American Horror Story: Apocalypse ended in November, and it REALLY felt like a series finisher, didn’t it? We had the end of the world, the Antichrist, a nice full-circle ending, and tons of fan-wanking that most people probably didn’t understand unless they had literally just watched Murder House and Coven in preparation (like I did, obvi).
Regardless, it was great in its own way, much like the vast majority of AHS seasons. While many fans complain that the show will never reach the dizzying heights of those first two seasons, I’m always impressed that, with only a couple exceptions, each season manages to distinguish itself in some new and unexpected way. So instead of just a simple ranking of the seasons (which is always fun), here are your ultimate, yearbook-worthy AHS superlatives.
Most Stylish Season: Hotel
Let’s get the consolation prizes out of the way, shall we? Hotel was a near-unwatchable mess (more on that later), but the overall aesthetic of the season was pretty killer. It may not have had much in the way of plot, character development, or coherent mythology, but it definitely had swagger, mostly due to Lady Gaga’s belatedly-recognized raw acting talent (not to mention her long-documented flair for the outrageous).
Best Characters: Coven
It’s not a coincidence that almost every regular character in Coven came back for Apocalypse. While other seasons had great individual characters, the third season created an entire coven of strong, flawed, and witchy women that you just want to hang out with for all of infant-blood-soaked eternity.
Best Credits Sequence: Coven
Coven’s credit sequence had basically nothing to do with the season, but it was a perfect visual poem for the season’s subversive and feminist themes. The Murder House, Asylum, and Cult intros all had pretty great imagery, but nothing beats those antlers.
Worst Season: Freak Show
I know I called Hotel “near-unwatchable,” but Freak Show was actually unwatchable. Not only did it fail to adequately humanize the characters, which pretty much just made it offensive disability porn, but it committed a cardinal sin of which I didn’t think AHS was capable: it was boring. The only interesting part was Twisty, and he was promptly killed off. What a waste of a premise (and villain) that should have been a slam-dunk.
Most Overrated Season: Hotel
How do so many people like this dreck more than Roanoke?? It’s literally just a Murder House redux, except you don’t care about any of the characters, nothing makes sense, and Sarah Paulson doesn’t get to do anything but cry for an entire season. Oh, and we get a “twist” ending where the protagonist was the killer the whole time! *sarcastic mind exploding sounds*
Most Underrated Season: Roanoke
I’m tempted to give this to Coven, which is bad-ass and tons of fun, and which I’ve seen at the bottom of some lists. But at least Coven has easily articulated flaws, like its race issues and that deflated balloon of an ending. Meanwhile, people really, really hate Roanoke, for reasons that are honestly beyond me. Maybe I just love meta-commentary too much, but I thought the send-up of those cheesy true crime “documentaries” was brilliant and hilarious. Plus, it was just plain scary, in a way that no other season aside from Murder House really was, with some of the best deaths in the entire series. I’m willing to bet that if you ask any AHS fan, “Remember the teenaged YouTubers on sticks?”, they’ll probably know what you’re talking about.
Most Important Season: Asylum
Most AHS seasons deal with social issues in some way, but none with as much gravitas as Asylum. The oppressive 60s-era mental institution was realized in devastating detail, and its exploration of gruesome topics like conversion therapy and corrective rape was shocking without crossing the line into exploitative. It wasn’t a perfect season–that whole possessed-nun plotline, in particular, really didn’t amount to anything in the end–but it was probably the closest AHS has ever come to feeling like an important work of art.
Best Overall Season: Murder House
While all of the seasons had their individual strengths, Murder House is a perfectly crazy composition that never hits a false note. The characters are cartoonish, but just rounded enough to be sympathetic. The acting is amazing across the board, from veterans like Jessica Lange, Connie Britton, and Zachary Quinto to then-newcomers Evan Peters and Taissa Farmiga. It’s also the most elegant season: it basically just takes the overdone-yet-viscerally-frightening haunted house premise, throws every single trope at the wall to see what sticks, and ups the outlandishness to eleven. Long live Murder House.
Timeliest Season: Cult
“Timely” is the only way to describe Cult, and not really in a good way. The season immediately capitalized on the 2016 election–literally, the premiere takes place on that fateful election night–before viewers even had a chance to catch their breath. And to the writers’ credit, this season had its moments, but ultimately it fell short. There was nothing terribly wrong with it, but it just felt like they didn’t wait quite long enough after this huge, traumatic event to say anything meaningful about it.
Most Ambitious Season: Apocalypse
Considering how much Apocalypse had to juggle, with not one but two major season crossovers, actors playing up to four different roles, a genetic post-apocalyptic dystopia, warring schools of witches and warlocks, the antichrist, multiple timelines, and a brief foray into Silicon Valley satire, this could have been an unmitigated disaster. And it wasn’t perfect–the section about the actual apocalypse was a little aimless–but it was a lot of bloody, nostalgic fun, which is all you can really ask for.
Best Sarah Paulson character: Lana Winters, Asylum
When you watch Sarah Paulson as Asylum’s Lana Winters, it’s easy to understand why she became the centerpiece of every AHS season to follow. The Coven characters are the most fun, but Lana Winters, the smart, plucky reporter who is involuntarily committed after she’s outed as a lesbian, is both palpably flinty and tragically human. More than any other character on AHS, she’s impossible not to root for.
Most Underutilized Player: Angela BassettIn such a stacked series, it’s useless to have a “Best Actor” category: how could anyone choose between pros like Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, and Evan Peters? But of all those thespians, Bassett feels the most underused. She positively lights up the screen whenever she comes on (I straight-up clapped when she finally returned in Apocalypse), but it feels like she’s always playing second fiddle to Lange, Paulson, and Bates, especially in the very-racially-questionable Coven. More Laveau please!
Most Like a Variety Sketch Series: Apocalypse
AHS is no stranger to actors playing multiple characters, but Apocalypse took it to a new level. Not only did several actors return as both their Coven and Murder House characters, but several of those actors also played new characters. Once Evan Peters is introduced as the relatively-insignificant Mark Zuckerberg wannabe (after already playing his Murder House character, his Hotel character, and a new character), the whole thing starts to feel like an extremely dark SNL episode.
Best Historical Interlude: “Valerie Solanas Died for Your Sins, Scumbag,” Cult
This may be my most unpopular AHS opinion, but I loved the Valerie Solanas episode of Cult. While it got a little hokey at times (as all AHS historical tie-ins do), it introduced a near-forgotten historical figure to a new generation of feminists who desperately need an unapologetically radical thinker like her. She’s obviously not an unproblematic figure–it’s true that she shot Andy Warhol, but it’s also true that she deserves to be remembered for a lot more than that. (And yes, Lena Dunham is a particularly blatant example of stunt casting–but considering how divisive Valerie Solanas was within the feminist movement, it’s actually a pretty funny one.)
Best Outfits: Coven
Most Memorable Scene: Violet’s Discovery, Murder House
AHS has no shortage of memorable moments. Eye-gouging! Drill-bit dildos! Lobster finger-banging! Quadruple amputation! This is a show that runs on over-the-top horrific imagery. But to me, the most horrific moment of the series is that quiet, devastating moment when Violet Harmon discovers her own body after accidentally killing herself in her basement. Taissa Farmiga’s screams are gut-wrenching, and her performance reminds you that she’s not only discovering that she’s a ghost, but newly remembering her tragic, arbitrary, very lonely death. It gives me chills every time.