Spoilers follow for every season of American Horror Story.
On Wednesday evening, FX will conclude the eighth season of its anthology series, American Horror Story. The end of any AHS season is an ambivalent experience for most fans of the show.
On the one hand, we have to wait a full year for another story sprung from the darker bits of Ryan Murphy’s brain. On the other hand, for those fans who haven’t connected with the storyline offered up by this season, the finale means we can put mediocrity in the past as we hope that the anthology horror series will get it right next year.
With just one episode left to air, let’s see how American Horror Story’s latest tale, “Apocalypse” stacks up to its predecessors.
8. Freak Show, Season 4
Set in a hick town in Florida in 1952, Freak Show uses its lovable band of misfits (and one extra-sick rich kid) to try and prove the age-old truth that freaks come in all shapes and sizes. Though the season does have its high points, like Ma Petite, and Twisty the Clown’s origin story.
Soon enough, unfortunately, the season takes a hard right turn away from interesting to focus on making Jessica Lange’s last season on the show a worthy homage to one of the greats. Lange deserved the attention, but if Murphy and the gang wanted to do the actor justice, they should have written her a better part (with less singing).
Freak Show had its moments, but the season ultimately came off exploitative and dull.
7. Apocalypse, Season 8
This attempt to weave several fan-favorite seasons into one scary story may as well have been called “AHS: Coven, Season 2.” There’s so much fan service in the first seven episodes that there’s barely room for anything unique (and it shows).
After an aimless first two episodes, the season deviated into a bunch of witch-filler that could have been boiled down to 90 minutes. I love Frances Conroy as much as the next guy, but come on. Meanwhile, the season’s most fascinating elements — the Church of Satan, the Illuminati, Billy Eichner
Admittedly, with one episode left to go, it’s possible to turn the ship around … but it’s not very likely.
6. Coven, Season 3
There’s a lot to love about Season 3 of American Horror Story. Chainsawing zombies is never a bad decision. Angela Bassett as a voodoo queen equals a gorgeous move. Kathy Bates as an antebellum Southern serial killer. And, Hell, even if you don’t like Stevie Nicks, you can’t help but admire the subtlety with which the coven’s reach is demonstrated.
If only the story arc could have been a little less predictable and Murphy’s girl power subtext wasn’t used as a bludgeon.
5. Hotel, Season 5
To say that Hotel is uneven is an understatement. All the vampire nonsense is way too far over the top, no matter how hard Lady Gaga is working to ground the events in something approaching reality.
That said, the season gets much stronger as it moves forward, employing some of the series most electric set-ups (like the Serial Killer’s Ball) and introducing some its most unnerving monsters (two words: Addiction Demon).
And then there’s Denis O’Hare’s Liz Taylor, the transgender night manager of the Hotel Cortez. The character actor is at his best channeling the fractured person hiding among a group of demons. It’s worth watching the entire season (multiple times) just to spend time with this richly drawn human who effortlessly forms the beating heart of the cursed establishment.
4. Murder House, Season 1
The one that started it all deserves legacy credit, of course, but even in the wake of several groundbreaking experiences, there’s still tons to enjoy. The time-hopping narrative that’s fallen out of fashion in later seasons keeps events moving forward (and backward) with lightning pace.
What’s more, the season gets credit for cramming in homages to any and every horror franchise that they could get their hands on. Drawing from Asian horror influences, classic monster films, true crime, and ghosts stories of every stripe should have come across as slipshod, but Murder House got the job done in fine form.
3. Cult, Season 7
In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk channeled their (intense) rage at the outcome and turned it into a dark, twisted call to action for all those who felt helpless in Trump’s America.
Murphy rips off the top layer of Trump (and his cronies’) political “ideology” and shines a light on the insecure, toxic masculinity that drives it even as he pulls no punches addressing the political in-fighting and hypocrisy of the left. The season works gorgeously as both gripping horror thriller and political satire.
2. Roanoke, Season 6
Of all the season of AHS, Roanoke’s execution stands out as the most inventive. The season actually begins as a Ghost Hunters-style reality show before it morphs into a found-footage series before ultimately making the rounds through an American news cycle.
Not only is the sixth season of AHS an impressive feat of technical storytelling, but it’s also scary as hell all the way through. If you find yourself unnerved by the actors they hired to play the monsters in the first half of the season, their real-life counterparts will keep you up at night.
Roanoke is enthralling from top to bottom and executed with a confidence and enthusiasm that’s rare anywhere on television.
1. Asylum, Season 2
AHS: Asylum has to rank among the greatest seasons of TV history. The goings-on at an insane asylum run by the Catholic Church is an intoxicating tale that encompasses four freakish decades. There’s demonic possession, a visit from Anne Frank, a basement full of laboratory experiments, a deranged Santa Claus, a sociopathic Nazi, a handful of serial killers, and a visit from aliens.
It is freaking crazy.
It’s also the series’ most tightly executed narrative, and it features, hands down, the series best two character arcs delivered by the series’ standout performers. Sarah Paulson’s journey from small-time opportunist to crusading journalist is stunning, and Jessica Lange’s hard-nosed Catholic nun is unlike anything the actor has tackled before or since. From its delirious, horrifying beginning to its immensely powerful conclusion,
Asylum is a thing of beauty. By the time Lana Winters stands triumphant, Asylum has earned itself a place in the annals of television history.