Wednesday, September 15, 2021

American Horror Story: Double Feature: Analyzing Episode 4

Every week, I'll be analyzing the latest episode of American Horror Story: Double Feature; This week is the season's fourth episode, titled "Blood Buffet." 


This episode does not continue from the previous week's cliffhanger, but rather goes back five years into the past. We begin with The Chemist moving into her home in Provincetown, meeting with Holden to look over the house. After Holden questions her about the nature of her profession and the exacts of why she's moving into the town, The Chemist insists this is the right house and environment for her and gets to work, making the black pills we have come to know as The Muse. Later, The Chemist approaches Mickey at the bar after a failed attempt to woo Holden and invites the gigolo home with her to try out her drugs. While Mickey declines, The Chemist offers to pay him for every person he can get to come over and try her drugs. While hanging out with Karen, Mickey finds his first mark in an aspiring singer, Vlad (The name comes from his actor, Spencer Novich's, instagram.)

Some time later, Belle is seen promoting her new George Washington-themed erotic novel "Martha's Cherry Tree." We quickly learn that while Belle is a published author (albeit, self-published), her fanbase is miniscule and she's in an unhappy marriage with a cruel bigot named Ray. While out for a drink, she encounters Mickey for the first time and the two get on well enough for Belle to request Mickey supply her with some drugs. First meth, inspiring Belle to party hard in the bar, then he takes her to The Chemist's house to supply her with The Muse. Unlike Vlad, who we see at the bar reacting quite adversely to the drug what with his vomiting and prominent hair loss, Belle takes to The Muse quite well. Not only does she write a whole novel in one sitting, but she uses her newfound aggression to murder her husband and begin what she later refers to as "her second act." This directly contrasts with Vlad, who deteriorates further and becomes the first of the pale monsters who roam the streets of Provincetown.

Two years after this last series of events, Belle gets her official makeover into the woman we all know courtesy of Lark. The two quickly bond over killing their former partners and their mutual drug use, and Lark even offers Belle a bonus dental makeover to go with her new look. Belle debuts her new style with a slow motion walk to a local drag show that features, amongst its roster of performers, Austin as "Patty O. Furniture." Austin is considered inferior by the other drag queens, even as he performs an amusing lip sync of "Magic Man" by Heart. After the show, Belle approaches him and the pair discuss Austin's dreams, to which he tells her that he wants to be a playwright but lacks the resources to do so. Belle offers Austin a solution: The Muse. After having an initial adverse reaction, Austin undergoes a similar transformation to Belle and the two kill all of the drag performers that mocked Austin earlier. Except for one, Crystal Decanter (Eureka O'Hara), who escapes only to end the episode as Vlad's victim.


I'm going to take a different approach to my analysis of Double Feature by breaking this up by character:

First, I need to talk about The Chemist and how delightfully subversive I find this character to be so far. Her first appearance, as mentioned, is her move into Provincetown and being shown her home by Holden. Holden assumes that The Chemist is an artist of some type, as many of the "Red Tide" characters are, but she declares otherwise. The subversion begins when Holden asks The Chemist if she's moving in to bake meth, to which she replies that she has a Ph.D. from Harvard and that meth is "well below her paygrade". More often than not, characters of color involved in drug trade are stereotyped as making and/or selling so-called "street drugs" like meth. Besides The Chemist, the primary other character that comes to mind as subverting that is Gus Fring from Breaking Bad. Will put it out there though that if there are more examples, let me know! Later, The Chemist's scenes with Mickey give her character more background, as we learn that she moved to Provincetown after having worked with the US military for close to a decade. This is important to remember since the little knowledge that is out there about "Death Valley" seem to indicate that the second story of this season will involve that branch of the government to some extent. She also explains the science behind The Muse, as being targeting the occipital lobe and boosting its activity. The mention of the occipital lobe is a callback to a line from Asylum, where Dr. Arden tells Kit Walker that he believes the devil lies primary in the occipital lobe.

The full subversive nature of The Chemist is shown with her experiments. Typically in media involving scientists and experiments, the scientist will more often than not be an older white male experimenting on subjects that are usually varied in identity. Having The Chemist, a black woman, experimenting and observing subjects that, in this episode at least, are entirely white subverts that trope in spades. In fact, the revelation in this episode that The Chemist is using this small town as her own experiment calls to mind a famous horror film from the 2000s: Martyrs. Why that one, known more for its brutality rather than anything scientific? Readings of the film, including one from the wonderful Horror Queers podcast, have highlighted the role of wealthy white privilege in the film. They discuss how the antagonists are entirely upper class white people whom experiment on lower class women of color so that they can fulfill their attempts to discover what lies beyond the afterlife. The Chemist takes a property like Martyrs and flips that on its head, being an upper crust woman of color who experiments on lower class white people to discover how to unlock true talent. And the role gives Angelica Ross some of her most interesting material on the show to date, which she knocks out of the park.

Next, we have Belle, whose origin displays a transformation that gives Frances Conroy another opportunity to display her versatility on the show. Belle, before her transformation, is a meek woman whom is struggling to make her failing marriage work as she tries to become, in her own words, the next Danielle Steel. After Mickey and The Chemist take her on, she actively becomes a more driven, confident woman and takes over Mickey's role as the active seeker of potential Muse users. She becomes the season's equivalent to someone like Elsa Mars from the Freak Show season or The Countess from Hotel. What I also like about Belle is that she's an example of what a friend of mine considers to be Ryan Murphy writing material for older women that usually goes to younger women. What is meant by that is that a lot of Belle's actions in the episode, from the partying with Mickey to expressing her sexual desires with the erotica and her fondness for bigger men openly getting a total makeover, complete with slow-mo Jawbreaker-esque walk, is usually something reserved for younger women. Often, when older women go to party or talk about their sexuality, it's played for laughs, but not with Belle. Belle is never judged negatively for any of those actions, even if, admittedly, her George Washington-themed erotica provides some of the episode's biggest laughs. But similarly to Ross, Conroy is getting some great material this season and is showing that she also can handle a meaty antagonist role.

Then, there's Vlad, who serves an interesting point of contrast to Belle as, while she excels, he declines. It's an interesting choice (one that will surely piss off a certain section of horror fans, if they're actually watching this show) to have this younger man be the first of The Chemist's failures. I appreciate that The Chemist (and the show) seems to be taking a shot at male mediocrity and how talent-deficient men often get to be the ones to rise above others such as The Chemist and Belle, but not in this show. Instead, Vlad's comments about "wanting to help people with my singing like Bono" are farcical and when he demands The Chemist answer for what the drugs have done with him, she simply cuts to the chase and tells him he's too untalented for The Muse to work properly and that he's going to have company with "every man whose mother told him he could be the next Elvis or Tyler Perry." The Chemist's very specific gendering of those she expects her experiment to fail is definitely a deliberate choice and, frankly, some welcome shade.

Austin's origin is briefer than the others, but his still carries some intrigue: First off, Evan Peters in drag lip syncing to Heart is something I did not know I needed in my life, but am so, so glad we got. What intrigues me about Austin in this episode is not necessarily his story itself, but rather how it harkens back to the Cult season. Basically, having Evan Peters as a character who gets swayed and recruited into a violent group is such a callback to him doing just that with several characters as antagonist Kai in Cult that I, once again, appreciate Murphy's commitment to contrasts. I will add that I'm glad that the AHS team has finally given Peters a comedic role that doesn't stick out like a sore thumb, such as his roles in the Apocalypse season. In general, one of the strengths of this season, for me at least, has been that Murphy and co. have finally seemed to remember that you can inject humor into a season organically without making the humor stick out for what feels like the sake of moments to be made into .gifs. Austin is a good example of that, and he's grown on me as a result.

We also get an interesting development for Mickey, in that he has been an active participant in assisting The Chemist with her experiments on Provincetown. It adds an interesting shade of gray to his character because, up until now, the full extent of Mickey's participation in the drug trade hasn't been shown. And, even with what we knew, one could assume that Mickey was perhaps not the most active or willing participant, especially compared to the likes of Belle and Austin who had the biggest role in introducing Harry to The Muse. Nope, instead Mickey was the one bringing people over to The Chemist and is indirectly responsible for the surge of The Muse in the town. Despite this, I still find Mickey more likable than not since it's clearly shown that he's motivated by financial desperation more than anything malicious. Although it is shown that he tries to subtly tries to probe Karen to see if she would be willing to join the experiment, but she refuses. Five years ago to now, Karen has been the primary character refusing to take the drugs, even if she is shown to be a meth user.

Finally, we get to the final two players in this episode: Lark and Holden. I grouped them together, because the two highlight a recurring element present in the season: The recurring mentions of the history Provincetown has with queer male culture. It gets brought up repeatedly by Holden, who mentions how years ago the town used to be a queer male sexual paradise before mainstream culture caught up with the area and neutered it. This is also acknowledged by Lark, who possesses several outfits left behind by said queer men and sells one of the coats to Vlad when he comes to her store for a new look. Unintentionally inspiring Holden's description of the pale monsters as wearing "AIDS-era couture." I will fully admit, I don't know much about Provincetown and its history, but I do appreciate the highlighting of queer history as well as making it a subtle parallel with the mining of the area and citizens by The Chemist and users of The Muse. Otherwise, we do get to spend a little more time with Lark, who gives off mad Elvira vibes with her interactions with Vlad and Belle. She's a very perky Goth, one who really deserves more screen time and, if BTS photos like the one from the left from director Axelle Carolyn's instagram are to believe, has actually had some of her scenes removed. Holden continues to serve as primarily comic relief, but damn if Denis O'Hare doesn't kill it every time.


I have just two new predictions to add onto my previous predictions:

1.) Karen is absolutely going to try The Muse. While there's shots from the season trailer that show her marching on a beach with a blood soaked face, it just feels like there's been too much emphasis on her refusing to try The Muse for her to not eventually try it. I feel it's going to be a VERY devastating moment, as I don't feel she's going to take it willingly.

2.) Even more than before, I am convinced "Death Valley" will be a prequel to "Red Tide" that explains how The Chemist came to Provincetown. The backstory The Chemist gives to Holden and Mickey seems to point in this direction, and it'd also be a small nod to 2007's Grindhouse, where the second film in the double feature takes place before the first chronologically.


"Blood Buffet" is another great entry in Double Feature, and makes me even more eager to see how this all ends up playing out. While the entire ensemble was great, this episode clearly belongs to Angelica Ross and Frances Conroy as The Chemist and Belle. Ross and Conroy are valuable parts of the AHS cast and deserve the chance to shine as brightly as they do in this episode. Honestly, this current ensemble of "Red Tide" is my favorite version of the cast since Cult and I wish that this was a whole season-long story. But, who knows, "Death Valley" might surprise me, especially with the promising additions of newcomers Neal McDonough and Nico Greetham and the return of Cody Fern.

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