AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM “Unholy Night” Episode Recap

I’ve always enjoyed how American Horror Story has found ways to tie itself into the holiday season (last season surprised us by ending in a rather sweet way around Christmastime) and this last week’s Christmas episode proved to be fun in its own way, though not without some missteps.

We open with a little bratty kid named Tommy demanding a coon-skin cap from his mother outside a department store while they donate to a charity Santa Claus.  While the mother tries to tell her child that Christmas is about more than presents, the Santa reminds the kid to be good and listen to his mother, and perhaps the cap will wind up under his tree.

“He’s going to be awfully steamed at you if he doesn’t get that hat,” rasps a gravely voice.  The shadowy figure (veteran actor Ian McShane) mutters that it’s always about the list, and never Santa’s fault when the presents don’t arrive.  The man in the Santa suit tries to blow the guy off, but suddenly the other man draws a gun and shoots Santa in the forehead.  BAM!

And with that, we learn we are in 1962, two years before the main storyline at Briarcliff.  We are next treated to a domestic holiday scene, with a little train running around a Christmas tree.  Dressed as Santa Claus (presumably with the suit he stole, complete with a few drops of blood), McShane admires the tree while a little girl named Suzie approaches him.  She’s curious if he’s actually Santa Claus, noting the missing beard (“I shaved,” replies McShane) and the fact that it is six days before Christmas.  “That’s what you get for having Rudolph organize your calendar.  And it would explain the lack of milk and cookies.”  Suzie notices the broken window, and wonders why Santa didn’t use the chimney.  “Santa” dodges the question, and tells Suzie how a lot of things Santa does don’t seem to make sense: coming down the chimney, the flying reindeer, and visiting every house in one night.  “And they call me crazy,” he muses.  Noticing the blood, Suzie asks if Santa is hurt, at which point Santa asks to be taken to Mom and Dad.

Suzie awakens her parents, and stop being jolly pretty fast.  Before they have a chance to do anything, “Santa” has got Suzie’s parents bound to chairs with a gun aimed at their heads.  McShane tells the couple that he chose their house because of all their Christmas decorations, and then shoots them both while “Up On the Housetop” plays.  How’s that for a cheery opening?

This DOES make me wonder what would happen in the Tim Allen family flick “The Santa Clause” if a crazy murderer managed to find Santa’s suit…

We then jump ahead to 1964, and it’s Christmas on the ward!  “Here Comes Santa Claus” plays on the record player (this episode is chock full of Christmas music) and the tree is being set up.  Sister Mary blows a whistle and has all the patients line up.  She mentions that since all the ornaments were confiscated from last year’s debacle (though we don’t yet know what that is), she has to find a new way to make ornaments.  Going to each patient, she takes a bit of something away from each of them; first she takes an old man’s dentures, then snips off a lock of a woman’s hair.  Arden watches the scene, looking rather unhappy.

Next, “Carol of the Bells” plays as Frank prays over the dead body of Grace, whom he inadvertently killed in the last episode.  Suddenly (in a cheap scare that nevertheless made me jump out of my seat) Grace is awake, staring directly at Frank.  But it’s all over in a flash, and we wonder if Frank imagined the whole thing.  “I’m going to make things right,” Frank swears, “You have my solemn word.”  Just then Arden appears behind Frank.  Frank wants to go public with the truth about Kit and the monster that attacks, but Arden questions whether or not such a decision would be wise, seeing as Frank was the one who shot Grace in a panic while trying to hit Kit.  Despite this, Frank still believes it is the right thing to do.

Next Sister Mary listens to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” on a record player, when suddenly Sister Jude returns, holding a razor to Mary’s neck (the same razor Mary left for Jude in hopes that she would kill herself).  Jude knows Mary is the devil, but talks about how she wondered how the devil within Mary is able to move amongst so many sacred icons within Briarcliff, even to the point of wearing a crucifix.  Jude finally says she’s realized the demon is using Mary’s natural purity and innocence as a shield.  Jude contemplates what might happen if she killed the body of Sister Mary, allowing her soul to reach to heaven.  “Be careful,” warns the demon within Mary, “I might just jump into you.”  As Sister Jude presses the razor in deeper, the demon causes Sister Mary’s closet of canes to open up and fly across the room, as well as the record from the record player.  Jude is distracted, just as Dr. Arden enters.  Mary calls for security, and Sister Jude is escorted away.  Mary then takes Arden’s hand for a moment, though it is only to take back the crucifix that had fallen off her neck.  As Jude is led out of Briarcliff, Arden asks Mary what to do about Frank’s desire to blow his story about the monsters to the outside, but Mary replies that she has it all under control.

The fun finally gets going when Sister Mary begins to put her plan into action.  She comes to McShane with a mysterious package.  McShane at first thinks Mary is Sister Jude, but is surprised to learn otherwise.

We flash back to 1963, the night of the “Christmas debacle” mentioned before.  We finally learn McShane’s name (Lee Emerson), and that he was admitted to the asylum for killing eight people from five families in one night (checking off his “list”).  When a photographer arrives to take a group photo of all the patients, Emerson grunts that a picture is nothing more than a lie to hide the guilt of locking them away.  Sister Jude retorts that he has it backwards, and that the picture is really to remind and comfort the people on the outside that he is not out there himself.  Instead he is in Briarcliff “shackled and under control.”

But it is never under control, is it?  As a man in a Santa hat hands out presents (which Sister Jude sees as unnecessarily secular), Emerson attacks the man and bites his neck, and the photographer manages to snap a bunch of bloody photos; so much for comforting the people on the outside.

“The color matches the bloodlust in your eyes perfectly!”

We return to 1964, where Sister Mary coaxes Lee with what is inside the package–a Santa suit.  “Your beard goes perfectly well with the suit,” she taunts, referring to the scraggly hair that has grown on Lee since his time in solitary.  “You don’t know what Christmas means to me,” he grumbles.  Sister Mary responds that she does, and we learn why Lee hates Christmas so much.  He was a petty criminal thrown in jail for shoplifting a loaf of bread.  While all the jailers went caroling on the block, he was held down by five other inmates who took his virginity, in addition to his dignity, self-esteem…and Christmas spirit.  Once Lee got out, the suit gave him the power of everything he was missing.  “I knew who deserved to live and who deserved to die, who was naughty, who was nice,” remembers Lee, and with that he takes the suit to have his revenge.

In a beautifully lit scene by the fireplace, “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” plays (my least favorite Christmas song ever, by the way) as Dr. Arden approaches Sister Mary, who smokes a cigarette.  Mary talks about remembering her meager Christmases, where all she got was a tangerine and socks.  “Did you celebrate Christmas in your Nazi household?” she asks Arden bluntly.  Arden admits he did have fond Christmas memories, and in that spirit, he even brought a present for Sister Mary: two beautiful ruby earrings.  Mary is stunned, even more so when Arden explains the origin of the earrings.

The earrings once belonged to a (formerly) wealthy Jewish woman in a concentration camp.  Arden tells how the woman complained of stomach problems, so as her doctor he tried to follow her to the bathroom to collect a stool sample.  There he discovered the woman had swallowed the earrings and was constantly looking through her feces to find them.  When the woman finally died from internal bleeding Arden retrieved the earrings, knowing someday he’d meet someone worthy of their beauty.  We get a recurrence of music reminiscent of The Thing (which played in the first scene between Arden and Mary in episode one).  Mary approaches Arden, thinking she has got the best of him when she sees him blush.  As it turns out it was a test.  Arden admits he was hoping she would be repulsed by the rubies, not flattered by them, but instead there was not even a “glimmer of horror.”  Arden now knows Mary is truly lost.  “I hate to break it to you,” scoffs Mary.  “But you’re no angel either.”  She then declares, “You’re either with me or against me, and if you’re against me even God can’t help you.”

In the sick ward, Lana throws up and is consoled by a nun.  She asks the nun if Mary called the police, but the nun doesn’t answer and just tries to calm Lana down.  In the bed nearby we see another body…Kit.

Having just been thrown out of Briarcliff, Jude speaks with Mother Claudia (whom we haven’t seen since “I Am Anne Frank“) about a way to get back in.  Jude laments about how Christ and the nativity story is all but gone from the Christmas holiday, even lamenting that NBC is showing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (which actually did air on December 6th in 1964 for the first time).  “The devil is turning our eyes away from God,” Jude cries, “but he can’t have her.”  Mother Claudia promises she will do what she can, but she does not have a lot of options.  Just then the phone rings, and Claudia tells Jude that she has a visitor.

Jude goes down to the church, and is surprised to meet Dr. Arden.  He has come to make amends, knowing that though they come from different backgrounds they both share a strong commitment to Briarcliff.  Arden recognizes the horror within Sister Mary, and that there is no medical explanation for it.  A banging noise in the church causes Dr. Arden to jump, and Mary realizes Arden may even be afraid of Mary.  Jude is about to turn away from Arden, declaring that she is no babysitter, but Arden stops her with my favorite line from the episode: “I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in evil.  I’ve seen it up close and personal.”  “I have no doubt,” replies Sister Mary, implying his Nazi origins.  Even so, Arden says he admired the purity that once lived within Sister Mary, and has seen that that the light has gone out.  “Please, and that’s not a word I use often,” he begs.  “You must follow my every instruction, no questions asked” decides Jude, “I’m doing this for her, not for you.”

Back at Briarcliff, Father Howard gets out a valuable star for the tree, praising the other ornaments as “found art,” not recognizing their perversity.  Howard is a bit concerned about Mary’s decision to let out Lee (wearing a Santa suit), but he seems to be doing OK.

In a fun close up, Lee eats a candy cane while a girl sits on his lap.  “What do you say we go blow this pop stand, savage a few elves and go suck on each other,” he growls, which is enough to get the girl to leave.

It’s too bad Shelley is dead at this point, because I can think of some REALLY fun “naughty or nice” jokes.

Mary tells Howard she wants to wait on hanging the star until the entertainment portion of the party, saying “We ar watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

We then cut to a strange blissful home life scene (set to “Baby Please Come Home”), with Kit and his wife Alma, who is pregnant.  As Kit looks down at the pregnant belly, he looks up to find Alma has turned into Grace (I’m very happy that, though “dead,” they’ve found ways for Lizzie Brocheré to live on, since I have a huge crush on her at this point).  Kit is at first startled and surprised, but Grace calms him down and the two dance.  Everything seems wonderful…

But only for a moment.  Unsurprisingly, this sequence was a dream, and Lana has awakened Kit, asking if what she has heard about the manhunt is true.  Kit is at first too drugged to speak, but Lana realizes that if Kit is there, it means the outside world doesn’t know he’s there, and that if nobody is coming for him, they probably won’t be coming for Lana either.  Thus that Bloody Face/Thredson is still at large.  Kit finally stirs, asking for Grace, and at first Lana thinks he is confused.  Kit finally tells Lana that Grace has died, and Lana decides she has to get the two of them out (it’s never really explained why Kit wasn’t taking back into jail by the authorities, one of the several problems I had with this episode).  Unfortunately Kit is too doped up to move, so Lana decides she needs to get to a telephone.  At first Kit thinks this means he will get killed because of his confession, but Lana tells Kit her story about Dr. Thredson, and that she knows Kit is innocent.  Delirious Kit is unsure that Lana is really there, but real or not her presence seems to calm him down.

Arden sneaks into the kitchen, smuggling in Jude.  Jude asks where Mary is, and Arden responds that she is in the common room hosting a Christmas party.  “She should be stopped for that reason alone,” mutters Jude, and asks for Arden to bring Mary to her old office.  It seems as if Jude plans to perform an exorcism.

At the Christmas party Frank sets up the ladder for the star as Howard praises the scene.  Just then Lee goes berserk and almost kills Frank, using the star like a knife.  However Frank has had plenty of time dealing with rowdy inmates, and he and the other guards lead Lee away to solitary.  Just then Arden comes to Sister Mary with a “pressing matter in her office.”

In another dark corner of Briarcliff, Lana gets to a phone and is about to dial for help, when a figure appears behind her.  Dr. Thredson!  “Hope you weren’t planning on making a toll call,” he whispers.


Frank throws Lee back into solitary, but just as he turns around, Sister Mary is right behind him.  With a slash of her hand she slices open his throat with the razor from Jude and Frank falls to the floor (too bad, the old Irish guard had kind of grown on me).  Realizing the tables have turned, Lee is ecstatic.

In her office, Jude prays.  The door opens, but instead of Sister Mary, it’s Lee instead, dancing like a happy little kid.  “What are you doing here?” asks Jude, shocked.  “I’m here to open my present,” grins Lee, as Sister Mary locks the door from the outside.  As it turns out, Arden was with Mary the entire time, and lured Sister Jude back into Briarcliff into Mary’s trap.  Honestly, I’m a little disappointed by this plotline.  Part of American Horror Story’s appeal (at least in Season One) was its ability to find humanity in even the worst of characters, and while we’ve had some of that this season (Sister Jude, Grace, Shelley, and even Lee to a degree), it would have been interesting for them to find a way to humanize this Nazi doctor.  As it turns out, Dr. Arden is rather one-dimensional.  Also, the plot-line doesn’t really make sense, since if Arden was with Mary the entire time, why would he bother to tell her the story about the Jewish woman and the ruby earrings?  And why not kill Jude on their own accord when she attacked Mary earlier?

Anyway, as “Carol of the Bells” plays Jude runs around the room, calling to Dr. Arden for help as Lee waves a letter opener from her desk around like a giddy schoolboy and let’s out a few “ho ho ho” laughs.  Lee is furious for being left in solitary for an entire year, and punches and beats Jude savagely.  Honestly, while I’m sympathizing more and more for Jude as the show has gone on, she has sort of had this coming for being so abusive to all the patients in the asylum.  Outside the door, Mary asks Arden if he finds this offensive, but Arden merely remarks that it seems rather tedious.

Thredson unplugs the phone, and says he read about the news of Lana’s return to Briarcliff due to the newspapers reporting about the car accident with the headline “escaped mental patient returned to ward.”  Thredson is very upset with Lana, saying, “I’ve been in mourning.  You made me kill Bloody Face.”  He’s scrubbed and cleaned up every last trace of his “hobby” in his home, and had every intention of letting her talk since the court wouldn’t take a crazy patient’s word over his, but now he’s decided yet again that he has to kill her because of how upset he is over her “betrayal.”  Like a phoenix, Bloody Face had to burn to be born again, and Thredson wants to use Lana’s skin to make a new Bloody Face.  It seems like it could be over for Lana (you never know on this show!), but just then Kit appears and knocks Thredson unconscious.  I guess those drugs weren’t so strong after all!

Meanwhile, Jude continues her beat-down from Lee, even getting a taste of her own medicine when Lee uses her own canes on her, growling, “There is no God, but there is a Santa Claus!”

I wonder if Santa treats his elves and reindeer this way?

We cut back to Lana and Kit.  Lana wants to kill Thredson, but Kit knows they need him alive, since Thredson’s testimony is the only thing standing between Kit and the electric chair.

At the same time Arden moves down the death chute corridor, wheeling away Grace’s corpse.  Suddenly an eerie thrumming light and buzzing begins, and as Arden cowers, Grace’s body mysteriously disappears.  Looks like those aliens aren’t finished yet!

As Lee continues to throw Jude around the room, Jude finally manages to get the upper hand as he moves in to violate her.  She grabs the letter opener and stabs him in the throat, her hands now covered in blood.  This is one Christmas where Santa won’t make it back to the North Pole.

In the final scene, Kit and Lana stuff Thredson in a storage room, though they both know this is a very temporary solution.  Seeing Thredson bound on the ground, Lana leans in and promises to Thredson, “One day I’ll bury you.”  And with that the screen cuts to black.

All in all this episode had a fun performance from Ian McShane, but wasn’t as solid as some of the others this season such as the stellar “I Am Anne Frank” two-parter or even last week’s striking “Dark Cousin.”  The plot-line with Arden in particular didn’t make too much sense, and while plot-holes can be dodged OK in movies when there are only two hours or so to go through, they become more noticeable in narrative TV shows when you have an entire week to think about the plotline before the next episode.  However, I’m very happy to see Lana and Kit finally getting the upper hand over Bloody Face now that there are only a few episodes left, and I’m curious what will happen to poor Jude now that she is a murderer (I still wonder if Missy’s father will be out to get her after last week’s episode too).

Next week promises the reveal of the modern-era Bloody Face!  And if you missed last week, take a look here.

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The Author

Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson grew up in Santa Barbara, CA. Son of an archaeologist, he spent his childhood years developing a fondness of nature and the outdoors, which was rivaled only for his love of filmmaking and storytelling.
In 2008 he graduated from the University of Southern California's film program, and currently makes a living as an editor in addition to working on his own creative projects.
He has a weakness for redheads, seafood pasta, and dinosaurs.