Every season on American Horror Story, we see a particularly American brand of nightmares, and the stories we’ve built around them in our popular culture, brought to new life in their most sick and twisted Grand Guignol forms. We’ve seen haunted houses, asylums, hotels, witchcraft, freak shows, lost colonies, and cults. Season 8 will offer stories of nuclear war, the apocalypse and the Antichrist, with hopefully lots of witchery and ghosts in the mix due to the promised crossover of Coven (Season 3) and Murder House (Season 1).
The premiere of American Horror Story: Apocalypse, “The End” (written by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk and directed by Bradley Buecker) begins with shallow talk in a Beverly Hills hair salon about the benefits of being photographed drinking cold-pressed green juice versus showing one’s backside in order to attract the most Instagram followers. We are firmly placed in present-day Beverly Hills with all new characters: Mr. Gallant (Evan Peters), a hair stylist who comes from wealth. and whose grandmother Evie Gallant is played by the inimitable Joan Collins; Coco St. Pierre Vanderbilt (Leslie Grossman), a billionaire’s daughter and wannabe social media influencer; and Mallory (Billie Lourd), Coco’s unassuming assistant.
Coco’s entitled demands to her assistant for a macchiato to wash out the cold-pressed juice taste are soon interrupted by phone alerts warning of incoming ballistic missiles. Everyone receives the alerts but no one takes them quite seriously at first due to the false alarm that happened not long ago IRL. Soon the horrifying realization starts to dawn that it’s really the end of the world as we know it. Coco gets a message from daddy that she will soon be whisked away to an underground bunker but that the other three family members won’t be able to join her, and she watches them perish in Hong Kong on her cell phone. Coco’s assistant Mallory, Mr. Gallant, and his grandmother are able to make use of her family’s pricey unused bunker tickets. Coco’s husband Brock (Billy Eichner) can’t get through the awful apocalyptic LA traffic so she releases him from their marriage contract. The good news is he’s now free to see other people and the bad news is he’s about to melt, and that’s if he’s lucky. While her husband is still en route, Coco wavers a bit about who to take, but the savvy Mr. Gallant secures his place by posing a not-so-innocent question to Coco—“What happened to your hair?”—thus ensuring himself a place in the outpost and survival (for now). We see them fly over the mushroom cloud over LA and it’s unclear why they survived unscathed. We’ve just met the first four characters headed to Outpost Three.
Meanwhile, forty minutes before the blast, we join a college admittance countdown as a mother and her fraternal twin sons wait in their home to check the computer to find out if Timothy (Kyle Allen) got into UCLA. He was accepted but the celebration is cut short when his father gets home and lets them know about a different countdown: to the bomb destroying LA. They hadn’t been watching the news to learn that cities worldwide had already been destroyed and watch newscasters say goodbye to their families. At that point, members of a secret government agency called The Cooperative forcibly remove Timothy due to what they tell him is his unique genetic makeup, which makes him a prime candidate to survive a nuclear winter. He asks how they know that and finds out that they acquired the information from DNA he submitted to a genealogy kit. He is taken to safe underground cages where he meets Emily (Ash Santos), who was arrested for protesting on campus and also apparently has superhero DNA. They hear and feel the nuclear blast and realize that everyone they’ve known is gone.
Two weeks later, Timothy and Emily are shuttled off to a new location and brought outside in hazmat suits. They immediately witness a double execution of two young people begging for forgiveness, which echoes televised terrorist executions. Mysterious figures in hazmat suits, who give off a dark goth Star Wars nun vibe, lead them inside for decontamination.
Inside, we meet Sarah Paulson’s new character, Wilhemina Venable, who describes herself as the strong right arm and face of the Cooperative: the twelve greatest minds, the visionaries. Welcome to Outpost Three. She explains that Outpost Three was converted from the witchy-sounding, exclusive, subterranean all-boys’ school when they knew it was coming. When asked if she meant “the end” was coming, Wilhemina says, “No, the beginning,” and she speaks of the “cleansing fire” of the bomb. Apparently she’s a fan and seems to be a true believer.
One might assume a nuclear apocalypse would be the true great equalizer but the class system is alive and well in Outpost Three. Wilhemina solemnly explains that the Purples are the elite—the worthy, those chosen to survive, the rich and the genetically gifted—and that the Grays are the worker ants, here to serve. Mallory is a Gray but Mr. Gallant, who “comes from money,” is a Purple. Everyone is given Victorian velvet wardrobes in their class color and encouraged to “dress for dinner.” Ms. Venable dictates the rules: you can’t leave unless you want to “take your chances with the canker puss monsters beyond the gates,” and that there’s “no unauthorized copulation in any form.” They are encouraged to be prompt as “there’s no excuse for tardiness when there’s nothing else to do.” Guess not. It also makes you wonder what the authorized copulation would be like and all signs point to… not fun.
All of the survivors we’ve met so far in the episode join each other in the dining room to eat pretty ombre, but ultimately unsatisfying, vitamin slime cubes. We also meet some additional survivors: the Oprah-esque Dinah Stevens (Adina Porter), Andre and Stu, and some unnamed Grays in the background. All is well-ish until Miriam Mead (Kathy Bates) rigs a Geiger counter to make it appear that Stu and Mr. Gallant are contaminated, then assassinates Stu after they can’t scrub the fake radiation off him. Stu, we barely knew you.
Soon after, everyone is given new delicious meat stew. Spoiler alert: the stew is made of people… it’s people! Stu to be more specific. Andre is horrified and heartbroken and yells the classic line, “The stew is Stu!” However Grandma Evie Gallant is a pragmatist and is not bothered at all; apparently she’s been eating the poor for years. They’re delicious, taste like chicken, and are full of fiber. Coco demands that Mallory help her gag up her new acquaintance. After dinner everyone is given hope that help is on the way when the after dinner song by Karen Carpenter that plays every evening changes to “There Has to Be a Morning After.”
We learn that Ms. Venable and Ms. Mead are making up their own rules, unbeknownst to the Cooperative, and that they really enjoy torturing the survivors. They think they are getting away with it.
Cut to 18 months later. Nuclear winter is here and they’ve had to cut back to one vitamin food cube a day. The survivors start to think that cannibalism or taking their chances outside might be the way to go. The breach alarm sounds and likely Antichrist Michael Landon (Cody Fern)—the surviving son of Vivien Harmon and ghost/rubber man Tate Langdon from Murder House—arrives by carriage drawn by two horses. He wears a Cooperative ID that includes the number 666 and a signature that just may say Lucifer. Earlier, Timothy had a not-so-subtle warning when 666 showed up in the fog on the bathroom mirror and a disembodied voice said, “Beware Timothy.” Apparently Michael left the other two horses at home.
Michael smiles mockingly at Wilhemina and questions her authority in a way that should make her very nervous. He then shares the news that three of the other outposts have been taken and three more won’t last the year. Michael’s not there to rescue them all but to choose who deserves to go to the impregnable shelter, a sanctuary that has a decade’s worth of supplies. Outside, his radiation-sick horses are shot and some sort of creature pulls their bodies into the bushes. “Tonight You Belong to Me,” a song featured in the Murder House premiere and finale, plays in the background. The look of delight on Michael’s face is chilling when he says, “otherwise you end up like my horses.”
I’ve seen it said that this season isn’t as topical as last season’s Cult, but extremely current fears in our world are present in Apocalypse. Huge ongoing nightmarish fears like nuclear war and its aftermath appear to be the world this season lives in. However, in an odd way, it’s almost a relief that we begin with the nuclear war instead of the creeping overwhelming dread of it. There’s no time to fear it because the characters are busy trying to stay alive, get to the bunker, and survive its sadomasochistic leaders and whatever tests Michael Langdon (aka the Antichrist) requires to see if they’re worthy of further survival.
We had years where the fear of nuclear war seemed more and more distant and we could look back on the TV movie The Day After as an eighties phenomenon. Not to get political, as I’d rather be writing about witches, but unfortunately the possibility of nuclear war seems closer than ever in light of the recent news from the Bob Woodward book that a Trump tweet had to be stopped once back channels indicated that receiving the tweet would have indicated to North Korea that war was starting. I’m starting a GoFundMe for my spot at Outpost Four right now.
The over the top scenes with glamorous costumes and comedy give us relief from the horrific all-too-real scenes like the one where people are committing suicide by jumping out of buildings to avoid the coming nuclear blast, landing on Coco’s escape car. It’s a strange thing to see on September 12th after reading an NPR article the day before about all the people who committed suicide on 9/11 by jumping out of windows, and how the images were censored and the number of people who jumped downplayed in the news. From these all-consuming fears, the premiere also covers much smaller but equally current and persistent fears like being tricked by fake news, terrified by false incoming bomb phone alerts, and giving our DNA to the government when we send it off to genealogy kits. Current American fears, both large and small, are part of the DNA of Apocalypse.
Looking ahead in the season, I say bring on the witches and the Harmons! Bring on the big hook (not literal hook, but who knows!) in Episode 5 that Ryan Murphy has been promising. I’m also looking forward to next week’s episode directed by Jennifer Lynch, which will be covered by Martin Hearn!
Favorite Quotes from Season 8 Episode 1:
- I have to go home, Miss. It’s the end of the world.
- I can’t believe we actually did it.
- Don’t leave me in Santa Monica!
- I have rights. No you don’t.
- The end? No, the beginning.
- Social media gave people the illusion they were equal.
- So… you’re not a purple?
- You may refer to me only as Ms. Venable.
- We dress for dinner.
- Be prompt. There’s no excuse for tardiness when there’s nothing else to do.
- It’s like Satan’s Spotify playlist.
- The stew is Stu!
Unanswered questions from Season 8 Episode 1:
- Why does Mr. Gallant style hair when he’s rich? A passion, or was he cut off from Evie’s money?
- Did the Cooperative cause or fake the nuclear war? Wilhemina calls it a cleansing fire and the beginning.
- How did Coco and friends escape seemingly unharmed when their plane flew over the nuclear blast?
- What happened in the unseen time periods—the two weeks and the 18 months in the bunker?
- How did the witches survive and how will they fight the Antichrist? Will they fight him or join him?
- How are the Harmons? I would ask how the good Murder House occupants are doing but I’m not very worried about them since they are ghosts who don’t need to worry about radiation!
- Where does AHS go from here for future seasons? I just heard they were renewed for a 10th season and we’re only on Season 8.
- Will future seasons always have to be in earlier time periods prior to the apocalypse, or will the apocalypse somehow be reversed? Or was it some kind of massive hallucination or trick? Fake news?