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American Horror Story: Apocalypse was somehow both absolutely nuts and largely forgettable

In the end, Apocalypse was more about scenery chewing than telling a story.

AHS: Apocalypse
Angela Bassett in AHS: Apocalypse
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for November 11 through 18 is “Apocalypse Then,” the season finale of the eighth season of American Horror Story.

Although American Horror Story bills itself as an anthology series that wipes the slate clean with each and every season, it has two constants that rear their fiendish heads in every installment: silly writing and absolutely messy season finales.

Said season finales are usually filled to the brim — for better or worse — with all the ideas that co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk could smash into an hour or so. And American Horror Story: Apocalypse’s finale, which aired Wednesday, is no exception.

“Apocalypse Then” wraps up the season by indulging in some bathtub-based time travel. By the end of the hour, we’ve witnessed voodoo queens receiving machetes to the neck, the Antichrist being killed by an SUV driven by the most powerful witch in the world, another Antichrist being born after his parents met at a coffee shop protest against Brazilian exploitative labor, and witches burying themselves alive in a Louisiana swamp to survive nuclear winter.

Yet, despite all of the delicious spectacle and heavy lifting by American treasure Sarah Paulson playing multiple characters, the episode capped off season that ultimately felt a little disposable. The time travel device essentially negated all the tension and drama that were built up in the previous nine episodes, hollowing out the story’s biggest developments — not unlike the third season of American Horror Story, Coven, where witches were resurrected over and over.

But Apocalypse did produce a handful of entertaining fan-service moments. It gave us witches saying cutting, bitchy things, and old-favorite characters delivering their signature lines — the kind of quotable stuff that will endure long after the show itself.

I just still can’t decide if that’s enough.

American Horror Story: Apocalypse felt more like American Horror Story: Coven II

Apocalypse was something of a Trojan horse. Prior to the season’s release, Murphy teased that it would not only confirms that American Horror Story’s third season, Coven, and its first season, Murder House, existed in the same world (as fans had long theorized), but that they would cross over.

Murder House told the story of the Harmon family, who moved into a mansion with a supernatural twist: Anyone who died in the house was trapped there for eternity as a ghost, unable to escape. But the ghosts were able to manifest themselves to anyone living in the house. Eventually, Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton) gave birth to a child after having sex with one of the ghosts. That child ended up being pure evil — and the future villain of Apocalypse.

Coven focused on a clan of witches in New Orleans and their search for a new leader. This leader was known as “The Supreme,” because she was the most powerful witch alive. But according to the witches’ mythology, the current Supreme’s powers would begin to fade when a new Supreme came of age. Coven detailed that process, and the season saw Cordelia Goode (Paulson) ascending to become the Supreme, taking the mantle and the powers from her mother Fiona (Jessica Lange). Several of characters from Coven then appeared in Apocalypse.

But while Apocalypse did devote one whole episode to the characters of Murder House, and made good on the promise of a crossover between Murder House and Coven, it was really more a continuation of Coven, than a season of its own that incorporated elements of its predecessors.

Apocalypse began like all American Horror Story seasons, with an intriguing premise that pulled traditional gothic themes into contemporary times. As the season opens, nuclear war has begun and it’s every man, woman, and child for themselves to find spots in underground bunkers scattered around the world. It turns out these bunkers are somehow connected to Michael Langdon (Cody Fern), the demon baby Antichrist revealed at the end of Murder House, who is a now man with the face of an Calvin Klein angel. (Langdon, because of his demonic parenthood, aged faster than a regular child.)

There’s a social hierarchy in each bunker, and there’s a vague suggestion that a pair of forgettable and attractive young people, Tim (Kyle Allen) and Emily (Ash Santos), are destined to be together and perhaps function as some kind of Adam and Eve — but after appearing regularly in the first three episodes, they aren’t seen again until the last minutes of the finale.

We also learn that the bunkers are also home to the witches of Coven, who, after the nuclear fallout, crashed the bunker where Tim, Emily, and most of the rest of the Apocalypse cast are hanging out. The witches reveal that they’ve not only planted some sleeper cell witch agents in other bunkers but also that they’re only thing that stands in the way of Langdon causing the extinction of humanity. And when the witches arrive, everyone but Langdon and his maniacal nanny robot (Kathy Bates) are killed off or forgotten.

This all happens by the end of episode three.

But then Apocalypse suddenly ditches the complicated bunker plot, and becomes a seven-episode flashback about how the witches of Coven got to this point. It dives into the backstory of a turf war between the witches and a rival clan of bitchy, misogynistic warlocks. It shows how some of the witches come back from hell. And it contains a gimmicky reveal of how two tech bro doofuses tried to take advantage of Michael’s powers to destroy the world and successfully incite nuclear war.

All throughout, most of American Horror Story’s regular cast members are playing multiple characters — either reprising roles from previous seasons, playing new characters introduced in Apocalypse, or both.

If all of that sounds exhausting — and it often was — the season’s extended flashback structure only compounded the problem. After episode three, Apocalypse didn’t return to the present, bunker-filled world until around 15 or so minutes into its season finale. And once it did, the the finale relentlessly tried to outdo the already ostentatious nine episodes that preceded it.

There were certainly moments of greatness within the season, especially for diehard fans of Coven. If, for example, you enjoy seeing great actresses say ridiculous things, like Frances Conroy’s regal Myrtle Snow — an elaborate cosplay of the legendary fashion visionary Grace Coddington — declaring, “My hair is an eternal mystery never fully able to be understood” before murdering nefarious tech bros, then this season could not be better.

But if you would rather that a TV show have at least some coherence or any kind of weight in its plot, Apocalypse left a lot to be desired.

How AHS: Apocalypse knee-capped itself

In both Coven and in Apocalypse, American Horror Story toyed around with the idea of witchcraft being synonymous with female power. And throughout both seasons, the characters explained that no man could ever become as powerful as the most powerful female witch.

The villains of the show, then, are those who attempt to quash the witches’ power, and their desire to kill off the witches becomes synonymous with misogyny. In Apocalypse, those villains were two misogynistic ruling warlocks — Baldwin Pennybacker (BD Wong) and Ariel Augustus (Jon Jon Briones) — who were tired of witches’ rule, as well as the Murder House ghost baby Langdon, an impulsive boy in a man’s body who has been coddled all his life. The secondary villains are the immature, misogynist tech bros who take advantage of Michael.

The series’ political hand is heavy as its story comes to focus on a group of powerful and rich men who would rather see the world burn at the hands of an immature man-child than let women rule.

What’s confusing, however, is that even though we’re clearly meant to root for the witches, very little time is spent developing Mallory, the witch played by Billie Lourd who has the power to go toe-to-toe with Langdon. Her main personality trait is that she’s powerful, and her family’s roots can be traced back to Salem, Massachusetts. Other than that, we get no hint about her personality outside of her powers.

Her most significant power, it turns out, is time travel, which we learn she’s capable of in the season’s final two episodes. This allows her to go back and time to kill Michael when he’s more vulnerable, which she accomplishes not with any kind of magic, but rather the horsepower of a Land Rover. (That is to say: She runs him over when he’s a little kid, but also he’s a little kid in the body of an adult man.)

The problem with this time-traveling magic (which, by the way, must be performed in a bathtub) is that it undercuts the stakes of Apocalypse by making it possible to reverse anything that’s happened previously on the show. With Mallory’s time travel in the finale, she can undo anything that been done in the previous nine episodes. Essentially all of the built-up tension unravels once you realize how powerful Mallory’s powers are.

Apocalypse, like Coven, also relies on witchy powers of resurrection and healing. Death doesn’t seem to matter, because Mallory can also heal almost anyone or anything. (To counteract some of this, American Horror Story’s writers gave Michael the power to burn souls, though it’s used sparingly.)

What’s particularly frustrating about this is that when Apocalypse focuses its attention on the all-powerful Mallory, other characters’ development and sacrifices are simultaneously rendered moot. Coven fan favorite Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), after a stint in hell, grows past being mean and toxic and learns about sisterhood and family. Cordelia (Paulson) sacrifices herself to give Mallory life, showing that she’s the complete opposite of her mother. But those developments no longer matter after Mallory’s time travel in the finale. (And that’s to say nothing of the plot holes the time travel introduces.)

But maybe worrying over plot holes and flat dramatic stakes misses the point of Apocalypse. What American Horror Story seemed to be most concerned this season, was giving us meme-able and .GIF-able moments like Madison’s now famous “Surprise, bitch”:

Or Cordelia’s “I’m the Supreme…” monologue that completely channels Designing Women’s “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” speech:

Ryan Murphy was apparently so thrilled with Coven that in Apocalypse, he decided to give us one more season of it. Perhaps Apocalypse will live on in memes and GIFs long after American Horror Story moves on to other narratives and themes. The season definitely served up some deliciously memorable moments. But it’s sort of a shame that everything surrounding those moments immediately seems to evaporate.

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