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
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."