This is how the world ends, “American Horror Story” edition: not with a bang, but with witches time-traveling to prevent the Antichrist from igniting nuclear Armageddon.
It’s a Ryan Murphy affair, so instead of 10 horns and seven heads, as prophesied in the Book of Revelation, the Antichrist has voluptuous blond hair, striking blue eyes and a penchant for human entrails. He’s gay, maybe, and the product of a rape committed by a school shooter dressed in a skintight rubber suit. Before a Satanist cult led by Sandra Bernhard showed him the proper path toward righteousness, he was full of insecurities, just like you and me. (“It’s not like there’s a bunch of reference material about how to be the Antichrist,” he wines, and we nod our heads in recognition.) But if you can rewind the clock a few years, all it takes to stop the guy is a simple hit and run.
There’s a compelling conceit nestled in the morass of “AHS” Season 8: What does it take to become the Antichrist? What happens when Rosemary’s baby turns 3, amused by a sudden ability to kill any unfortunate soul (a nanny here, a priest there) who enters his bedroom? Movies like “The Omen” and “End of Days” have chronicled the Antichrist’s origins, but Hollywood is sorely lacking in Antichrist coming-of-age representation. (Their stories deserve to be told too!)
“Apocalypse” fills that void, melding threads from previous editions so that little Michael Langdon (played in adult form by Cody Fern), the youngster with blood smeared across his hands in the final scene of “Murder House,” almost fulfills his mortal-ending destiny.
The season hopscotches through timelines and scenarios, witnessing Michael ripen with his goth-happy adoptive mother (Kathy Bates) and digress toward the worldwide wipeout that began this saga. Even as an accomplished adult with a cabal of warlock cronies, Michael’s journey is not without its trials, namely the witches (from “Coven,” of course) who pop up at one of the Richard Serra-esque outposts he’s running in present day’s wintry afterworld.
Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) reigns as the Supreme Witch. She’s leading what’s effectively a matriarchy, which means Michael deeming to challenge her for top-dog status is just the sort of coup you’d expect from a man whose ego has ballooned to ballistic proportions in the end time. His own success isn’t satisfaction enough, so he has to take what belongs to a woman too.
Unsurprisingly, the bildungsroman built into “Apocalypse” favors a masculine journey. “Hereditary,” the chilling horror hit that opened in June, has a similar spine. When demon worshippers crown 16-year-old Peter (Alex Wolff) their new king, it’s at the expense of his little sister (Milly Shapiro), who’d been christened the group’s next monarch before their grandmother died. It’s not Peter’s fault. Really, it’s a social evil: The occultists are adhering to sexist scripture that mandates a male ruler ― a slice of actual demonology that writer-director Ari Aster incorporated in the film. Peter’s sister, and entire family, died so he could take the throne as King Paimon.
“Apocalypse,” for all its bloated “AHS” greatest-hits gobbledygook and “2001: A Space Odyssey” send-ups, lets its women prevail, sort of. The universe is restored thanks to the witches’ time-travel tricks, whereby Mallory (Billie Lourd), tapped to succeed Cordelia as the rightful Supreme, runs over Michael outside of Murder House right as Constance (Jessica Lange) was inadvertently jump-starting his dominion. Thanks to this 11th-hour feat, the coven lives on, absent only Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy), its czar of one-liners and Grace Coddington hair.
And yet the show couldn’t help but slip in a victory for Michael’s team (aka evil men) too. He’s dead, but a new Antichrist is inexplicably born in the season’s final minutes, via minor characters we never cared about ― and yep, it’s another boy. It may only be a matter of time before Miss Robichaux’s Academy comes face to face with another charismatic male beast hungry to please Daddy.
Here’s what “Apocalypse” has going for it: It’s the first season I’ve finished since “Freak Show,” which in the age of Trump feels like a lifetime ago. “AHS” seasons tend to taper off ― read: become too ridiculous or convoluted ― around the halfway mark, and not even the horror buff in me can survive their one-dimensional skein. But after Stevie Nicks showed up to perform “Gypsy” in Episode 5 (because why not!), “Apocalypse” basically rebooted its plot, doubling down on the Antichrist’s pre-holocaust development, which was always more interesting than the Illuminati talk that undergirded the inciting annihilation.
Therein, it found what previous go-rounds often shortchanged: a compelling thesis ― the Antichrist is just as naïve and misguided as the rest of us. It’s too bad the season’s crossover mythology outpaced that premise, becoming a nostalgia ploy in desperate need of moderation, and then retracting its girl-power mantra at the last second. No one wants a pleasant “AHS” ending, but “Apocalypse” gendered its bleakness in a battle of the sexes with a doomed outcome.
Pop culture turns its little men into demons because in most traditions the devil is a patriarchal concept. Michael adores his mommy dearest, but it’s his “father” ― you know, Satan ― he seeks to please, just as Paimon’s followers were adhering to their gospel when seeking a male figurehead. Both “Hereditary” and “Apocalypse” cloak themselves in feminist garb, presenting the former as a Toni Collette vehicle about grief and the latter as a witchy melodrama about sisterhood. But in the end ― and I say this as someone who thinks “Hereditary” is pretty great ― they succumb to the same patterns we always see: Women do the work, yet men manage to win anyway.
That’s the real horror story.