American Horror Story Murder House
Tag: opinion

Every season of American Horror Story, ranked

Contributed by
Sep 10, 2018

Not all American Horror Story seasons are equal. Co-created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, FX’s American Horror Story blasted onto the scene in 2011 as masses-friendly horror fare. The first season, subtitled Murder House, revitalized careers and shot new stars into the stratosphere. The following seasons — Asylum, Coven, Freak Show, Hotel, Roanoke, and Cult — solidified the series as a mainstay.

As AHS approaches its eighth season, a highly anticipated crossover between Murder House and Coven subtitled Apocalypse, we’re tempted to think back on seasons past. While AHS is, for all intents and purposes, an anthology series with a rotating cast and varying themes, there are connecting details. So it seems appropriate to rank every season.

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Our ranking system is imperfect and totally unscientific. Series mainstays and favorites such as Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters get metaphorical points for their mere existence in a season, while powerhouse players such as Angela Bassett, Jessica Lange, and Kathy Bates truly drive it home.

But there is a caveat. If an AHS season can ride on star power alone, then, by all accounts, Apocalypse will be the best season thus far (perhaps of all time), what with its truly crazy cast list derived from seasons past. We have to be mindful not to give too much power to the cast. Story is important, too.

American Horror Story is not a perfect show. Even the most dedicated of fans will admit that every season is comprised of a weird mishmash of themes and storylines. Much of the time, Murphy and his team’s focus on all that meta goodness results in dropped plot lines and frustratingly unresolved mysteries, all in the name of aesthetic. Every season has its issues — and every season has its bright spots.

Since AHS is an interconnected anthology series, things get a little messy and more than a little meta, so we’ve got a lot to work with. Here they are: Every season of American Horror Story thus far, ranked.

American Horror Story Hotel

Hotel (Season 5)

What boosts it: 

Lady Gaga! Vampires! Terrifying mattress monster! A great mix of old and new stars! And… that’s about it!

What brings it down: 

Literally everything else. Hotel was not American Horror Story’s finest moment. As the first season in the wake of Lange’s (turned-out-to-be-momentary) departure, Hotel struggled from the beginning to find a foothold. Leaning into the Biblical theme and the vampires would have been enough — then we throw serial killers, mental hospitals, ghosts, a child molester, a heroin addict, and buckets of blood into the mix. It’s a lot.

The series’ singular universe truly started coming together in Hotel with references to both Coven (hey, Queenie) and Murder House (apparently Elizabeth went to Dr. Charles Montgomery for an abortion in 1926), so, in a way, Hotel is the closest thing to a true Apocalypse prequel we have. But Queenie was killed and Elizabeth’s abortion was a living nightmare that included a demon baby, so it might not be the best way to look at the upcoming season.

Plus, starting your season off with a rape just because you can? Not the best move.

American Horror Story Freak Show

Freak Show (Season 4)

What boosts it:  

Freak Show came on the end of a cultural high note for AHS. As the season following the wildly popular Coven, Freak Show benefited from what appeared to be a truly extravagant production budget and an impressive cast of heavy hitters. 

The series’ addition of Finn Wittrock as Dandy Mott was a delight. Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch) still haunts our nightmares. Open conversations about abuse and fetishization of disability are good. And depending on your feelings about musical numbers, Freak Show brings those in spades!

What brings it down:

We have to be careful with Freak Show. Season 4’s all-star cast alone could win it the gold, but we have to take into account its many, many limitations. Yes, Freak Show puts Paulson, Bates, Peters, Lange, and Bassett onscreen at the same time, but can a season of television truly ride on star power alone? Probably, yes. But that feels like cheating.

We have to take into account Freak Show’s inability to provide meaningful commentary. The fourth season took advantage of our society’s history of mistreating the physically disabled and physically different, dressed it up, turned it into entertainment, and didn’t end up saying anything. That’s not to say all entertainment has to have a greater meaning, but questions of exploitation ran rampant around Freak Show for a good reason. It leaves a strange aftertaste.

American Horror Story Roanoke

Roanoke (Season 6)

What boosts it:

If you like some meta for your meta, Roanoke was probably your favorite season. 

In Season 6, Murphy went all-in, resulting in a truly bizarre but wholly innovative AHS chapter. Despite how messy the multi-tendriled plot got, we’ll give Roanoke points for trying out something new (not that the plot doesn’t also bring this season down. It’s complicated). Plus, a lot of television shows and films have played with the Roanoke Colony mystery, but few have done something that managed to surprise us. Roanoke definitely surprised.

We’re genuinely still unsure about whether or not Lady Gaga as the First Supreme was a good or a bad thing. Frustrating dropped plotline? Yes. Kinda cool and the perfect Gaga role? Absolutely. We’ll be generous and count it as a “boost.” In that same vein of “was that… good?” is Edward Philippe Mott (Peters as in-world actor Rory Monahan), Dandy Mott’s ancestor, and Audrey Tindall’s (Paulson) relationship with Rory. Did we like seeing Paulson and Peters make out after having acted platonically alongside each other for so long? Who’s to say? We’re still confused.

What brings it down: 

Cannibal plotline that goes nowhere! Lots of plot lines that go nowhere! Probably the most plotlines of any AHS season that go nowhere! Classism! Casual racism! Yet another abortion plot! Unexplained Piggy Man return! “Sanctify the land!” Teeth! So many teeth! Overall, Roanoke was just kinda "meh" after all the pre-season build-up — not a damning sentiment, but not a great one.

American Horror Story Cult

Cult (Season 7)

What boosts it: 

Cult, despite its problems, gets points for breaking the AHS mold like its predecessor, Roanoke. It’s the series’ only non-supernatural season, which, trust us, has its own problems, but leaning into the horrors of suburbia and indifference was a good move.

What Cult lacked in self-awareness, it made up for in Evan Peters. Casting Peters as the terrifyingly enigmatic Kai Anderson was a masterful moment of clarity in an otherwise pretty messy season. Incorporating cult leaders outside the purely political — Charles Manson, Marshall Applewhite, Jim Jones, and more — stretched long-time fans’ understanding of Peters’ talents to a new level in the best way possible. Kai might not be fans’ favorite Peters character, but Peters exudes manic joy like never before; it’s his best AHS role yet.

Then there’s Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman as pitch-perfect suburban busybodies, Billie Lourd as new-age hipster Wednesday Addams, and John Carroll Lynch’s return as Twisty the Clown. You can’t go wrong with Twisty.

What brings it down:

The aforementioned lack of self-awareness drags Cult down the list. Basing the only non-supernatural season of AHS in a post-2016 Election world was… something. Cult used partisan politics for entertainment without comment, which many, many people criticized as being irresponsible. It was, in a word, exhausting.

Not to mention that Cult threw together suburban dysphoria with paranoia, phobias and other badly portrayed mental health issues, Purge-style clowns, potentially damaging feminism, and a smattering of famous cult leaders throughout history. Peters might have had fun embodying these people, but it was a truly jarring experience to watch the main character change so often on top of an already complicated plot.

American Horror Story Coven

Coven (Season 3)

What boosts it: 

Coven. This particularly aesthetic season filled with magic and #fashiongoals was, essentially, the show’s true glorifying moment. Bassett and Lange go head-to-head in a battle of wills and fiery monologues. Evan Peters’ popularity amongst women finally got the better of him. Taissa Farmiga’s doe eyes continued to entrance the world.

Coven had a lot of issues. A lot. But its position of power within the cultural zeitgeist of 2013 drives it way up the list.

This cast consisting of mostly women took over the world for a season. Between the Greek mythology references, the truly excellent swath of historical flashbacks (perhaps the best of any season), and its cast, Coven comes in at No. 3. Plus, sacrificial piers. And the memes. “Surprise, bitch. I bet you thought you’d seen the last of me.”

What brings it down: 

Racism — lots of racism (the kind that doesn't really have a point, it's just there). The implication that said racism can be cured by watching Roots. Very little meaningful diversity in a story set in New Orleans. Minotaur sex. Women having no choice but to compete against each other, which isn’t inherently bad but the manic joy with which it was portrayed was pretty bad. A witch hunting organization (what?). A literal killer vagina.

And we hate to classify Stevie Nicks as anything bad, but talk about giving too much screen time to a cameo versus, maybe, the plot. Sorry, Stevie.

American Horror Story Asylum

Asylum (Season 2)

What boosts it: 

Asylum, for its faults, comes in at No. 2 on our list for many reasons. While there were several plotlines that needed more attention, it was the first time AHS really went ham in exploring not-so-interconnected plots. And because it was the show’s first time really leaning into those nonsensical plot threads, it came across as interesting and attention-grabbing rather than frustrating. 

Nazi doctor! Murder Santa! Possessed nun! Crucifiction! Sarah Paulson! Bloody Face! Anne Frank? All of these weird plots and characters coalesce into a truly disturbing season, one that leans into horror tropes

In addition to everything else, this is the first season in which Jessica Lange is allowed to shine. Lange plays the constantly shifting role of Sister Jude Martin with abandon. Turning the lead nun of an asylum into one of its premiere inmates? A stroke of genius! The role crowned her a series standout. Alongside Lange, we got Paulson as Lana Winters, a role she rehashed in Roanoke and will bring back in Apocalypse. Paulson and Lange’s breakout performances in Season 2 landed them a complicated, season-consuming mother-daughter relationship in Season 3. All hail the queens of AHS.

What brings it down: 

Much of Asylum isn’t so much bad as it is “wtf.”

Dylan McDermott drinking milk from a prostitute’s bosom because of his mommy issues might be one of the most jarring, “What did I just watch?” moments in the series. In fact, in all of television. Asylum has a lot of those. 

And because we’re talking about the bad things in Asylum, we can’t not mention the aliens. The aliens, guys. What happened to the aliens? What happened to Evan Peters’ weird alien children? We will never know.

American Horror Story

Murder House (Season 1)

What boosts it: 

The original. The characters were vibrant, the sets gorgeous, the use of biblical themes and horror tropes just prominent enough, that Murder House is the series’ ultimate season.

As if announcing its power, one of the few storylines that have remained throughout AHS continuity was introduced in this season: that ghosts are stuck where they died and are only allowed to leave that location on Halloween. Murder House dedicates two episodes to this mythology. Ghosts were, understandably, an enormous part of Murder House, given all the murders that took place. That’s classic horror. 

Other AHS seasons tend to forget that these are supposed to be horror stories, as they get lost in aesthetic. As the OG season, Murder House was the perfect combination of horror and Murphy trying to be different. It worked.
 
An honorable mention, too: Violet’s death scene — Tate holding her in the tub, sobbing — and her ghost finding her dead body will forever rank as one of the series’ most impactful scenes. Nothing really tops it, to be honest.

What brings it down: 

Nothing, right?

Okay, some stuff, yeah. Tate raping Connie? Not great. More abortion storylines? Also not great (though this was, technically, the series’ first abortion storyline and partly focused on an abortion doctor). Murder House’s treatment of mental disability was also a warning sign for the series’ later treatment of marginalized people. 

Plus, “Croatoan,” anyone? And does anyone live? Not really, no. So many questions, so little time before American Horror Story: Apocalypse brings the Murder House and Coven gangs back together again.

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