Every Twisted Season of 'American Horror Story,' Ranked by an Obsessive Fan
American Horror Story is still at it. The series -- a collaborative effort from Glee creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk -- reinvented the horror anthology, taking cues from classics like The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, The Outer Limits, and Tales from the Crypt. But while those shows spun yarn in episode-long installments, American Horror Story devotes each season to a revolving theme, recasting and rotating its troupe of actors (Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, among others) like a traveling vaudevillian production. The result is a cacophony of ludicrous ideas thrown at the wall, some creating odd beauty, others splattering to the floor.
What’s unique about the show is its slavish, and sometimes vexing, devotion to American anxieties and shameful histories. Everything from school shootings to the institutionalization of queer women to racism in the South to the slaughtering of Native Americans gets examined in arch, high-camp broad strokes. The results may be polarizing, but if there’s one thing to admire about Murphy and Falchuk’s vision, it’s the utter refusal to be demure.
With American Horror Story: Cult currently underway, we decided to look back on the first six seasons of the series and rank them accordingly, with an update to come once Cult finishes later this year. Here’s how each one stacks up.
To be fair, Hotel had a rough obligation: It was the first season to sell American Horror Story without its banner star, Jessica Lange, who left after four years to pursue other projects. Lange was the high point of every early season, and her raw talent and star power pushed the show through any slums. Fully aware of the black hole Lange’s absence would create, Murphy courted another marquee name to replace her: Lady Gaga.
Unfortunately, Gaga lacks the meaty acting chops that made Lange the magnetic force of Seasons 1-4, and Hotel suffers greatly for it. Her character -- an ageless and glamorously vampiric countess in the mold of Elizabeth Bathory -- is delicious on page, but the scales are oddly tipped with her as the lead and legitimately great actors like Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, and Denis O’Hare in supporting parts.
The premise is also unforgivably disjointed. The hotel setting is an old horror trope, evoking classics like The Shining and Psycho, but it never quite gels in this context. Gaga’s Countess owns the art deco Hotel Cortez (based loosely on the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles), which is home to her victims, lovers, drug addicts, ghosts, a transgender bartender, and a demon baby named Bartholomew. Interesting concepts on their own, but a tonal mess collectively. And when you add in Wes Bentley’s boring homicide subplot, the whole thing becomes almost aggressively unwatchable.
The season’s saving grace is the high glamor it aims for and occasionally achieves. Gaga’s seductive pout and inherent sexuality recalls Delphine Seyrig’s Countess Bathory in the French vampire classic, Daughters of Darkness. She may not have the chops, but she does have the looks, which adds just enough mileage to get you to the end.
7. Freak Show
Freak Show could have been great. It has flickers of brilliance throughout, and gave life to one of the series' most indelible and iconic villains in Twisty the Clown. But it also works tirelessly to undo every bit of goodwill by the end, sacrificing coherent plot along the way; I had to read the Wikipedia page to remember what happened, if that’s any indication of how very unmemorable the majority of Freak Show is.
It’s a pity, because the setup is so excellent, and the cast so superb. Jessica Lange is the highlight, of course, as the titular freak show’s ringleader, Elsa Mars, a Holocaust survivor who finds retribution in the marshy hollows of Jupiter, Florida in 1952. Sarah Paulson pulls double duty as the sinister Siamese twins Bette and Dot Tattler, who are lured into Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities in the season’s opening moments.
Other members include Evan Peters as the web-handed Jimmy Darling, Michael Chiklis as strongman Dell Toledo, Kathy Bates as bearded lady Ethel Darling, and Angela Bassett as a triple-breasted woman named Desiree Dupree. They are thwarted by several outside forces, like con men and police, but also struggle as an internal unit, as freak shows fade in popularity and their place in society is suddenly at risk.
In the periphery is the killer clown Twisty, played by the great John Carroll Lynch. Twisty is the perfect villain: big and scary, with a tragic backstory that dredges up a surprising amount of sympathy. Sadly, he’s killed off almost immediately, and replaced -- almost literally -- with Dandy Mott, a spoiled rich kid who wants to parlay with the freaks, and later tries to end them.
Without Twisty, the suspense escapes from the season like a deflating balloon. None of the freaks are all that compelling, and with the exception of a fun Halloween episode and Lange singing Bowie, the season lacks any major moments. Like Hotel, Freak Show's worse offense is how boring it ends up being.
Roanoke isn’t exactly good, but the hook is so wacky, and the performances so balls-to-the-wall weird, that it’s hard not to appreciate how firmly it disrupts American Horror Story’s status quo.
The season was sheathed in mystery going in -- the commercials all teased different potential themes, each one ending with a question mark. Viewers had to tune into the premiere to see what was up, and even that didn’t answer much. It’s about a reality show? A fake reality show? What?
The season actually centered on a paranormal documentary called My Roanoke Nightmare, about a couple who moved into a haunted 18th-century mansion that was once the site of the disappearing Roanoke Colony. The documentary features the talking heads of the “real” couple and witnesses, along with actors who recreate the dramatic moments. For several episodes, the show goes on like this, taking us through the horrors the couple witnessed -- dead nurses, an evil woods witch, the spirit of a maniacal “Butcher” who wants the heads of all who wronged her.
But then, mid-season, the rug is pulled and the story refocuses. We’re told that My Roanoke Nightmare was a ratings smash, and the network develops a new series where the real people and the actors who portrayed them go back to the house together and film their experiences. Because this is American Horror Story, things go bad and almost everyone dies.
It’s a lot to wrap your head around, but the show really doesn’t give a shit. The season winds up being both legitimately scary and a great spoof of the found-footage horror trend, with plenty of Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity vibes. It also serves as a biting commentary on the bloodthirsty business that is reality television, itself a kind of American horror story.
Roanoke also lets its cadre of actors let loose and have a lot of fun. Sarah Paulson is notably excellent and effectively campy as Audrey Tindall, the recreation actress portraying My Roanoke Nightmare's female lead (Paulson also reprises her Asylum character, Lana Winters, in the finale). But the real standout is Adina Porter as Lee Harris, whose narrative as a ruthless grieving mother lends the season some gravity, and twists the story in unexpected ways.
Roanoke suffers a bit from shoddy writing, and it falls apart near the end, but it breathed new life into the Lange-less later seasons, and expanded the format in a truly unique and interesting way. Major points for effort.
Oh, Coven. Coven, Coven, Coven. What you could have been, and what you ultimately were, are so disappointedly disproportionate. Luckily, the first chunk is so strong that it almost erases how bad Coven gets by the end. And by bad, I mean racially offensive and cruelly misogynistic in some truly baffling ways.
Let’s start with the good: the costumes, that house, those actresses. With New Orleans as a setting, and witches as a hook, Coven is a spoil of aesthetic riches. Lange as “Supreme” witch Fiona Goode, whose only vulnerability is aging out of relevance, is both a hero and a villain, someone you root for and against with an equal measure of delight. It’s also our introduction to Angela Bassett as real-life voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, and Kathy Bates as real-life serial killer Delphine LaLaurie. The younger cast members are also strong, and Lily Rabe makes a real impression as Misty Day, a necromancer who’s obsessed with Stevie Nicks, as does Frances Conroy as Myrtle Snow, the Balenciaga-obsessed head of the Witches’ Council.
The season teases several clashes: mother vs. daughter, black witches vs. white witches, witch student vs. witch student, all of the witches vs. a team of male witch hunters. But none of these play out effectively. The story zips and zooms through several dead ends, with some real head-scratchers, including a tone-deaf Martin Luther King reference, a minotaur slave ghost, and a ‘round-the-piano sing-along with the real-life Stevie Nicks.
Coven tries to be a commentary on slavery and racism in America, and on the problematic ways women grapple with age, but instead shows face as a series written almost exclusively by white men who don’t attempt to understand the issues they’re juggling. Still, Coven lingers on for its memorable characters, impressive array of actresses, and early potential. It’s a hard season to love, but an easy one to watch -- if only you dream of what it could have been instead.
It feels weird ranking Apocalypse higher than Coven, a season on which its foundation rests, but the show’s epic eighth season was such an improvement on its third that it could only be this way. While Coven gave us our beloved cast of witches, it also did them dirty with messy plots and a series of hellish fates that felt needlessly cruel. But Apocalypse, which was billed as an epic crossover event between Murder House and Coven, was really just Coven 2.0 more than its own thing, and served as a proper closure for Cordelia and her girls. What’s more, the season was the first fully cohesive season of American Horror Story in ages. Although it spent a few too many opening episodes lingering on an apocalypse that would ultimately be undone, and with characters like Gallant (Evan Peters) and Evie (Joan Collins) who didn’t much matter, its back half was nonstop satisfaction.
Michael Langdon (Cody Fern), born at the end of Murder House, returns as the Antichrist, a petulant young man with a misguided grip on his powers. Thanks to a vision from Supreme witch Cordelia, the coven returns -- and those cast to Hell (minus Fiona and Delphine) are retrieved -- and set about trying to stop the evil and prevent Cordelia’s apocalyptic vision. Fern is fantastic as the cantankerous Michael, while Billie Lourd and Leslie Grossman stand out as new members of the coven. Lourd is especially bewitching as the angelic Mallory, arguably the most powerful witch of all time.
The whole crossover selling point was more of a gimmick than an organic story device -- save the inclusion of Michael, we only get one episode in the Murder House, and the events of that are erased in the finale -- but this is American Horror Story, after all. It loves its fan service. Luckily, for the most part, Apocalypse was the good kind of fan service, connecting sensibly back to the previous outings while creating all-time great new additions to AHS’s cabal of characters. Plus, we got two more episodes with Jessica Lange, which is always a blessing.
Cult is probably American Horror Story’s most cohesive and intelligible season to date, and I love it for how aggressively it targets news items other shows tell as parable. That it so unabashedly drags Donald Trump and Jill Stein, and that it pokes and prods at every corner of the political spectrum -- from birthers to white feminists -- is brilliant and ballsy, like Murphy lost the ability to play nice and is out for post-election blood. I admire the hell out of Cult’s chutzpah… but I wish it had waited a few years to go there.
That’s Cult’s fatal flaw in the end: its proximity to a real-world news cycle that feels like a bad episode of The Twilight Zone. In a lot of ways, Cult is better than the cuckoo-bananas world we now live in. There are consequences for inflated male egotism, for starters. The season centers on the megalomaniacal Kai Anderson (Evan Peters), a Michigan Trump voter incentivized by chaos when his candidate wins. He uses his newfound confidence to torment locals, instilling a sense of paranoia in his suburban community by indoctrinating vulnerable followers and stalking the town in clown costumes. He specifically targets Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson), a restaurant-owning liberal lesbian whose marriage is on the rocks, and whose sense of safety is disquieted in the wake of Trump’s victory. With the help of his psychiatrist brother, Kai preys on Ally’s phobias and insecurities, hoping to wear her town. Meanwhile, he runs for city council, and continues to attract followers, using the philosophies of several infamous and purely American cult leaders (from Jim Jones to Charles Manson) as inspiration.
Using a cult mentality to develop a post-Trump discourse is incisive in a way American Horror Story never was before, and parts of the season -- like Ally’s wife’s seething hatred of her once she finds out Ally voted Stein, or the conversations about immigration and racism -- truly sing. But the season’s borrowing of specific hot-button news items makes it virtually indistinguishable from everyday goings-on. It’s Cult’s blessing and curse, in that it both feeds off and is stifled by reality. I still commend the show for daring to make sense of the nonsensical, and for tackling those themes head on. But only time will tell how well it shone a light on our current American horror story.
Asylum is the darkest and most bizarre season of American Horror Story. It’s also the only one that offers breathless excitement straight through to the end. That’s mostly thanks to Lana Winters, the show’s most compelling character, who gives heart to a season that’s so agony-fueled, it’s sometimes hard to watch.
Asylum is set in a Massachusetts sanitarium called Briarcliff Manor, a Catholic institution known for its cruel practices against patients. Lana -- played by a never-better Sarah Paulson -- is an investigative journalist who pries into Briarcliff’s mishandling of the mentally ill, but winds up institutionalized herself once they discover she’s a lesbian. In the asylum, she's taunted by Jessica Lange’s Sister Jude, a cruel and relentless nun, and Lily Rabe’s Sister Mary Eunice, who’s possessed by the literal devil. Lana is also ruthlessly pursued by her psychiatrist, Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto), who forces her into conversion therapy and later rapes and impregnates her.
Like Coven, Asylum gets pretty damn random at times -- one subplot involves a patient claiming to be Anne Frank, another features Ian McShane as a maniacal Santa Claus -- but unlike Coven, Asylum handles these turns deftly, and always circles back to Lana and the other suffering Briarcliff patients. There’s the larger mystery of the serial killer Bloody Face, but even that leads to Lana. Her story of survival anchors what would otherwise be an incoherent mess. If the show were smart, it would use this device more often.
1. Murder House
Ask any tried-and-true horror fan: The original is always best. Apart from being the most watchable and entertaining season, Murder House is also its most cohesive. You get the sense, pretty early on, that this story is going somewhere. Rewatches benefit this suspicion -- there are clues as early as the pilot as to where our leads will end up, and their journeys feel propulsive and, best of all, earned. Unlike the jumbled Coven and Hotel, which got excited with concepts without thinking them through, Murder House has the wherewithal to make good on early promises, grim as they may be.
Along with Asylum, Murder House is also one of the only seasons that feels indebted to its genre. The premise is standard horror fare: A troubled couple and their moody teenage daughter move into a haunted house and are immediately targeted by the ghosts that dwell there. But the Harmons aren’t your typical horror family. The second things go bad, they put the house up for sale and make concrete plans to leave. Unfortunately for them, their home has other plans.
Murder House also lays into the nature of American panic. One ghost, Evan Peters’ Tate Langdon, is a school shooter of the Columbine mold. His self-righteous chaos quest is disturbingly accurate, and the show’s attempts to humanize him make for an uncomfortable but inquisitive moral dilemma. And then there’s the Harmon matriarch Vivian (Connie Britton), a woman whose rightful paranoia lands her in a looney bin, and whose reproductive rights are questioned and destabilized. Through the lens of fiction, these real-world issues gnaw at viewers in new ways, which is the function of all great horror.
Jessica Lange’s Constance Langdon, an out-of-time Southern belle displaced in Los Angeles, holds the whole season together as a character who chews through every last bit of story and scenery. She’s a mighty force as the Harmons’ pesky next-door neighbor, whose unclear motives lend the story an eerie and enticing central mystery. Rewatching Murder House means reliving Lange’s genius. She elevates the material from a kooky haunted-house show to one of the all-time great horror entries.