spoiler alert: this entire post is filled with spoilers
Throughout the final present-tense (whatever that means in this show) scene in last night’s finale of American Horror Story, I was on the edge of my proverbial seat with nervous terror, worried for Lana Winters‘ life and its projected end by the hand of her sadistic open-faced-sandwich-hoover of a son. Despite her lesbianism and exquisite portrayal by lesbian actress Sarah Paulson, it wasn’t affection for Lana that prompted my concern, really. It was that I didn’t want the story to end on that note: the note in which the lesbian rape survivor who gave up her son for adoption — because she couldn’t emotionally handle raising her rapist’s child — ends up berated by said child for not loving him enough and then gets shot in the face. I didn’t want American Horror Story, a show in which just about everybody ends up dead, to end with another dead lesbian. Imagine my surprise when, at American Horror Story’s end, the lesbian was, in fact, the only primary character still living! (On this planet, at least.) First she had to kill her long-lost son, a ruthless serial killer who’d murdered the donut guy to get into her house, but in a show filled with surprises, her continued existence at the show’s end was definitely the best one.
Honestly, I thought “Madness Ends” was a pretty solid hour of television in which female protagonists were redeemed and the men who fucked with them were not, which is awesome because I’m a lesbian and therefore hate men. The finale refrained from sensationalism and focused for the first time on a relatively stationary situation that was more about people than about gore and filth — so much Story and not so much Horror. But, this season was a sprawling, complicated, often ridiculous thing, too, which means everything I’m about to say could be totally off-base. I watched it casually, never intending to write about it, but it seemed like a horror story featuring a lesbian as the Last Human Standing was worth discussing here, and so here we all are.
Season One of American Horror Story, “Murder House,” turned out to be pretty standard fare as far as ladies go, laden with tropes ‘a-plenty: Constance the manipulative Evil Matriarch/child abuser, Hayden the psychotic ex-mistress, Moira the evil temptress, Nora the nagging contemptuous status-driven baby-hungry wife. The show was still entertaining enough to watch, though. I wasn’t expecting anything beyond exactly what I got, which was cunning cinematography, scary-ass shit, and a hearty helping of Tami Taylor.
But whereas all evil in Murder House can be traced back to the evil manipulative seductresses of past and present, all evil in the Asylum traces back to this or that fucked-up power-hungry white guy and/or the archaic ethics that enabled powerful people to treat women like sub-humans back then. It’s so much more authentic this way, as television often burdens female villans with ridiculous empty motives I imagine were created at a Literary Trope Committee meeting in the 14th century with no actual women present. I mean, four out of five stalking victims are women, but you’d never guess that from watching television, where women are often thrust into a state of love-crazed psychosis when rejected by their man and rarely granted the backstory to justify that behavior. Consequently their male foils are similarly shallow, just slaves to their sexual urges. It’s boring.
But in Asylum, I felt like the male and female villans were saddled with more fleshed-out (if often incoherently bizarre) motivations and more exhaustive, complicated depths. It’s difficult to make a rock-solid feminist case for this show, considering the amount of time ambitious women spend in shackles, but it’s worth noting that whereas most of the men on Asylum are genuine assholes, the show’s disdained women are mostly just victims of society’s prudent and limited expectations for women. Shelly has a boundless sexual appetite and is therefore locked up for “nymphomania.” We don’t know if Pepper really killed a baby or not, but it’s easy to believe that she’d end up in an asylum simply for not looking how women are supposed to look. It’s all conjecture, of course, but would Jude have ended up an alcoholic and subsequently a nun if being a lounge singer with a sex drive hadn’t been considered super-uncouth back then? She had so much more to offer the world than she ever was able to give. Then there’s Lana, of course, who is institutionalized for being gay, which I think all of us here recognize does not actually make her a bad person, and it’s other women who help her get out of the asylum for real, not Finn Hudson.
Meanwhile, the men who make the rules, including the Monsignor Timothy Howard under which Jude acts like a misogynist bitch for the first half of the season, are revealed to be far more unredeemable than the women they judge and condemn, therefore invalidating their judgment and condemnation. Dr. Arthur Arden is a former Nazi who is disgusted by “loose” “vulgar” women (read: women who express sexual desire) but he himself is a rapist who gets off from beating up women and conducts horrifying medical experiments that leave patients mutated and mutilated, at which time he tosses them into the woods to survive on regular feedings of raw bloody meat and deter any inmates who attempt to escape the hellhole. There’s no redemption for this douchebag: he ends up killing himself by taking a willing journey to the crematorium. Honestly I wish he’d been mailed some anthrax circa episode three because I hated that guy, but whatever.
Dr. Oliver Thredson, a.k.a Bloodyface, is also totally unredeemable, obviously, because he’s a really fucked up serial killer who tries to kill Lana but ends up getting killed by Lana instead. I think I’ve blocked out most of their scenes. Anyhow, no redemption for that guy.
The Monsignor seems like a good guy sometimes, but his lust for power and status inspire him to let Arden turn people into four-legged human-shaped mounds of Spaghetti-O’s and to lock Sister Jude up so he can dash off to New York, become Cardinal, and forget all that crazy-ass shit ever happened. When Ruthless Reporter Lana tracks him down with her lecherous crew seven years later, he claims not to remember anything and then goes home and kills himself. No redemption there!
Kit, though, probably because he’s nice to women and seems to appreciate them as equals, is probably the most redeemable character on the show. He even gets a free pass to Alien Wonderland!
But Jude, the series’ original villan, is redeemed. First, when Jude begins challenging the Men of Briarcliff, the Monsignor locks her up, demoting her from Top Bitch in Charge to “patient in solitary confinement,” where she’s drugged and tortured for a number of years until Kit rescues her and takes her home to live with him and his magical fairy-children. They dance merrily, frolic in the misty magical fairy-backyard and it turns out that underneath the liquor and then the religion was a pretty cool lady AND a Stealth Feminist.
While on her deathbed, Jude tell’s Kit’s daughter “don’t you ever, never let a man tell you who you are, or make you feel like you are less than him. It’s 1971, and you can do whatever you want,” which I wishfully interpreted to mean that Jude never would’ve done all that shit if she hadn’t let men tell her who she was. Later, Kit tells Lana that Jude “took away Julia’s dolls and gave her trucks to make her tough.” When teaching him to dance, Jude tells Kit, “you’re left and I’m right ’cause women are always right,” which is true. When the angel of death shows up at Sister Jude’s bedside and asks if she’s really ready this time, Sister Jude says she’s ready. And then: “kiss me.” And they do.
Which brings us back to Lana Winters. Oh, dear dear Lana Winters. When Lana Winters first showed up at Briarcliff, I didn’t anticipate a lengthy tenure. Shows lauded for their powerful queer lady characters tend to start their girls out strong and then fade them into obscurity by the season’s end — MTV’s Underemployed inspired me to write a raving endorsement of their lesbian lead, Sophie, only to see her storyline recede into the background gradually until it was difficult to remember that in the beginning, she’d actually been the story’s narrator. Or else the queer character remains but the queerness is aggressively downplayed/sidelined. See also: Tara on True Blood Season Four, Franky in Skins season six, Santana on Glee and Callie & Arizona on Grey’s Anatomy, whenever.
But Lana ended up front-and-center throughout the show and rarely did anything predictable. At the first peak of her post-asylum fame in the late ’60s, after publishing her first somewhat-true book, Maniac, I was prepared for the unveiling of the dude she acquired for appearance’s sake, but no such dude appeared. She was subjected to horrific conversion therapy, locked up more than once against her will in a crumbling monument to institutional neglect, raped and tortured by a serial killer who also murdered her girlfriend and, after all that, she emerged, if profoundly self-interested, stronger for it. As Madeline Davis wrote on Jezebel, regarding the women of American Horror Story: “They are all brighter than their male peers, bur they are deprived of the systemic power that could help them to better their situations. Nevertheless, even when it’s hopeless, they continue to fight back.”
Even Lana is redeemed in “Madness Ends,” if you believe she needed redemption, after a few episodes portraying her as a fame-hungry opportunist who erased her lesbian lover from her memoir, made shit up to make money, pretended her son had died in childbirth and failed to expose Briarcliff as she’d promised everybody she’d do. Honestly, this whole thing annoyed me as a journalist moreso than as a queer lady because I really hate the “journalists are heartless creatures who will do anything and hurt anybody to get their story” storyline. But she does eventually expose Briarcliff AND THEN, although her initial motivations were sketchy as all get out, in “Madness Ends” we see Lana being a kickass godmother and dancing at his wedding like a normal person. Also, she’s shacked up with a smokin’ hot opera singer, which means she’s out, too. As Sarah Paulson told Entertainment Weekly, “If there’s any person in the world who deserves to forget about what happened to her and embrace some giant fame ball, it’s Lana Winters. For her to be the last man standing and to have a whole story and all that stuff in the ‘70s, it was very moving.”
Like I said in the intro, I admit I was pretty scared there at the end, when Lana tells Johnny Morgan that she was unable to love him and therefore gave him up so he’d have some shot at a life, and he’s like “So YOU could have a shot at a life! Without me!” and I was like, seriously show, are you really gonna punish the rape survivor for giving up her son for adoption? But I didn’t need to be scared, because Lana Winters took matters into her own hands and survived again, because she’s Lana Winters and because she’s tough (but not a cookie) and because, finally, sisters are doing it for themselves.