Billie Lourd on Apocalypse
Image: FX

From the very first episode, American Horror Story: Apocalypse has felt like a return to rare form for the series—in large part because this season incorporates a number of characters from previous seasons, but also because this story has always had a singular focus. The apocalypse is coming (or is already here), and it’s something no one wants except for the Antichrist.

While many of us were sold on the idea that this American Horror Story was going to incorporate each and every previous season of the series, it ultimately boiled down to being a showdown between the witches of Coven and the newly-adult spawn of Satan we first met in the show’s first season. Wild as that premise is on paper, it’s worked (and then some) on the screen, and last night’s finale, “Apocalypse Then,” was a stunning reminder that, as tiring as American Horror Story has sometimes been in the past, there’s still a fuckton of magic to be mined out of the franchise.

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The beauty of American Horror Story: Apocalypse is just how planned out and encapsulated the entire season has been—something that becomes readily apparent as the events of the season’s finale unfold. What began as a somber story about a gaggle of weirdos doing their damnedest to survive in the world after an all-out nuclear war eventually became a rather fascinating examination of the nature of power structures, and the idea that power is something one must be willing to relinquish for the sake of the greater good.

Following the events of last week’s episode that left basically all of the show’s witches dead, “Apocalypse Then” opens with what might as well be the best, most scenery-chewing performance of Frances Conroy’s career. Having learned of Michael Langdon’s plot to initiate nuclear war with the help of the Illuminati, Myrtle Snow pays a visit to everyone’s favorite tech bros in order to ensure that the witches have at least a handful of their sisters embedded in one of the outposts first introduced at the start of the season.

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With Michael becoming strong enough to kill witches and command humans to obey his will, the coven understands that the only possible way to save the world is to travel back in time to prevent Michael from ever ascending to power. But knowing that Mallory is the newly-ascendent Supreme of the coven is what makes their fight against Michael so perilous. As per the rules of American Horror Story’s magic, a Supreme can only truly come into her power once her predecessor is dead. But Cordelia Goode is still very much alive and understandably wants to remain so, partially because of her fear of what’s to come in the afterlife, but also because she has the deep desire to defend her fellow witches until the very end.

Sarah Paulson’s performances have always been a consistently fantastic aspect of each season of American Horror Story, but there’s an emotional depth to Cordelia’s story in this particular episode that feels distinct: Her death is the one thing that might just give humanity a fighting chance to be saved. While she doesn’t verbalize it in this particular episode, that’s a concept that makes you recall just how self-absorbed and harmful Fiona Goode (her mother, portrayed by Jessica Lang) was while she was alive. While Fiona reveled in the power that comes along with being the Supreme, Cordelia recognizes the responsibilities that come along with the title and the need for her to be willing to sacrifice herself for the greatest of goods—a quality of true strength and leadership.

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Before the episode gets around to its satisfying climax, it also addresses one of the problematic aspects of the season, dealing with race in a way that’s equal parts surprising and satisfying. Coven’s plot exploring the feud between the coven of predominantly white witches and Marie Laveau’s group of black women who practice voodoo is something that never quite factored into Apocalypse, given that the events of her original season left Marie trapped in hell.

In Marie’s place, Apocalypse introduced Dinah Stevens as the new reigning voodoo queen and, powerful though she is, her role throughout the season was mainly to act as an antagonist towards her fellow witches, which came across as petty and small-minded given the season’s stakes. Once again, Dinah chooses to align herself with Michael in his final showdown against the witches, but in what can honestly be described as one of the best television twists of the season, Cordelia explains that Dinah’s presence is all part of her own larger plan to bring Marie Laveau (and, ahem, Angela Bassett) back to the world of the living.

In her own final battle with Michael, Cordelia willingly stabs herself in the chest, a fatal blow that enables Mallory to tap into her true power and project herself back in time to a point before Michael was fully aware of his own destiny. Because this is a finale, of course Jessica Lang reprises her role as Constance Langdon, Murder House’s original antagonist, and we see that even she was unable to tolerate Michael’s (her biological grandson) presence.

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For all the pain and suffering Mallory and her fellow witches went through in order to stop Michael, the way they end up stopping him is decidedly camp in true American Horror Story fashion. Mallory pulls up to Michael’s house, runs him over with her car, backs up, rolls over him again, and then makes sure to do it one more time to ensure that he’s a mangled mess when she drives away. He dies, the future changes for the better, and the world...well, it’s saved. For the time being, at least.

On the whole, American Horror Story has never really dallied in stories with happy endings, but Apocalypse’s finale was a break from form. Even though the show’s been renewed for multiple seasons (meaning that more bad shit is going to befall the world), Apocalypse gave a number of the series’ franchises a fitting closure that retrospectively enriches the seasons we first met them in. For all of American Horror Story’s failings, Apocalypse came to remind us all why we first latched onto the show in the first season, and in a truly magical way, breathed new life into the series that’ll leave you at least partially excited to see what happens next.