Wednesday, September 8, 2021

American Horror Story: Double Feature: Analyzing Episodes 1 -> 3

So! As anyone who has read some of my previous posts, such as my critique of Ratched and my post praising Billie Lourd's performance in season one of Scream Queens, or, you know, has ever talked to me about television, I am a Ryan Murphy fan. And that does include American Horror Story; I've had my ups and downs with the show over the years, but after doing a rewatch of the first eight seasons with one of my best friends last March, along with watching the ninth season for the first time, I was all hyped up for the latest season. I was hoping that my pleasant surprise with the quality of the last season, 1984, was a sign that good things were to come for AHS after the series hit a low with the Apocalypse season. 

Well, the first three episodes of the tenth season, subtitled Double Feature, have aired and, if the quality of these episodes can be maintained throughout the rest of the season, we may have a new great season on our hands with this outing.


Double Feature consists of two major storylines in one ten episode season, the first of which is a six episode story called "Red Tide." "Red Tide" revolves around Harry Gardener (Finn Wittrock), a screenwriter suffering from writer's block who is under pressure from his agent Ursula (Leslie Grossman) to produce new scripts. Together with his pregnant interior decorator wife Doris (Lily Rabe) and their violin prodigy daughter Alma (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), they move to Provincetown, Massachusetts for a vacation to charge their collective creative batteries and work on their respective crafts. Harry continues to struggle until he meets two fellow writers at the town bar, Austin Sommers (Evan Peters) and Belle Noir (Frances Conroy). Austin offers Harry a mysterious drug he refers to as the Muse, which Harry accepts reluctantly. After taking the black pills, he finds his writer's block suddenly at an end. To the point where he starts neglecting and verbally abusing Doris and Alma. Harry quickly learns that there's one big side effect to the drug: You develop a craving for blood. Human blood, to be exact. 

And of course, in typical AHS fashion, there's a lot more going on: Also in Provincetown is Tuberculous Karen (Sarah Paulson), a homeless woman who shows up to scream warnings at Harry, as well as Chief Burelson (Adina Porter), a cop who claims to want to turn a blind eye to the happenings in Provincetown, but has more of an interest in the happenings than she cares to admit. There's also Mickey (Macaulay Culkin), a queer gigolo slash aspiring screenwriter who hits on Harry and has Belle among his roster of customers, Lark (Billie Lourd), a dentist turned tattoo artist who is in #cahoots with Belle and Austin, and The Chemist (Angelica Ross), the manufacturer behind the Muse who seems to want to stay in her lane and not get involved outside of crafting and dealing drugs. And, of course, there's also the pale monsters lurking on the streets that seem to try to attack anyone and anything they can get their hands on. How will everything come together in the second half of "Red Tide"? We shall see.


So, there are multiple reasons why I feel Double Feature is working so well so far. The first, and most vital for myself, despite there being a load of characters to juggle, Double Feature seems to no problem with adding them organically as the story goes on. AHS has used a family as an entry point time and time again, so the Gardeners aren't exactly the freshest protagonists in the series. Yet, I think that there's a real potential for them to be interesting, as all three are varying levels of unlikable. Harry, who is currently our central character, is kind of an out and out douchebag. While I understand the perils of writer's block and having someone pressure you to give them more professionally, Harry is still not the most pleasant person even before taking the drugs as shown by how he openly talks down to Alma for trying to practice her violin while he's working. Since Harry is clearly inspired by Jack Torrance from The Shining, I feel as if his character is going to be one of those that were always unsavory and the situation he finds himself in just gives him an open outlet for that behavior. Doris also comes across as, to quote my friend, some kind of parody of Instagram influencers with her interior decorating job allowing her to boast about how her former customers "don't understand minimalism" and her matching white and beige on white and beige that almost seems like a shout-out to the business card scene from American Psycho. Doris also has an odd fear of Lyme disease that she manages to bring up many times out of nowhere and will hopefully have some kind of pay off down the road? Alma comes out looking the best here, as her ultimate use of the Muse is rooted from her own massive expectations placed upon herself and, for better or for worse, she just seems to take after her father. 

The next character introduced is Tuberculous Karen, who mostly seems to appear to yell warnings at people. Karen almost feels like a parody of Sarah Paulson's previous roles, since a common complaint/joke of her roles in AHS is that they do nothing but run around screaming and crying. But, the more time we spend with Karen, the more we see the tragedy of her character (More on that later). Then, we have Mickey, who is introduced trying to seduce Harry into a frottage (pronounced frah-tah-shh) session. While it's easy to write off Mickey as some comic relief, his later scenes showing Belle insisting on drinking his blood and his display of hospitality to Karen and bonding with her over dreams of artistic success show him to be an extremely likable and equally tragic counterpart to Karen. Mickey shows Karen in the second episode his notebooks containing a number of screenplays he's begun writing, but never managed to complete, and this seems to set him up as the opposite of Harry. Whereas Harry benefits from the predicament at the center of "Red Tide", it seems as if Mickey might doomed to suffer the opposite effect. This is further cemented by the third episode, in which Mickey tries to make an appeal to Ursula with his work and only gets her attention when he agrees to take her to The Chemist. The parallel between Harry and Mickey is cemented in the most recent episode, when both face struggles to obtain fresh blood to satisfy their blood craving. Harry's conflict is short and easily resolved, whereas Mickey gets into a full-fledged battle with a fellow hustler to get what he wants. It's brutal, it's prolonged and the murder, unlike Harry's of a couple he finds on Craigslist, is caught by the police. It also explains the title, as the shot of Mickey feeding from his victim presents us with the beautiful tableau of red blood mixing with the tide of the sea.

Following Mickey is Austin and Belle, who are introduced with a truly splendid cover of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton's duet "Islands in the Stream". Not related to the plot, but why does this song seem to be everywhere on TV lately? First, I heard it in another Murphy property,  9-1-1, as sung by Kenneth Choi and Jennifer Love Hewitt, then in The Handmaid's Tale as sung by Ann Dowd's iconic Aunt Lydia with her date, then in Watchmen during one episode's opening montage and now AHS. The number really is great, however, and we get to meet the duo as they invite Harry to drink with them. Belle and Austin seem to be the active villains of the season, as they're the ones spreading the Muse throughout Provincetown and hunting people down to feed from. Including one memorable set piece in which the trio of Belle, Austin and Harry arrive at a stranger (played by, of all people, Daeg Faerch from the Halloween remake) from Craigslist's home to kill and feed off of him. Honestly, as Belle, Austin and the Gardeners seem to all be upper class to upper middle class people, it feels like "Red Tide" is trying to set up a class critique: The rich are empowered to live out their creative lives without abandon and, to maintain that, they feed off of the lower class and use those who they can not feed off of as pawns, such as when Belle pays Karen in drugs in exchange for Karen kidnapping a newborn for Belle to feed on.

The next two are Chief Burleson and Ursula, both of whom initially serve to deliver exposition, but get more to do in the latest episode. Burleson initially seems to show us how the law enforcers in Provincetown are purposefully turning a blind eye, but she seems to be more in the know than expected. In episode two, Belle refers to Burleson as a "nosy bitch" and Burleson lives up to that description in episode three as she tries to pry into the Gardener family's matters. While I bet some people are claiming it's Murphy inconsistently writing her character, I'll chalk it up to simply Burleson not having any reason to show her true colors to Harry (and the audience) until later on. Sadly, it seems as if we aren't going have much of Burleson as she appears to have been murdered by Alma at the end of episode three. Pour one for Burleson and Adina Porter, who is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated AHS cast members. Ursula, on the other hand, seems to have a bigger part to play than expected. After arriving to Provincetown in episode three to meet with Harry and explore what exactly about the area is inspiring him so much, the woman has already gotten herself a target on her back courtesy of Belle and The Chemist. The feud with Belle springs from Ursula dissing her and Austin's singing of "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late", and Ursula's enlistment of Mickey to take her to the source of the Muse, paying him with promises of "rewriting the remake of Speed Racer." After she gets a meeting with The Chemist, offering her money in exchange for a supply of the Muse for all of her clients, The latter orders Ursula's head on a platter, along with the Gardeners and Mickey. And, let's not ignore Ursula seemingly having no problems with Alma's murder of Burleson and the monstrous people roaming the streets, which seems to imply Ursula may have a degree of sociopathy to her.

Finally, there's Lark, The Chemist and recurring character Holden (played by AHS alumni Denis O'Hare). These three have only appeared in one or two scenes each respectively, but each seems to paint a picture of what to expect of them. Lark shows up to install Harry's new prosthetic teeth, and seems to be content with aligning herself with Belle and Austin. Her anecdote about having changed her name from Leslie to Lark to be taken more seriously by other tattoo artists seems to paint a picture that she desires acceptance, which makes her more susceptible to being a follower of others. On the flipside, The Chemist, as detailed above, appears when Ursula demands a meeting with her and refuses to accept Ursula's high-priced bargain and orders Belle and Austin to eliminate her, among others. While we don't know the exacts of whatever the dynamic is between The Chemist and the duo, it seems as if The Chemist does call the shots and doesn't wish to rock her boat, so to speak. And, as for Holden, he appears in one brief scene being interviewed by Burleson about Mickey's attack and murder and he gives his account in memorably comedic style, which includes the phrase "AIDS-era couture" which is absolutely going into my regular vernacular. Simply put, the characters of "Red Tide" are memorable, they don't fall into the common conception that Murphy adds most characters into his shows for the hell of it and they ultimately fail to serve a purpose, and it's going to be interesting to see where they all end up.

Another aspect where Double Feature succeeds is its aesthetic, specifically with the visuals. Murphy has made it clear time and time again that he loves to go the opposite direction from season to season. This can be seen in "Red Tide" with its visuals upon comparison to previous season 1984. In 1984, the season was bright, colorful and visually stunning. It was soaked in neon colors, reflective of the fact that, in the end, it was surprisingly optimistic for an AHS season. "Red Tide", however, is the polar opposite of that: It is bleak, dreary and possibly the grayest the show has ever been, give or take Asylum's aesthetic. These first two episodes seem to be setting up a potentially pessimistic story about the consumption and abuse of the lower class by the upper class, contrasting with 1984's positive story about never letting the 80s die, and the reunion and resolution of the Richter family. The main instances of color so far seem to be solely focused around red, which seems like a given considering the title of this section of the season. Every memorable instance of color in the season revolves around red: The red of Alma's violin case, the red blood from the victims, the literal red tide mentioned above. One would wonder if it was inspired by James Wan's visual work in some of his films such as Dead Silence and Insidious, the latter being a film Murphy already paid homage to in Murder House. Either way, it's just good to see Murphy is improving at juggling tones (visual and otherwise) from season to season, lest we forget the whiplash many suffered going from Asylum to Coven.

 I also feel that Double Feature, so far, has been much more successful at blending its influences together than some of Murphy's other projects (Looking at you again, Ratched). Examining the plot, it seems to be borrowing considerably from the oeuvre of Stephen King, especially Salem's Lot and The Shining. Yet, it never feels like the show is directly ripping off these texts, instead blending the atmosphere and monsters from the former and the central family from the latter. There's also some Misery vibes, considering Belle is a romance novelist and the role was originally intended for Kathy Bates (who allegedly bowed out due to health concerns amid the pandemic). As well as other works influencing this season, including The Invitation (The red door lights definitely evoke the red lanterns that play a part in the former film), Dark Shadows (Evan Peters's look as Austin is clearly influenced by Shadows's protagonist Barnabas Collins), Jaws (Mickey's analysis of what if the shark is meant to be the hero of the film), and Sunset Boulevard (Allegedly, Frances Conroy's Belle is influenced by Norma, and Denis O'Hare's character being named Holden could be potentially a homage to Boulevard's leading man William Holden). There's also some homaging to The Little Mermaid going on with Ursula since, beyond her name, she appears to Mickey in a tub filled with water offering him riches in exchange for life-threatening tasks as Ursula did to Ariel. I'm willing to bet that we haven't seen the last of riffing off of Little Mermaid and, with more episodes to come, the amount of works nodded to are sure to increase and will hopefully keep being as well-done as the aforementioned have been.


With my highlights of Double Feature out of the way, here are some predictions I have for how the remainder of the season will play out:

1.) Doris and Harry's baby is going to be vampire food. With the setup that comes from Karen delivering a baby to Belle for consumption, there's no way they aren't going to have somebody eat that baby. It's dead meat!

2.) There's going to be more Stephen King homages and, with the town cemetery being a fixture in these first two episodes, I think we're going to get some Pet Sematary homages. Namely, I think Doris will die and Harry will force her back to life by making her take the drugs. It'll also be a callback to Hotel when Donovan forced Iris back to life as a vampire by drinking his blood. 

3.) To go off of my comment earlier of Holden potentially being connected to Belle via the Sunset Boulevard connection, I think the two are going to have some face-offs and end up being rivals eventually. Probably not to a major extent, but since Denis O'Hare has stated that he's in the rest of "Red Tide", there's opportunity for this to occur.

4.) I think that, while most will die in "Red Tide", The Chemist is going to survive and end up being the link between "Red Tide" and "Death Valley" (the second story that occurs over the remaining four episodes of Double Feature.) I also think that she's going to end up taking in Alma as a protégé of sorts, in a callback to Asylum and how that season had a character named Alma being taken by aliens. 

5.) Speaking of The Chemist, I predict that the secret behind the Muse is that she is making them out of the aliens that are going to be a fixture in "Death Valley". I don't know how that will work out exactly, but considering how out there AHS can get, it's not the most bizarre thing the show has done.

6.) This isn't so much a prediction as much as it's a hope (probably false), but man, I hope Karen and/or Mickey end up being the hero/es of this season. I know it won't happen probably, but I would be extremely satisfied if one or both get some kind of victory over the other characters.


I am once again stating that I hope the rest of the season sticks the landing, because this first trio of episodes were a very promising beginning to the latest AHS cycle. I understand that this is a polarizing series, but I think that when it's good, it's really good and this season has been good so far. Maybe all AHS needed was an extended (albeit pandemic-induced) hiatus to recharge its own creative battery to deliver us a good season that, so far, has returned to the form set by the more serious efforts of the series. We will see in the weeks to come.

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