by Stephen Campbell - Is this helpful?
**_Thoughts on Apocalypse_**
> _In our new age of terrifying, lethal gadgets, which supplanted so swiftly the old one, the first great aggressive war, if it should come, will be launched by suicidal little madmen pressing an electronic button. Such a war will not last long and none will ever follow it. There will be no conquerors and no conquests, but only the charred bones of the dead on an uninhabited planet._
- William L. Shirer; _The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany_ (1960)
Less a stand-alone narrative than a sequel to _Murder House_, _Hotel_, and especially _Coven_, _American Horror Story: Apocalypse_ makes explicit what fans have implicitly known since Pepper (Naomi Grossman) was committed to Briarcliff towards the end of _Freak Show_ - each season takes place in a shared universe (as well as being a sequel to the three aforementioned seasons, _Apocalypse_ also features oblique references to _Asylum_, _Freak Show_, and _Roanoke_). In recent years, the show has unquestionably stumbled, first with the poorly constructed meta-narrative of _Roanoke_ and then with the horrendous _Cult_, leaving a fanbase yearning for a return to the brilliance of _Murder House_ and _Asylum_. _Apocalypse_ is nowhere near as good as those glory days, but it's a damn sight better than the last two seasons.
When a nuclear conflagration wipes out most of mankind, a group of survivors find refuge in Outpost 3, one of multiple fallout shelters constructed by an organisation known as The Cooperative. The Outpost, tickets for which cost $100m per person, is run by disciplinarian Wilhemina Venable (Sarah Paulson), and her stern right-hand woman Miriam Mead (Kathy Bates). It's also home to obnoxious "Instagram influencer" Coco St. Pierre Vanderbilt (Leslie Grossman), her put-upon assistant Mallory (Billie Lourd), her camp hairstylist Gallant (Evan Peters), his socialite grandmother Evie (Joan Collins), talk show host Dinah Stevens (Adina Porter), and Timothy Campbell (Kyle Allen) and Emily (Ash Santos); two teenagers assigned a free place because of their "_exceptional genetic makeup_". There are two main rules in Outpost 3; no one goes outside without permission and full protective clothing, and there is no sex, on penalty of death. However, after eighteen months cooped up inside, with only "_vitamin-fused gelatinous cubes_" to eat and a single song playing on repeat on the radio, the inhabitants are on the edge of madness. Enter Michael Langdon (Cody Fern). A representative of The Cooperative, his presence concerns Venerable and Mead, as it emerges the strict rules of Outpost 3 are of their own devising, and have nothing to do with The Cooperative's edicts. Langdon reveals that many of the Outposts in the US have been overrun by scavengers, and so The Cooperative wants to populate an un-impenetrable shelter called The Sanctuary. Langdon is to interview the Outpost 3 residents, including Venable and Mead, to determine who will be taken to The Sanctuary, pointing out he may take "_some, all, or none_". Langdon, of course, is the murderous baby from the end of Murder House, and only Cordelia Goode (Sarah Paulson again) and her coven of witches can stand against him.
I would imagine that if you haven't seen _Murder House_, _Coven_, and _Hotel_, the events of _Apocalypse_ would be difficult to follow. In any case, as a cross-over season, there are a number of returning characters. Aside from Langdon and Cordelia, there's the Harmons, Vivienne (Connie Britton), Ben (Dylan McDermott), and Violet (Taissa Farmiga); the Langdons, Constance (Jessica Lange), Tate (Even Peters), and Beauregard (Sam Kinsey); Moria O'Sullivan (Frances Conroy); Billie Dean Howard (Sarah Paulson); Elizabeth Short (Mena Suvari); Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga); Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy); Misty Day (Lily Rabe); Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts); Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe); Nan (Jamie Brewer); Stevie Nicks (playing herself); Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett); Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates); Papa Legba (Lance Reddick); and, James Patrick March (Evan Peters).
Many of the previous seasons of _American Horror Story_ have begun strong only to fall off towards the end. This was especially true of _Asylum_, whose final three episodes may as well have been from a different show. _Apocalypse_'s pilot, "The End", is arguably the best first episode since _Asylum_, and although the eighth and ninth episodes ("Sojourn" and "Fire and Reign") are weak, the final episode, "Apocalypse Then", provides a reasonably satisfying conclusion (albeit relying on something of a _Deus Ex Machina_).
Perhaps the most noticeable thing about _Apocalypse_ is the structure, with the majority of the content taking place prior to the Apocalypse itself. About ten minutes into the fourth episode, "Could It Be... Satan?", the show cuts to three years earlier, telling the story of how Langdon went from being a baby in 2011 to a man in his 20s in 2021, how he came to be involved with The Cooperative, and how he came into conflict with Cordelia and the witches. The "present" is then not picked up about mid-way through the finale. It's an interesting structure that allows the audience to ask certain questions they wouldn't in a linear narrative ("_why is such and such a character not at Outpost 3_?") at the expense of some dramatic tension (we know the witches' efforts to prevent the Apocalypse, which comprise much of the season's meat, are doomed to fail).
As with every previous season of the show, the acting is exemplary. This season sees Paulson pulling triple duty as Venable, Cordelia, and Billie Dean Howard, whilst also directing the sixth episode - "Return to Murder House". Evan Peters does her one better, however, playing four characters; Gallant, Tate, James Patrick March, and Jeff Pfister (a new character introduced in "Sojourn"). And to nobody's surprise, Jessica Lange is superb as Constance, despite having only two scenes. However, the stand-out performance is Cody Fern. He is especially good in the scenes which show him still living with Constance, where he plays Langdon as a confused and moody teenager, a performance diametrically opposed to his 2021 Langdon, who is poised, confident, and quietly dangerous. Even after he learns who he truly is, the subtlety of Fern's performance elicits unexpected empathy for a character who is irredeemable. His playing of the exasperation Langdon feels with everyone expecting him to know what he is doing, and his concomitant confusion, is especially noteworthy.
As one would expect, mood is paramount, with the first episode doing a fine job of establishing the tone of the season. From the outside, Outpost 3 looks like a Richard Serra sculpture, whilst inside, Val Wilt's production design is all dark Gothic corridors lit by firelight, complemented magnificently by Paula Bradley and Lou Eyrich's gorgeous costume design. There are also twists and turns galore, with the first major plot twist coming at the end of the second episode, "The Morning After". Additionally, the camp humour of previous seasons can be found throughout - from Evie complaining there's no stewardess on their plane and reminiscing about how disappointing Yul Brynner was in bed, to a Satanist minister (Sandra Bernhard) proudly telling her congregation she stole money from a nursing home and gave it to the NRA, to an absolutely pitch-perfect reference to The Final Conflict (1981).
Thematically, the show has always been hit and miss. On one hand, _Murder House_ told a story about a middle-class family turning on itself, _Asylum_ was a parable about clinical repression and religious cruelty, _Coven_ dealt with loyalty and the conflict between tradition and modernity, and _Freak Show_ was a plea for acceptance and tolerance. On the other hand, _Hotel_, _Roanoke_, and _Cult_ were thematically weak. Reading between the lines of _Apocalypse_, it's partly about how centuries of male leadership has led the world to the brink of destruction, something which can only be avoided by the intervention of a group of women. Indeed, one of the major plot strands sees a group of warlocks teaching Langdon how to harness his magical abilities in the hopes he may become the first male Supreme. Although Myrtle reminds them that "_men are simply not equal when it comes to magical ability_", as testosterone is an inhibitor, the warlocks are so determined to overthrow the matriarchy that most of them ignore the signs that Langdon is dangerous. In this milieu, the dynamic between the witches and the warlocks is an inverse of traditional gender roles, with men forced to justify their behaviour to women in positions of power.
However, there are problems. For one, there's those two episodes that precede the finale. A hyperbolic depiction of Silicon Valley bro-culture, the characters of Mutt Nutter (Billy Eichner) and Jeff Pfister are a one-punchline joke stretched over two and a bit episodes. Elsewhere, "The End" features a scene where Timothy speaks in voice-over, suggesting he is to be the focal character. However, not only is this not the case, but he never speaks in voice-over again, making this scene stand out like a sore thumb. "Fire and Reign" also features a truly random and poorly thought-out diversion to Russia in 1918, depicting the murder of the Romanov family. The scene serves very little purpose, and feels like the writers were throwing darts at an atlas of historical mysteries. The Satanists are also ridiculous, so camp and clichéd they didn't even work as parodies. Additionally, the way the story resolves itself is a little too easy, whilst some viewers will object to the conclusion insofar as what it means for the ghostly inhabitants of Murder House.
All in all though, I enjoyed _Apocalypse_. The cross-over is well handled, even if the timeline is confusing (how could _Hotel_ have ended in 2022 when the _Apocalypse_ takes place in 2019 - something not addressed until the final episode), and the fact that so many actors are playing more than one character (occasionally in the same episode), really lets you see just how talented a group of performers they are. Better than _Freak Show_, _Roanoke_, and _Cult_, it's probably on a par with _Hotel_, but is nowhere near as good as _Murder House_, _Asylum_, or _Coven_.