Wednesday, September 29, 2021

American Horror Story: Double Feature: Analyzing Episodes 5 & 6

Every week (or so), I'll be analyzing the latest episode(s) of American Horror Story: Double Feature; This week is the season's fifth and sixth episodes, "Gaslight" & "Winter Kills"


"Gaslight" and "Winter Kills" serve as the conclusion to "Red Tide"; "Gaslight" largely focuses on the character of Doris, who was almost entirely absent in the previous two episodes. It begins with Doris giving birth to her and Harry's baby, a boy whom they eventually name Eli. While Doris is wanting to move out and move on with her life, Harry is more focused on continuing to remain in Provincetown to write more, while maintaining a fa├žade of normalcy for Doris and acquiring blood to satiate his and Alma's cravings. While Harry is able to control himself, Alma lacks her father's discipline and is caught by Doris feeding off of her baby brother late at night. Doris (rightfully) wants to get Eli and get out of dodge, Harry, Alma and Ursula all team up to gaslight her into complacency. Doris fully knows something is up however, especially when she finds bite marks on Eli's leg. She is sadly ultimately trapped inside her home, especially after a failed attempt at an escape that almost gets mother and child killed by the pale monsters. While Harry wants to keep the family together, Alma believes she and her father are superior to her mother and wants Doris disposed of. 

Despite Harry's weak attempts at accosting Alma, the girl successfully persuades Doris to start taking the black pills to supposedly unlock her hidden potential. Which transforms Doris into the newest pale monster, all according to the plan hatched by Alma and assisted with by Ursula. Harry is initially horrified by this, but the morning after, he comes to the resolution that he is ultimately happier on The Muse and doesn't want to be with Doris anymore. He chooses Alma, Ursula and the drug over his wife, and the trio ultimately release Doris into the wild, to live amongst the other monsters in the town.. Doris is witnessed one final time by Alma and Ursula, feeding off of an animal in the cemetery. The two brush her off as they head towards The Chemist's home to approach the woman with a new offer from Ursula to team up.

Meanwhile, Karen is attempting to focus on creating new paintings, but is under siege from Belle, whom threatens Karen with violence if she doesn't bring her Eli. Karen tells Mickey of Belle's threats, but Mickey, drunk on the fame and fortune he's been getting from The Muse, tries to persuade Karen to go along with Belle's demands or to simply start taking the drug herself. Karen refuses, claiming she would rather take the baby for herself than. Something that Mickey reluctantly aids Karen in doing, the two breaking into the Gardners's home later at night. Karen and Mickey's plot is foiled by Doris, well underway in her transformation into a pale monster. Karen books it out of the house and gets chased by the main group of monsters. Mickey intervenes, but when Karen remains steadfast in refusing to take the drug, he leaves her to be ambushed. Having no other choice, she takes the pill at the literal last minute to save her own life.

The next morning, Karen goes to Mickey's shack and tells him of how she feels altered as a person for the worse. Mickey insists that everything will be fine as long as she feeds on someone's blood, which makes the two get into an argument over the ethics of bloodlust. Mickey insists that everything will be worth it, as he believes Karen has the talent to ensure that she will not become a monster. He takes Karen to the beach to paint what he believes will be her masterpiece, to which Karen responds by murdering Mickey. After quickly creating a painting, she walks out to the tide and slits her wrists open with her brush, choosing to end her life rather than continue. Whether Karen's painting was one of talent or not is left ambiguous, unlike Karen's intentions, which is conveyed as an act of mercy for Mickey and herself to prevent them from becoming the monsters that so many other Muse takers have become.

"Winter Kills" shifts focus to the remaining characters, beginning with the discovery of Chief Burleson's corpse by a group of fishermen. This attracts the attention of state police, who send a trooper named Jan (Dot-Marie Jones) to investigate. Her presence at a town hall meeting alerts Holden, who meets with Belle and Austin to discuss how to approach the situation. Belle, Austin and The Chemist decide their course of action is to exterminate Harry and Alma. Ironically, Harry is finally deciding to leave Provincetown for real and to remove The Muse from his and Alma's lives going forward. This is met with resistance from both Alma and Ursula, but Harry is putting his foot down because he's done with The Muse after what happened with Doris! (Despite his secret admittance to being glad Doris was out of his live). When Harry discovers that Eli has been kidnapped by Belle while he was out with Alma, the father and daughter plot with Ursula to rescue Eli.

Harry and Alma arrive at Belle's home to confront her and are threatened by her and Austin. After an aggressive back and forth with Belle, in which she declares that she and Austin are going to clean up the streets of Provincetown for themselves, the pale monsters crash into the home. The monsters attack and kill Belle and Austin, under the influence of Ursula, who has promised them success with a new pill that will allegedly reverse the effects of The Muse. Right as they're about to turn on Harry and Alma, Ursula arrives at the nick of time to shoot down all of the monsters. Just as Harry is about to take Eli back and leave, he is attacked by Alma, who refuses to stop taking the drug. The Chemist surfaces and she and Ursula discuss that getting rid of everyone except for the children was their plot all along. And, while Ursula did give the monsters new pills, they were from a failed batch that made The Chemist's subjects turn against each other. With a coverup pinning everything on Harry, Belle and Austin plotted, the two women and the kids leave Provincetown and settle in Los Angeles for a new experiment.

Some time later, we see that the group have settled comfortably in their new environment. The Chemist seems to be pleased, having finished her work and now spending her time giving The Muse to racist cops to turn them into monsters that can't hide in plain sight anymore, but she quickly grows dissatisfied. Especially after Alma's thirst for blood leads her to start killing more and more, and Ursula's greed for more talent to represent leads her to giving dozens The Muse and creating numerous monsters. The ending of "Red Tide" shows the city in chaos with denizens being attacked by the pale creatures, while The Chemist drives off with Eli. The Chemist resolves to start over in another new environment and resume her experimenting, with Eli in tow. Will this open ending be resolved in "Death Valley"? We will see in the weeks to come.


It's ironic that I chose to do "Gaslight" and "Winter Kills" as a double post (you can thank me getting sick for the first time in a year for that), because these episodes are ones that I've seen fans hail as, respectively, one of the best and one of the worst episodes of the entire series. Why is that? Let's find out!

I think that a huge reason behind "Gaslight" working so well is the focus on Doris: The majority of the episode pushes the audience into Doris's viewpoint, allowing us to not only emphasize with her predicament, but also sympathize with her frustration and fears of her own family. Many POV shots are used with Doris to illustrate her disorientation as she contends with a situation with people that are familiar to her, but something she can't quite pin down is askew. Doris's story is a very welcome homage to not only Gaslight, the 40s thriller the episode shares its name with, but also to Rosemary's Baby. I feel that, in particular, the scene with Doris marching down the staircase with scissors to find Harry, Alma, Ursula and Holden (whom Doris has never met before) all working together without her is an excellent homage to the film. It shares a quality I admire with Rosemary where it feels like a realistic dream in which, instead of relying on surreal Lynchian imagery, it utilizes on a sense of uncanny valley where everything seems normal with the people you know, but not at the same time. 

It is this decision to put the audience in Doris's perspective that makes the conclusion of the primary plot of this episode, and her arc, hit so hard. We know what's bound to happen to Doris if she takes The Muse: Either she becomes a blood addict, or she transforms into another example of the monstrous femme. And it is infuriating to see that not only is it Doris's own child pushing this onto her, but, when she finally is persuaded into it and succumbs to the latter, her own husband ultimately decides to not stick up for her. Nor does he even try to help her in any way. Doris's loved ones have committed an enormous betrayal and it's heartbreaking. Doris's story in this episode also shows some interesting similarities and differences with one of her performer, Lily Rabe's, previous characters, Nora Montgomery from Murder HouseThe two characters also have dramatic scenes revolving around their heads, with Nora's scene in which she commits suicide by gunshot and Doris's scene in which she discovers her pill-induced hair loss and cuts all of her hair off to fully become a pale monster. Both also have their ultimate fates being the indirect result of their husbands: Charles's revival of his and Nora's child Thaddeus led to Nora's ultimate decision to commit murder-suicide with herself and Charles and Harry's refusal to quit The Muse is what ultimately led to Alma using it to dispose of Doris. Whereas Nora "got stuck on the idea of wanting a baby", Doris actually shows a maternal instinct and goes out of her way multiple times to protect hers. Nora also was someone who wanted things done for her, not only handing her baby off to her house staff, but also having Charles build the entire house specifically for her. Doris, on the other hand, is a more proactive character and is the one trying to design the house for others and is the one trying to escape Provincetown. Doris and Nora are very similar, yet with some differences that set them apart, and it shows just how far Rabe has come in the series.

Another interesting facet of the episode is the paralleling of the main plot revolving around Doris and the B-plot that revolves around Karen. Both Doris and Karen have to contend with the main man in their lives, Harry and Mickey, ultimately choosing drug-fueled success and riches over them (which, as an aside, validates my belief that those men are meant to be two sides of the same coin), they both are put through the ringer throughout the episode and experience betrayal from those closest to them and both meet their ultimate fates by the end of "Gaslight". There are two interesting points of distinction between Doris and Karen: The first being that while Doris explicitly is shown to not have talent worthy of The Muse, whether or not Karen's artistic talent is Muse-worthy is ultimately not shown to the audience. Karen's ultimate act of suicide can be read as either not wanting to live the rest of her life as a pale monster, or not wanting to sell her soul (metaphorically speaking) for the success she's dreamed of. Either way, this ending for Karen seals her as the tragic figure of "Red Tide", and also establishes her as, in my opinion, one of the best characters Sarah Paulson has played in the series thus far.

So, with some explanation given to why I think "Gaslight" works so well for viewers, let's get to why I think "Winter Kills" doesn't work quite as well. For starters, I think that the loss of characters like Karen, Doris and Mickey in "Gaslight" plays a part. Without visible protagonists like those three, I can only imagine that some viewers might feel as if they have no character left to root for or relate to and, as such, feel that this episode is a waste of time. However, I do think that "Winter Kills" has a character that the episode ultimately wants us to align with, despite said character being the primary antagonist of the story: The Chemist. Throughout "Winter Kills", we are shown that The Chemist is the character who ultimately calls the shots and dictates the final ending of "Red Tide": She pulls Belle and Austin's strings to lure Harry, Alma and Ursula out of hiding via the kidnapping of Eli. She is shown to have conspired with Ursula and Alma to dispose of Belle, Austin and Harry and make a clean break for themselves. Upon her arrival to Los Angeles, she decides with her Provincetown experiments behind her, she chooses to focus her efforts on giving back to her community in her own way. Finally, upon seeing the reaches of the destruction Ursula and Alma are causing in Los Angeles, she decides to remove herself (and Eli) from the equation and move away. While The Chemist is definitely not a traditionally heroic character by any means, it is shown that she has not only intelligence and resourcefulness, but also some form of integrity, considering that she chooses to focus on exposing racists as monsters by turning them into monsters and that she opts for leaving Ursula and Alma when the two take things too far. Angelica Ross has commented that she believed The Chemist was a morally ambiguous character and her shift from a pure antagonist to a darker shade of gray perhaps reflects Ross's viewpoint.

Another complaint, that I happen to agree with, is that the finale feels like it's rushing to the finish line. Going from a sixty two minute episode that is largely driven by just two characters to an almost thirty five minute episode that focuses on wrapping the remaining plots up in breakneck speed is perhaps not the best of choices, especially as there just feels like there's scenes missing in this final episode. "Gaslight" ends with Ursula and Alma heading to confront The Chemist and "Winter Kills" skips over that, instead going straight to The Chemist already having accepted the new offer. The potential for an explosive final battle between Harry and Belle and Austin is instead swept aside for the quick disposal of all characters involved, despite Belle and Austin being the villains with the most agency. Not to mention, Harry also somehow goes from fully embracing life on The Muse at the end of "Gaslight" to wanting to return to normalcy in the following episode with no explanation as to why he suddenly made the change again. While some plot gaps can be filled in with a little thought, such as the state law enforcement buying the coverup to leave The Chemist, Ursula and Alma be and Ursula's desperation to get more clients coming from no longer having Harry (as well as Mickey) around to live off of, there's just chunks of the resolution plain missing here

I do think that the ultimate choice to leave "Red Tide" on a somewhat open ending is purposeful, though. While the majority of the cast is either dead or irrelevant, the choice to have The Chemist take the baby and leave to a new town implies that we, perhaps, might not have seen the last of her. I keep repeating that one of my predictions is that The Chemist will be what ties "Red Tide" and "Death Valley" together and I really do believe she will resurface to some extent in "Death Valley". Whether or not the loose ends of "Red Tide" will be tied up, we will find out in the near future. However, I would say it's a good bet that The Chemist's origins will be delved into and also that the protagonists of "Death Valley" will become entangled in whatever her new experiment will be. 


So, I have to be honest here: I love "Gaslight" and, while I have some qualms with "Winter Kills", I don't actually hate it. I think it needed some extra scenes and I definitely am disappointed that we only got one scene of Dot-Marie Jones, an actress who I have wanted to have a big part on the show for several years. I think that the finale was a decent way to wrap everything up, while leaving the door open for more to potentially come. I also don't think that a less than stellar sixth episode somehow invalidates the enormously enjoyable five previous episode, and I'd honestly watch "Winter Kills" over the majority of episodes from the Coven and Apocalypse seasons. "Red Tide" is the most I have enjoyed AHS since the Cult season back in 2017, and I'm very excited to see if "Death Valley" will match "Red Tide" or drag Double Feature down.

No comments: