I have profoundly and enthusiastically sung the praises of American Horror Story since Murder House first aired in 2011, but somewhere between Hotel (2016) and 1984 (2019), the series’s full potential must have lost its grip just enough that this season, especially this episode, crept up to sucker punch me flat on my ass. And still, as exciting as it is to experience a
fully revitalized show that weaves together baby nibbling, bitchy child vamps, frequent karaoke, and Sarah Paulson with full Tourette’s, it’s a slight bummer to see something of this caliber miss an opportunity to avoid yet another “mom’s nuts” scenario. But, much like our collective begrudging acceptance of a post–Freak Show Jessica Lange–shaped hole in the show, we can decide to choke this down as a necessary evil to advance things along if it will help us sleep better at night. That will start tomorrow night, though, because after watching this pre–Red Tide finale, “Gaslight,” we’ve got some dark hours ahead of us before any manner of peaceful slumber.
If we can dip into the world of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) long enough to draw a comparison, the newborn child at the center of that story was the spawn of actual Satan, while the baby in this show, tentatively named Eli, is the only pure thing worth protecting in a family composed of selfish beasts of their own making. This baby isn’t from hell, but it was indeed born into it. At the top of the episode, we see Doris (Lily Rabe) amid a difficult labor, sweating and straining, while her husband, Harry (Finn Wittrock), sits beside her doing some sweating and straining of his own as he tries his best not to suckle off his own baby’s umbilical-cord fragment. Once his son is out of his wife’s womb, Harry absconds to the restroom with a batch of soiled towels soaked with his son’s blood and squeezes them into a series of Dixie cups. First off, Harry, you’re gross. Second, you’re also bad for the environment at this moment on top of it all because instead of wasting all those little cups, you could have just gnawed on the bloody towels like a clump of used pads. Don’t tell me you didn’t think “pads” too.
Back at their rental in Provincetown, it finally dawns on Doris that Harry and Alma didn’t go back to New York as they said they would. She doesn’t get to dwell on this deception for long, though, because Ursula (Leslie Grossman) is inexplicably at her bedside holding her baby while sporting a full face of Cruella makeup to highlight that, no, she’s not up to anything good. Ursula doesn’t give a crap about much other than the black pills that will, she hopes, provide her with a client roster of cash cows. With many other aspects of this season, it seems as if there could be more to this, but who knows? If Alma actually gets through Red Tide without turning into a Pale Person or some other kind of “punishment” for being the actual worst, much could be left dangling in the well of unfished possibilities. If I were a writer on this show, which I’m very clearly not as of now [takes black pill], that kid would have been bald as a kneecap by episode two.
While all this is happening, Karen (Sarah Paulson) gets picked up by Mickey (Macaulay Culkin) in front of the Fudge Room, and the two go on a joy ride in his tacky Speed Racer car, purchased with the same post-black-pill dough that bought him a fancy new suit, gold-chain necklace, and facial treatment. Mickey makes a hard sell for Karen to take the pill and move to Los Angeles with him, promising her a future as a designer in various Speed Racer things, but she gives him the ol’ motherfucker salute and cuts the ride short, taking to the dunes. In the end, and only as a last-ditch effort to save herself from being attacked by Pale People, she caves and takes a pill, leading to a heartbreaking Starry Night lights-out that made me cry the first real boo-hoo since Asylum (2013). Putting her friend Mickey out of his inevitable Speed Racer downward spiral by making him her first, and last (maybe), kill, she paints the masterpiece she has always wanted to paint, which we don’t get to view. It doesn’t matter if it’s good; it matters that she finished it. It’s like Sheryl Sandberg said: “Done is better than perfect.” It would be fitting in the case of this season to add “And you don’t have to be a dick about it.”
The funny thing about ambition is that the success of it all is almost the least important part. This is why so many interns and young creatives get suckered into doing endless hours of free work. The dangled carrot of a career at the end would be nice to reach, but it’s the doing and the striving that are the actual drug. Alma and Harry are so far up their own asses that no amount of accolades or paychecks could ever touch their lofty views of themselves and how they want their lives to look. And no matter what they make of themselves, Doris isn’t going to be around to hold them back while they make it. Alma wastes no time chomping into her baby brother’s leg, telling her mom that she couldn’t help taking just a sip because baby blood makes her play her doofy violin so beautifully that she moves herself to the point of weeping. While Doris is losing it, Holden (Denis O’Hare ) is downstairs calling the design boards she has been working on pedestrian Pottery Barn hell. This is enough for Alma to finally con her into taking a black pill, and Doris, as one would have guessed, turns into a Pale Person and gets abandoned by her husband and daughter like a breeding dog dumped, kennel and all, by the side of the road. Who’s left to watch over little Eli now? He had better start developing an early talent for decoupage or something if he’s got a chance in hell with this crew. To quote his mother, now chomping on roadkill in her dirty bathrobe, “it’s not okay to hurt people just to be good at something.” But we see what becomes of the mediocre, and that’s not a fun menu to order off either.
• We learned in previous episodes that the Pale People are filled with hate because they know they’re not talented. You’d think that, out of anyone else, talented people would be at the receiving end of their hate the most, but we’re shown over and over that the Pale People can’t feed on those who have taken the black pill. Maybe it’s not the talent that repels them but the fact that the blood of the pill poppers is tainted by what’s in the pill itself. And on that same line, maybe because Karen fed on Mickey, his blood will have some sort of unique effect on her because he took the pill. This is the first time we’ve seen someone feed on one of “the talented.” Is she actually dead, or will she become some new variety of monster?
• I keep thinking about the Browns and what hand they could possibly have in this. Since baby blood is such a hot commodity, could it be that Doris was selected as the winner of their weird Instagram contest solely because she was pregnant and they wanted to lure more baby food to the area? I’m going to throw a big guess out there and say that Eli is going to tie into part two in some way.
• The image of Eli’s little foot being chomped on by Alma won’t be leaving my mind any time soon. I’m basically still typing at this point to avoid going to bed.