The great promise of American Horror Story: Apocalypse, the latest installment in Ryan Murphy’s entertainment multiverse, is that by the fifth episode of this season, there will be a twist unlike anything they’ve ever done. It’s a lofty proposition for a show that takes risks with every season, not all of which pay off. This year, Murphy and friends have decided to go against type, digging around in their back catalogues and coming up with something new enough—the apocalypse, linked to the two seasons that viewers might remember the most: Murder House and Coven. Familiar faces make for a more pleasant experience.
While this isn’t a reboot, every installation of Murphy’s AHS feels nostalgic, only because all your old friends from seasons past are there. Gathering a cast of favorites and placing them in peril at the hands of the devil is a brilliant touch. Please, avert your eyes, if you have not watched the premiere. There are spoilers, though minimal.
Murphy and his cohorts have done a remarkable job of keeping their mouths shut about this season, to good effect. The promotional cycle for this season has been relatively low-key. Screeners were not released for review, and nary a plot synopsis was available before the show aired Wednesday night. Keeping the central premise under wraps was smart, because thankfully, I had zero expectations going into the premiere, for which many old faces returned in Murphy’s eerily stylish, steampunk-lite apocalyptic vision, reprising roles or rehashing old ones. Because this season features players from both Murder House and Coven, the expectation is that part of this will feel somewhat familiar. However, it’s been so long since these shows have been on television that remembering who is or isn’t the son of Satan or why they’re relevant is difficult: all part of the confusion, perhaps, and maybe intentional.
Among the familiar faces that return are Murphy favorite Sarah Paulson as Wilhelmina Venable, the sadist in charge of Outpost 3, one of the 10 bunkers arranged by a shadowy organization known only as the Cooperative. Her henchwoman is Miriam Mead (Kathy Bates with an undercut), who doles out punishment and relishes in doing so. They are in charge of a motley crew of haves and have nots, some of whom paid for the right to dress in Victorian garb and eat nutrition cubes, and others who were selected for their ability to survive. There’s an heiress cum Instagram influencer and her social media manager, a hairdresser, a man whose lover is killed and turned into stew, and Joan Collins.
Over the course of an hour, 18 months pass in a fug of boredom punctuated by fear. Then, the perimeter is breached and a visitor arrives. It is Satan himself—Michael Langdon (Cody Fern), the child of the man in the gimp suit from Murder House and Vivian (Connie Britton). The outposts have slowly made themselves extinct, but there is one stronghold left. He will take only who he deems worthy.
It’s a lot of information to process, but luckily the show moves quickly in the first episode. The trouble is, it’s very hard to tell whether or not the season itself will be any good because nothing really happens. What we are treated to, however, are Ryan Murphy’s thoughts on the horrors of the modern condition that can only be cured by extinction. The show stokes latent paranoia that lives inside all of us about how the last days might play out: The world might end on a random weekday. Strangers dressed in Venetian plague doctor masks will execute strangers in misty fields, standing outside a bunker designed by Richard Serra. The spit you send to an ancestry site in exchange for an email about your heritage will eventually be used against you.
In Murphy’s world, the apocalypse targets social media influencers and a vaguely millennial impulse to prioritize the self over everything. “Social media gave people the illusion that they were equal,” a voice intones at one point. The individual is not greater than the whole. Survival in Murphy’s apocalypse means eschewing individualism for the good of the collective.
An apocalyptic scenario is nothing more than a Purge that never ends, characterized by chaos and violence until a handful of people are left to atone for humanity’s sins. If the end does come in our lifetimes, the rich will escape via private jets, watching the mushroom clouds erupt from a small window, en route to a private bunker prepped with enough supplies to last far into an uncertain future. This makes for an interesting thought experiment. Maybe it will also be compelling television.