“American Horror Story” went to the end to find a new beginning.
After a few disappointing installations in Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s pulpy horror anthology series, “Apocalypse” debuted on FX Wednesday night with, well, a bombastic start that sets up a crossover between the series’ first and third seasons, “Murder House” and “Coven,” respectively, and also rejiggers a franchise that had begun to collapse under its own absurdity.
Combining two previous stories and rushing to the end of the world is a smart way to tap back into the series’ roots and bring back some of its best characters. It also allows the writers to pull on some loose strings from those early seasons, like a certain murderous toddler murdering his nanny in the show’s very first season. It also feels like a logical place for the series to end (although nothing has been announced).
But beyond that, the first hour of “Apocalypse” makes it seem like “AHS” is back to creative form, too. There were whispers of something interesting in the first few episodes of “Cult” last year before the season devolved into predictable “AHS” drivel, but the opening scene of “Apocalypse” is a fantastic start. The sequence is a propulsive, riveting peek at what might happen if the world, and particularly, a very American, very Southern California slice of that world, were confronted with its immediate demise, in all its human and cartoonish foibles.
The episode opens on a pleasant Beverly Hills afternoon for Coco St. Pierre Vanderbilt (Leslie Grossman), a billionaire socialite, who is getting her hair done by Mr. Gallant (Evan Peters) with her assistant Mallory (Billie Lourd) by her side. Everything’s fun and games and jokes about L.A. traffic until the bombs of a nuclear holocaust start falling, and Coco’s parents call to tell her she’s got four tickets to a bunker that will keep her safe. Gallant grabs his Nana (the delectable Joan Collins) and the foursome takes off in a private jet with no pilot, but not before Coco leaves behind her husband Brock (Billy Eichner).
It certainly has the cynicism “AHS” thrives on (or in many cases, collapses under) but the sequence also left in some moments of pure emotion — from a teen boy being ripped away from his family to a newscaster saying goodbye to his children, which gives some heft to the campier elements that come right after. The panicked, gripping sequence sharply pivots into something far more claustrophobic.
The safe haven for Coco and friends turns out to be a converted boys school run by “The Cooperative,” and the leader of the house is Wilhelmina Venable (Sarah Paulson) with some help from Ms. Miriam Mead (Kathy Bates). The Cooperative also chooses to save Timothy Campbell (Kyle Allen) and Emily (Ashley Santos), two young adults chosen, apparently, for their prodigious DNA.
It feels like a completely different show from the one in which the episode began, with hairstyles out of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” scenery out of an Edgar Allen Poe story and Paulson’s over-the-top performance straight out of a hacky Shakespearean theater (in a good way).
Life at the Outpost, as they call the shelter, is, shall we say, not great. Although the rich and the selected are “purples,” the elite class that wears colonial-era formalwear and is waited on by the “grays,” the house is a minefield of psychological horrors; the food consists solely of vitamin-infused gelatin cubes; the radio plays the same song over and over again; and Wilhelmina and Miriam are ready at any moment to torture and kill a guest who doesn’t follow the rules. It’s a sort of “Hell is other people” scenario, with a little more emphasis on the literal “Hell” part.
Secretly, Wilhelmina and Miriam dress up in purple and admit that they deliberately torture the guests, and their sadism reaches its peak when they serve what appears to be a stew made of, well, a man named Stu. They traumatize the guests and make clear that this isn’t the sanctuary they believed it to be. The episode zips 18 months in the future when food is even scarcer and all of the guests are on the verge of a psychological breakdown (except for Emily and Timothy, who have fallen for each other) when a visitor turns up at the gate.
It’s Michael Langdon (Cody Fern), who astute “AHS” fans will remember as the satanic baby from Season 1, the child of Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton) and Tate Langdon, aka Rubber Man (Peters). Now he’s all grown up and arrived at the Outpost to judge who should come with him to another shelter, one with 10 years worth of food. I’m sure his intentions are all really great, him being the anti-Christ and all.
There seem to be two shows fighting for dominance in “AHS: Apocalypse,” one of campy bunker hijinx and the other about what it means to survive. Inside the bunker, as Coco points out, they’re all just sort of waiting to die. In the brief glimpses we get outside of it, humans have seemingly devolved. When two dead horses are left near them, dirty, feral hands reach out and drag them into the brush. So, is survival worth it at all? And if you do survive, is it better fall into the grips of the devil himself or to slowly deteriorate via radiation sickness and lose all semblance of humanity?