Chaos Reigns as Civilization Collapses in ‘American Horror Story: Apocalypse’

It might be a gamble to assume this, but “American Horror Story: Apocalypse” seems to be going more for satire than sheer terror in this eighth season. It’s not surprising that as the world seems to wobble on its political axis, showrunner Ryan Murphy has decided to pitch in with a show about civilization collapsing. The references are not so subtle as everything from social media to celebrity culture is blamed for the end of days. For longtime fans there are many winks and references here to past seasons, pointing to an eventual linking up of the whole “American Horror Story” universe.

The mayhem begins in California as nuclear war breaks out and missiles are raining down on all the world’s major cities. A group of characters are caught up in the madness in their own, respective lives. Coco (Leslie Grossman), a diva leaves her husband to face the missiles in Santa Monica. A kid named Timothy (Kyle Allen) finds out he’s been accepted into UCLA but is scooped up by a strange group of agents working for “The Cooperative.” Timothy has been chosen because his DNA points to him being worthy stock to keep humanity going after the nuclear dust settles (he apparently looked into an ancestry site). Timothy is taken to a secluded fortress known as “The Outpost,” which is one of several worldwide hiding humanity’s elite. At the underground shelter he meets Emily (Ash Santos), a fellow brainy student deemed genetically worthy. But many of the other people down here seem to have paid their way to salvation. Hollywood’s elite are certainly here, such as Evie Gallant (Joan Collins), Andre (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Dinah Stevens (Adina Porter), among a few others. Running the place with an iron fist is Ms. Wilhemina Venable (Sarah Paulson) and her enforcer Miriam Mead (Kathy Bates). It’s full dystopia as Venable restricts everything from meals to sexual activity. Anyone who doesn’t like it can risk going outside and get a dose of radiation.

The season premiere of “Apocalypse” starts off as a satirical and hilarious romp, as Los Angelinos scatter and the local elite try to figure out how to deal with the end (Coco tries to get her stylist on her getaway plane). Some moments are taken from classic sci-fi end of the world fantasies, like a close up of a television as a newscaster somberly states, “I’m not going to make it home. So if my children are watching this: Daddy loves you very much.” Just as Timothy reads his acceptance letter to UCLA, everyone’s phone buzzes with the alert that WWIII has begun. Who exactly is participating in this battle? Russia? China? Who cares? We can assume it’s the usual suspects. None of these moments, like Evie complaining to the maid the wine is bad even as chaos reigns, are particularly scary. If anything they are a tongue and cheek commentary on current world anxieties. “American Horror Story” has always combined its creepiness with outright comedy, especially in “Freak Show.”

When the drama moves to the underground bunker the episode then takes on a more gothic, ominous tone worthy of classic dystopia. Lit in hellish shades of fiery reds and oranges, there is an eeriness throughout as the inhabitants are kept locked in, listening to the music Venable chooses and dining on a single cube of some strange material (“it contains all the nutrients the body needs”). Outside people in hazmat suits patrol the area, killing any animals who seem too infected by the lingering fallout. But it soon dawns on us that Venable and Mead are not just trying to save civilization, they have their own, reactionary agenda. This is made obvious when they accuse the gay member of the group of venturing outside and getting contaminated. Meade shoots the poor soul dead. She later tells Venable about how she deliberately altered a Geiger machine to frame the victim. Later they serve the bunker inhabitants stew that they realize could be their dead friend (“this stew is Stew!”). In this episode Timothy and Emily, no doubt the actual heroes of the season, lay low and observe the madness.

Now running eight seasons, longtime fans will have fun catching possible links to other seasons. The biggest sign of the dots connecting is the arrival of Michael Langdon (Cody Fern), a blonde-haired representative of “The Cooperative,” who shares the same name as the Antichrist child birthed at the end of the show’s first ever season (in another scene Timothy finds “666” scrawled on a mirror). Langdon appears bent on turning the whole experience into another “Hunger Games,” vowing to provide a decade’s worth of food for the most worthy.

“American Horror Story: Apocalypse” opens with the end of the world, then goes underground for what promises to be an intense time in the bunker. At this moment there are not many scares to speak of, but the show remains quite well-made. Now let’s see what else Mr. Murphy can conjure for the rest of the season. He has destroyed the world, the nightmare to follow must deliver.

American Horror Story: Apocalypse” premieres Sept. 12 and airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.