[Reading Time: 10-11 minutes]
This review contains spoilers for American Horror Story: Apocalypse, and the game Fallout: New Vegas.
I watched American Horror Story’s “Apocalypse” season on Hulu without ever having seen a single AHS episode ever. And I really liked it!
My favorite part of the season was the beginning, and while that might sound like criticism, I promise it isn’t. I just wish I could have seen more exploration of the concepts they were entertaining in the first several episodes. Before all the magic stuff started happening.
The season opens with a relatively traditional “the nukes are coming, get to the fallout shelter” plotline, but quickly shifts to examine often-unexplored cultural aspects of what it would actually mean to live in a post-apocalyptic shelter. In this story, the shelter our protagonists find themselves in is being run by a cult.
Democracy, voting, majority rule… these are all illusions we collectively agree upon in order to have a [presumably] functional society. But in a world where there is no government, and the entire accessible human population is reduced to like 30 people, there’s zero guarantee we’d be able to comfortably rely on those institutions carrying over into the nuked new world.
The leader of the fallout shelter, Wilhemina Venable (played by actor Sarah Paulson), is a mean and forceful woman, but her motivations are understandable. In order to <i>have</i> order, freedom is taken away. Everyone is assigned a social caste. There are slaves. Food is rationed. Rule violators are severely punished and sometimes killed. Ms. Venable, in order to ensure the survival of the entire human race, has no qualms about making examples out of those who will not follow her strict codes, including oppressive human breeding regimens.
One of the men who sought shelter here is gay, and the series unashamedly examines the pressure that would be put on non-heterosexuals to breed regardless of their preferences. Right or wrong (<i>wrong, in my opinion</i>), it’s what they feel they need to ensure group survival. Another post-apocalyptic story that touches this subject is the 2013 film “After The Dark” which I very highly recommend.
If I were running a fallout shelter, I would try to establish a social democracy, and I would probably be murdered by someone with a bit more… ambition.
But in addition to the uber-strict directives, the setting itself is just so WEIRD. Like I mentioned, it feels and looks like a cult. Dark red and black decor. Vague hints of the paranormal that you aren’t sure are real or not. I found it incredibly fascinating.
It immediately recalled echoes of the Fallout video game series for me. This story also features a nuclear apocalypse, with small groups of humanity bunkered away in fallout shelters. The corporation that developed the shelters established a system in which the Overseer of each shelter would make all decisions, and similar to AHS, the lack of any real remaining government leads to pretty dark corners of the human psyche.
The corporation, Vault-Tec, ran experiments on their vaults. In Vault 29, the only citizens who were given tickets to take shelter there to avoid the apocalypse were children. Vault-Tec just wanted to see what would happen. In Vault 69, the population consisted of one man and 1,000 women. In Vault 56, all forms of entertainment were removed except for a comedian most considered quite annoying. Another vault included an incredible abundance of firearms for each citizen, just to see what would happen. (There were also many “control group” vaults where no corporate experiments were performed. You know, for science.)
Vault 11 is perhaps the most infamous in the series. Killer robots enforced a corporate rule that the Overseer of the vault would need to sacrifice themselves every year, or else the robobois would kill everyone in the shelter including the Overseer. The job of Overseer was chosen by election, which produced a sort of un-election process where residents typically voted for people they hated to become Overseer, knowing they would be killed after a year of ruling.
After many years, political pseudo-parties began to form, where different groups of people competed for control over who would be sacrificed/elected. Forced sexual favors in exchange for allowing a woman’s husband to be exempt from election. Campaign posters accusing others of being evil communists in an attempt to get them elected. When I first encountered these otherwise-normal-looking political posters I was indeed quite confused. Normally each person is self-interested in being elected leader, and members/citizens vote for leaders they like; this vault turned that intrinsic human political desire on its head.
Eventually all social order fell apart, a coup was attempted, and after the violent power struggle only five survivors remained. Horrified and ashamed at what they had become, they opted to commit group suicide by refusing to send a sacrifice and allowing the killer robots to eliminate them.
Only the robots never came for them. When the day came for a sacrifice, and no sacrifice was offered, the vault’s computer system congratulated them on standing together and not abandoning their fellow man.
They immediately realized they could have done this the very first year and not sacrificed anyone. All of it was a lie. There were no actual killer robots. It was all a collective social illusion created by the fear of potential death. They had been sacrificing people for nothing. They had been TOLD they would all be killed, and that alone was enough to ensure compliance.
The uncomfortable philosophical roots of these stories lie in critically examining the very concept of the social contract. We all agree to give up certain freedoms you would otherwise have in an anarchistic Wild West or caveman society (such as the ability to murder whoever you want) in order to make life better for everyone and thrive as a species. Though nowhere is a prescription announced, or an agenda pushed. There’s no declared right answer. It’s all just a Black Mirror / Twilight Zone “what would happen if X?”
Back to American Horror Story, this nuclear fallout shelter almost-game-show-like society only lasted for a few episodes. It was all quite abruptly ended with the murder of the antagonist ‘overseer’ Ms. Venable and the introduction of the real plot of the season: different factions of literal wizards competing for power amidst the uprising of the literal antichrist. Like, from the Bible.
As I mentioned, I’ve never seen any AHS. Hence the title of this entire blog — I’m reviewing things as a casual layman with an outsider’s perspective. This sort of abrupt shift from commentary on homosexuality and slavery in a post-apocalyptic society to Harry Potter And The Passion Of The Christ might be common in the rest of the seasons; I genuinely have no idea.
It was obvious that the series had taken a turn, and without knowing whether it would return to the original plot concept or move on to yet another completely new plot, I decided to give it another episode. Or two. Just to see where the show goes next. And then I ended up binging the rest of the show in an afternoon.
Like I said, I’m not criticizing the show for the shift, nor for the wizard/antichrist plotline. I really did enjoy both of them. I just had to adjust my expectations halfway through and allow the series to take me by the hand and go where it was gonna go.
Whenever I watch a new show or movie, or play a new game, I in effect ask the medium to tell me what kind of story it wants to tell. You want me to take cover to recover health? Okay! You want me to punch enemies in the face to recover health? Okay! I enter without expectations and let myself be taken for a ride. I approach stories as though they’re roller coasters, not jet skis. (This all assumes that I’m both feeling philosophically charitable and in the mood to critically experience something in the first place. And it never necessarily means I’ll <i>like</i> the piece of media.)
American Horror Story: Apocalypse is just unusual in that it required me to perform that mental exercise twice. Though it’s not strictly unique now that I’m thinking about it — one of my favorite movies of all time is Man On Fire (don’t @ me) where the first half and second half of the movie could not be more different from each other, each serving a very specific purpose in the film’s character development of the protagonist. I’m not gonna include spoilers for it here because I didn’t warn about it at the beginning, and I actually recommend seeing it for yourself.
I would have loved to see an entire season based on the tensions of a cultish society living under a nuclear wasteland, but the wizarding school plotline was quite enjoyable too. And it certainly threw me for a loop when the shift happened; the same rush I get when experiencing a dramatic plot twist. I’m honestly not complaining; it echoed the “kill Lucifer” story in Supernatural, which was absolutely my favorite season. AHS Apocalypse was like two separate-but-intertwined movies that all flowed together in the end. Especially when learning about WHY Ms. Venable organized her fallout shelter into a cult.
A Facebook friend of mine (feel free to add me! my profile is public now that I don’t work in military intelligence anymore) informed me that a lot of the AHS Apocalypse story’s magic concepts, including that hotel prison and Murder House, were features of previous seasons. That does make sense to me in hindsight, but I genuinely did not feel out of the loop. Or at least not any more out of the loop than anyone else would be. I clearly missed out on some character backstory, but the season felt very self-contained. I was quite able to enjoy the entire story without knowing anything about the series, something I was completely unsure of before I hit start on the season’s first episode. It was a sort of experiment to me, diving straight into an existing franchise I knew nothing about.
And that title sequence. Hot damn. It’s like Dexter, Blair Witch, and Marilyn Manson all mixed into one. Devilishly creepy. The understated, bassy theme song stuck around in my head long enough to start paying rent.
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