi, he has to die by fire. What you put out in the world comes back to you. 

Right after I watched the ending of episode 10, the first thing that came to mind was The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. Hear me out on this one. While Quasimodo's experience of feeling socially ostracized and monstrous was physical, Arden's was emotional. Arden felt like he could no longer integrate into a society that viewed him as a monster (and rightfully so, I'm not defending Nazi's here), and fell in love with someone he saw as the opposite of him. Esmeralda is the foil to Quasimodo's physical ugliness while Sister Mary Eunice prepossession is the foil to Arden's moral ugliness. It also helps my case that both Quasimodo and Arden died with their love unrequited while clinging to their paragon of forgone salvation. 

The Monsignor - Timothy was a man with a dream. He wanted to become pope, and he was willing to do whatever it took to get there... even if that meant betraying everyone who ever cared about him. After murdering Shelly, the Monsignor tussles with Arden over the 'moral' implications of his experiments. The key words in that sentence were: AFTER MURDERING SHELLY. He doesn't care what he does wrong, it's what everyone else does wrong that's wrong! Even after going on his tirade, Arden blackmails him into firing the only person who ever gave a shit about him, and the Monsignor does it!

The Monsignor becomes so afraid that his reputation may be tarnished that he fakes Jude's death, locks her in the basement, renames her, promises to free her at some point, and then never does. The guy went from egomaniac to downright despicable. 

I view this character as a foil to Kit. Kit faced all the darkness of Briarcliff and came out for the better whereas all The Monsignor really had to deal with was the devil (and I don't even really count that, because Sister Mary Eunice's lucid return was just too damn convenient), and he betrayed and ruined everything he based his beliefs off of.

Sister Jude - An overzealous nun running a mental ward with such a dictated hand that it's blatant projection. She starts off as this loathsome character - spitting in the face of science, blackmailing and then performing electroshock therapy (a procedure she never previously believed in) on Lana, chastising poor Sister Mary Eunice to the point of tears and flagellation, and all the while she's wearing red lingerie beneath her habit. What we've seen of her actions, up until this point, are to cover her own hide, and to possibly, someday, maybe get a chance with the Monsignor. 

In the first episode, she reminds the Monsignor of their shared vision that insanity is a 'spiritual crisis,' and yet she can't recognize how spiritually impure her own actions are. The following episodes are dedicated to fleshing her character out before this. How did she become such a hardened nun? 

Well, let me put it this way... all Judy Martin ever wanted in life was a family of her own; when she came home one day from a doctor's appointment, she revealed to her then fiance that he had, in fact, given her syphilis and she would no longer be able to have children. He leaves her, telling her she's a whore and leaves.  She becomes an alcoholic club singer (she may have been a club singer originally... it never actually states the timeline in between her fiance leaving her and her becoming an alcoholic), and it is implied she sleeps around with quite a few men (at least, 53, according to the devil). One night she gets a little more drunk than usual, and runs over a child. Out of fear, Jude flees the scene. She is then fired from her job. Drinking to solve the pain again, Jude rams her car outside of what appears to be a convent, and believes it to be a sign from God.

Let's fast forward to when Jude loses her job at Briarcliff. The only reason she lost the job was because the Monsignor was too nervous to challenge Arden and risk exposing himself, so instead of risking his own hide to save the one woman who would stand by him through everything, he decided to send her away. Not to mention she just witnessed the brutal death of a private eye, and the man's dying breath was that it was her favorite nun. So Jude does the only sensible thing and goes to a diner where she sees the Angel of Death for the second time in her life! And what does Jude do? She denies death, because she wants to find peace, admit to her failures, and expose Briarcliff.

Let's fast forward now to her imprisonment in Briarcliff. Take note that the shot of the Monsignor leaving Jude to her cell is THE EXACT SAME SHOT as the one of Sister Jude leaving Lana to hers, and both Lana and Jude scream, "You bitch!" at their captor. What you put out in the world comes back to you. Jude was betrayed by three of her colleagues, with the Monsignor being a man she had deep respect and affection for. Let's face it... Jude's life was one long betrayal.

She would have died in there, alone, had it not been for the kindness of Kit. Only through Kit, is Jude able to experience her dream of having a family, and it is through this peace that Jude finally allows herself to die.

Lana Winters - I saved Lana for last and here's why - this is her story, and she's the reason why this season is about preconceived notions of right and wrong. The finale episode REALLY made that clear, but it was rather ambiguous if it was centered on any of them, since it split up their given screen time rather nicely.

The ever ambitious reporter, Lana seeks out the story that will win her a Pulitzer Prize, and international fame, a story, that she believes to be about a deranged serial murderer being housed at Briarcliff. What she becomes, is the punching bag for everyone's descent. During Sister Jude's tyranny, she becomes wrongly housed at Briarcliff, through which she is kidnapped and raped by Bloody Face, through which she suffers a lifetime of torment, while earning her all her desired fame, of course. 

Her characters true purpose only comes out in the last two episodes. She focuses on her fame and her "voice," rather than on her original intent (shutting down Briarcliff). Is this morally wrong? Is she obligated to shut down Briarcliff? Is it selfish that she should enjoy her new life rather than focus on the past? She's morally ambiguous. 

The finale delves even deeper into ambiguity. She kills her only son, the son of Bloody Face, who has now committed just as heinous, albeit less planned, crimes as his father. The season can be summed up in their final confrontation. 

Lana: He was a monster
BF Jr.: No
Lana: Yes he was.
BF Jr.: No he wasn't!
Lana: Yes he was, baby. But that's not you. You could never be like him... not that sweet little boy I met on the playground. Even then, I knew you were a better man than he was. It's not just him that's in you. I'm a part of you too. 
BF Jr.: (crying) I've hurt people.
Lana: It's not your fault, baby. It's mine. 

None of these people are the deranged monsters we read about in fairy tales, nor are they the caricatures we read about in history books or magazines - I would not call any of these principle characters insane. As Sister Jude says, "All monsters are men," but what this means, in context of the whole, is, "All people have the capacity for evil."