Maybe I’m going soft. Or maybe it’s because I woke up with a terrible migraine. Whatever the case may be, today needs to go on the books as a historically monumental occasion because after a lifetime spent seeking out the darkest and most disturbing things I could find to watch, listen to, and culturally anoint myself with I have never watched something that caused me to leap up, run to the nearest toilet, and barf … until today.
I didn’t see it coming. Who among us would? The version of me that existed up until an hour ago was navigating a “Whee! This is fun!” existence. There I was, writing my little American Horror Stories recaps, blissfully ignorant of vivid imagery of people digging their fingers into pustules and slurping down the contents from within like Gogurt. But episode four, “Milkmaids,” changed all of that. Changed me as a person. Forever. After watching this episode, the blinders have been ripped from my eyes, leaving me to deal with the goopy reality of pus life in a way I am less than comfortable with. Like just now, I paused for a good five minutes to stare out the window, sour expression on my face, peace of mind forever tainted by the knowledge of … what would we call it? Pus play? Dear God. I may never be the same again.
“Milkmaids,” written by musician Our Lady J, takes us back in time to 1757 where a small New England town is being ravaged by smallpox. A man named Thomas (Cody Fern) and his young son Edward (Ian Sharkey) are grieving the loss of the matriarch of their family, Rachel, after already burying two of Edward’s sisters. Bodies of less-fortunate people get wheeled through town in stacks, thrown upon an overburdened wheelbarrow. But Rachel gets to be buried in the cemetery because although she’s also covered in pustules, having a little money to her name buys her way to a dignified send-off. Well, it would have, if Thomas and the local pastor didn’t decide to carve her heart out of her chest and eat it before she made it to her final resting place.
2022 seems like Jetsons-level future compared to 1757, but there are many comparisons to be made. Sure, we have the internet, and Penicillin, but people are still widely fearful of contagions, and would go to almost any lengths to avoid them. If such measures stretch to ways in which women are somehow at fault, so much the better.
A local woman named Celeste (Julia Schlaepfer) believes that she was blessed by Saint Lazarus, who gave her the power to heal people by having them eat the pus from her smallpox wounds. A former milkmaid turned prostitute, Celeste performs her sticky act of healing on Pastor Walter (Seth Gabel) who then, with the help of Thomas, levels up to eating the hearts of people who have died from smallpox, believing that to be the better, and slightly less gross way to keep death at bay.
Having taken what he needed from her, and feigning disgust with himself for doing so, Pastor Walter shuns Celeste when she crashes Rachel’s funeral, calling her a whore and whatever else weak men call strong women when they’re afraid of them. There’s a scuffle and Celeste gets a Bible thrown violently at her head by a random man in a pew and then gets shoved down the steps resulting in a fall that causes her arm to break, sending a bone fragment piercing through her skin.
Fearing for her safety, and too weak to go anywhere else, Celeste hides in a barn and comes to meet Delilah (Addison Timlin). The casting choice here is oddly perfect because Timlin is married to Jeremy Allen White, who we just delighted in watching fiddle around with beef in his role in The Bear, and now here’s his wife elbow deep in bloody cow milk and smallpox pus. There’s a tickle in the back of my mind that this episode is an effective way to promote veganism, similar to the horrifying documentary called Dominion that turned me from a meat-mouth to a vegan in one day after watching it at the start of the (original) pandemic. My dad worked as a butcher his entire life and would have been the first to tell you that milk, sorry to say, is nothing but pus. There is blood and pus and shit in every animal byproduct you eat. And that’s just a fact. Whether those elements have any healing properties is yet to be determined, but, you know, it’s not looking that way.
As the townsfolk are busy ripping hearts out of corpses and gulping down pus when they’re not doing that, Celeste and Delilah are falling in love because why not just jam a lesbian story line into something whenever you can? I’m certainly not going to object. Celeste believes in miracles, and Delilah believes in science, which makes them the perfect OKCupid match. You can’t both be sitting around cleansing crystals in the light of a blood moon. Balance is key to any relationship.
Delilah isn’t buying Celeste’s whole deal about her pus healing people, but she eats some anyway, mostly for sex reasons. Delilah is more of the opinion that they both have cowpox, and not smallpox, and that one ailment is knocking out the other. When Delilah finds blood in her cow’s milk, she decides to make deliveries around town so that everyone can be cured. The men, who find it more logical to eat hearts and feed their children pieces of their mother’s heart, push against this milk idea and in their efforts get themselves killed.
Triumphant at the end is Edward because, as we all know by now, the AHS franchise loves a creepy child even more than they love putting Cody Fern in a wig.
“Nothing is so unclean as a woman who lives with beasts,” Edward tells his real mom, right before killing her, carving out her heart, and eating it. Is he double inoculated now on account of having eaten from the hearts of two mothers? There’s no way to know.
Although this episode definitely made me puke and likely made it so I’ll never be able to think about milk or pus for any length of time, much less hear the words spoken out loud, it achieved what it set out to accomplish. AHS has definitely never shied away from body horror and putting a good ick-factor to use, but I haven’t been this visually disturbed by something within the franchise since Asylum, where they turned Chloë Sevigny’s character, Shelley, into a bumpy flesh stump and made Sarah Paulson’s character, Lana Winters, cry by talking to her about penises.