Picture the end of the world. Explosions, chaos, bodies, smoke. What lingers on in the rubble? It’s hard to visualize nuclear winter as anything but raining ash and nothingness. But what if somewhere deep below the cinders of a ruined civilization was a new way of life, where people dressed in Victorian high-collars and purple velvet, listened to The Carpenters’ “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” on an endless loop, and ate translucent gelatin cubes in front of a crackling fire? You probably can’t imagine this, because it’s insane. Welcome to American Horror Story: Apocalypse.
You have to hand it to Ryan Murphy. After seven seasons of ghosts and witches and evil clowns, one could forgive a wane in creativity. But Apocalypse has perhaps the most visually beguiling set-up of any in the anthology so far. In the aptly titled premiere, “The End,” residents of Los Angeles are warned via text message and a wailing siren that they have one hour until a ballistic missile hits the city. Heiress Coco St. Pierre Vanderbilt (Leslie Grossman) and her assistant Mallory (Billie Lourd) are whisked away to a private jet that they’re informed will carry them to safety. They are joined by Coco’s high-end hairstylist Mr. Gallant (Evan Peters) and his excessive grandmother Evie (Joan Collins). As they take off, they watch an atomic bomb decimate the city, and realize the cockpit of their jet is empty. How are they flying and where are they going? It’s a bizarre, fantastical introduction to a season that feels stylistically alien from all that’s come before, and this is all before the credits even play.
The credits in question–the highlight of every season of American Horror Story–are a mix of shots from Murder House and Coven‘s credits, interspersed with apocalyptic imagery: mushroom clouds, satanic drawings, the Book of Revelations. But the hook of Apocalypse‘s big hook–that it’s a crossover of Murder House and Coven–was barely touched on in the premiere. Save for the appearance of one key character in the final scene (more on him in a minute), “The End” is devoid of direct references to any previous seasons.
Instead, it focuses on an opulent underground bunker known as Outpost 3, which is governed by Wilhemina Venable ( Sarah Paulson), a straight-laced, no-nonsense, cane-carrying authority figure. She guides the new occupants of Outpost 3 through its cavernous, seemingly endless parade of hallways, staircases, and bedrooms. Venable is a cross between a Victorian headmistress and a dominatrix. As we come to learn, she and her wing-woman Miriam Mead (Kathy Bates) are prone to torture and sadism for amusements sake. They put their fellow occupants through hell, testing them for radiation poisoning, and feeding the dead bodies of those who disobey to those unlucky enough to survive.
The world-building for Apocalypse is pretty impressive all around. As Venable explains, the world was destroyed on purpose by a powerful Cooperative, for which she’s the “strongest right arm,” to rebuild humanity. Wealth buys you a place in the new world, as with Coco, but so too will physically perfect DNA. That’s what brings Timothy (Kyle Allen) and Emily (Ashley Santos) to Outpost 3. Torn from their families before the missile hits, they are given powerful treatment at the outpost, told that they are of superior genetics. Exactly what this means is presently a mystery, but they feel like the new world’s Adam and Eve. Will the Devil come to tempt them?
Something evil is definitely abound, as the episode ends with the return of one Michael Langdon (Cody Fern). You might remember him best as the offspring of Evan Peters’ Tate and Connie Britton’s Vivien from Murder House, a child born of rape and the spiritual world, and the prophesied Antichrist. He arrives at Outpost 3 in a horse-drawn carriage (zombie horses wearing gas masks, because of course) about 18 months after the apocalypse to inform Venable that another, more stable and stocked outpost exists, and that he will choose who’s most worthy to be transported. That appears to be the main premise of the season: a Hunger Games-style survival of the satanic, apocalyptic fittest.
Then again, this is American Horror Story, where everything including the kitchen sink goes. The show has flown off the handle in every season to date, but by now that’s just part of the fun. Apocalypse is the show giving into its best and worst instincts, with a wickedly winking eye. It won’t be everyone’s bag, but if ridiculous, gothic, witchy fun is up your alley, buckle up, folks: it’s gonna be a damn fun ride.
And above even that, it’s fun to see the show going for something so bold and visionary. As Michael’s carriage approached the eerily monolithic Outpost 3, like Dracula through the Romanian fog, I thought of a gothic romance—of Wuthering Heights, with the smoke of nuclear winter instead of mist-draped British moors. If Apocalypse sticks to this arch, seductive palette, this could be the most delectable season yet. Only time will tell.