For the first episode so far, there’s no sign of Bloody Face, no aliens and no overt devilry – although Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) is a bit too enthusiastic about corporate punishment and tries to drive a wedge between Kit (Evan Peters) and Grace (Lizzie Brocheré), but that all comes under the episode’s three main plot threads, which dwell not on otherworldly evil, but very human misdeeds.
The rational Doctor Thredson (Zachary Quinto), progressive by the standards of everyone around him but ultimately terrifyingly archaic by today’s values, attempts to ‘cure’ Lana (Sarah Paulson) of her homosexuality, showing her provocative images of women while toxic chemicals pump through her system, causing her to vomit, and then forcing her to wank off a male patient while she weeps. He apologises later and vows to help her leave Briarcliff, but the shine has come off the show’s white knight in one of the most visually upsetting sequences of the show so far – while torture porn science experiments and serial killers are definitely real, they don’t feel quite as affectingly close to home as the terrible things done to people seen to defy social convention.
The shine too comes off the mysterious and clearly haunted Grace – Kit’s only ally from the off – as she and Kit grow closer, getting in one in the kitchens before a security guard finds them and Sister Jude threatens the hammer of God’s love with chemical castration. United through protestations of innocence, when Kit discovers that Grace murdered her abusive father and step-mother with an axe – thanks to the aforementioned Sister Damian Satan – he’s forced to question his own story, Thredson serving up a double-whammy of rational tough love here and selling him on the idea that he just finally broke under the strain of keeping his taboo interracial marriage a secret, and his mind is protecting him by covering up all memories of the terrible things he’s accused of doing. Evan Peters turns in an incredible performance, every bit the equal of Tate Langdon confronting his own past in Season 1, when he goes to Sister Jude and begs forgiveness – who affected by his words and memories of her own misdeeds, softens.
Not that American Horror Story: Asylum has even been a bastion of subtlety, but a new patient claiming to be Holocaust diarist Anne Frank (Run Lola Run, Bourne and Creep‘s brilliant Franka Potente) outs the sinister Dr Arden (James Cromwell) as a Nazi War criminal – complete with a black-and-white flashback so tastelessly overblown you half expect a little girl in a red coat to run past – and the local police come to talk to Arden about his abuse of a prostitute in a previous episode. Sister Jude’s spider-sense tingling (especially as they ask her whether Kit has the surgical skill to skin his victims, as Bloody Face is said to have done – it’s a bit odd that this didn’t bother them when they originally arrested him, come to think of it), she’s warned off by Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes) – regardless of whether Arden is or isn’t a Nazi war criminal, it’s certainly a powerful echo of the nefarious experiments he’s performing and his showdown with Frank backing into a capable cliffhanger.
There’s no end of shocking reveals or stomach-churning scenes in American Horror Story: Asylum, but what makes ‘I Am Anne Frank (Part 1)’ stand so far above the episodes that surround it is the sheer power of the performances, especially Evan Peters and Lizzie Brocheré, but also the sheer class of Zachary Quinto, Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson. The claret, prosthetics and overacting can carry the more outlandish terrors, but when it comes to the very real inhumanities that are at the heart of this series, only capital-A acting is enough to do it justice.