For a woman trying and failing to get pregnant — or trying not to get pregnant, for that matter — life is cyclical. You bleed, you have sex, you wait, you bleed again. You have sex again. You wait again. Maybe you attempt IVF. You wait again. Your other projects — friendships, work, romance — are ongoing, but your time is measured in roughly 28-day cycles that you track on an iPhone app that you hate. You experience endings and beginnings that are invisible to the people around you. Every week is a season; every month is a year that leaves you where you started.
The premiere of American Horror Story: Delicate mimics infertility’s distressing cadence. The episode opens with a flash-forward to a home intrusion and ends one week later with the same intrusion. When newly minted Hollywood A-lister Anna Victoria Alcott (AHS vet Emma Roberts) wakes up in bed in the middle of the night holding a stranger’s hand in the cold open, she’s a terrorized young woman living in a palatial concrete-chic Brooklyn Heights apartment. When she looks at her red hands and clutches her stomach, we’re left to worry that she’s suffered a miscarriage from the trauma. When we see it all again an hour later, we understand the stakes. Anna’s just been through her third round of egg retrieval and implantation. She’s in the part of her cycle where she waits to find out if it’s worked. No time has passed and yet seasons have accumulated.
Her partner in torturous waiting is husband Dexter, an art gallerist who manages to scold Anna for nearly (accidentally!) missing their most recent round of egg retrievals without sounding like too much of a dick. And when Anna questions his love, he reassures her that their infertility is NOT. HER. FAULT. Dex might even believe it; that said, Matt Czuchry has such an irrepressible slipperiness that he’s not who I’d cast in the role of straightforwardly devoted husband. He is responsive to Anna’s moods, though. When she’s looking glum post-retrieval, he suggests a round of their fave game, which is a riff on inventing backstories for strangers as you people-watch, only much more devastating. Over salads, Anna and Dex name their unborn kid, decide where they’ll attend school, bicker over which one of them will make enough to afford Saint Ann’s.
But we soon learn Dex has his own demons, parts of his life from before Anna that he withholds. Anna knows about Dex’s first wife, Adeline Harding — a gorgeous, award-winning chef who died in a tragic kitchen fire — but they’ve somehow progressed all the way to their third round of IVF without Anna even daring to ask if Dex and Adeline had ever tried for kids. If that question is in the no-go zone, what else is off-limits?
For open-armed intimacy, Anna so far relies on Siobhan Corbyn, her best friend slash take-no-shit PR agent, played by reality TV star slash law student slash actor Kim Kardashian. You can tell Siobhan is a hardass because the first thing Kim K does in her first major scripted role is tell someone to “suck my clit.” But while their intimacy is real, the friendship is in its infancy. They met in an IVF support group, and Siobahn’s motherhood journey has sadly ended unsuccessfully. But Anna thinks the two were destined to meet, even if they didn’t have this heartbreak in common. Anna would still be a CW has-been in need of a bulldog PR agent to remake her into an Oscar contender for her buzzy new film The Auteur. Siobahn can’t get her friend pregnant, but she does book her onto Andy Cohen’s show — Anna’s first ever late-night gig, a prerequisite stop on the road to bona fide star.
Let me just say now: Kim Kardashian is good at this. She’s natural on camera, which is a testament to how much acting she’s been doing across her other shows over the years. And I don’t mean that as shade. We know from Keeping Up and The Kardashians that Kim can hit a line, land an insult, and nail a pep talk. That’s what the best friend role is! “Focus on the good,” Siobahn tells Anna, when she starts to spiral, worrying that her eggs won’t survive the fertilization process. Later, when Anna briefly falters during her Andy Cohen appearance, Kim delivers the sidekick-perfect balance of bite and encouragement. “You’re so charming,” she tells Anna. “You on a bad day is like Hilary Swank on a good one.”
There are few one-liners like Kardashian’s in the first episode of Delicate, and yet the whole thing feels darkly comic, starting with the medical offices of reproductive endocrinologist Dr. Hill (played by always-creepy AHS stalwart Denis O’Hare). The set is perfect if you think egg retrieval — and the medicalization of infertility more generally — can feel a lot like being experimented on by a hostile yet intelligent alien race. It’s deliciously deliberate. The nurses in blood-red surgical gloves hoist Anna’s legs into the gynecological stirrups, a trauma universal to all women, in perfect sync. Later, when Anna is recovering from the retrieval, she rests beside a menacing row of empty surgical beds. In Dr. Hill’s fantasy world, there’d be a woman lying in each, eager to hear her egg count, to thank him for the chance at motherhood. (For the record, Anna’s number is nine, with two surviving to the embryo stage.)
But I out-loud snorted when Dr. Hill suggests a day for the embryo transfer, and Anna balks: “I have Andy Cohen on Thursday.” Yes, Anna is the same character who, running late for her egg retrieval, stops to take a photo of herself on a three-story tall movie billboard, but her hesitation felt to me like a sly piece of commentary. If Anna delays the procedure by a day, will we blame her if it’s not successful? Is she betraying Dexter by prioritizing her career? In the end, Anna does decide to take the interview and bump the procedure. And why shouldn’t she after so many disappointments at the clinic? Why should she have to give up her dream of stardom for potentially nothing? The subtext is that it’s an expression of vanity, a trait that renders Anna less deserving of motherhood. But the intriguing idea to me is how the quest for motherhood and, even more so, the experience of fertility treatment, opens a woman up to criticism not just from others but herself. If the embryo doesn’t implant, will Anna blame Anna?
The forward action of the episode is simple. A woman undergoes IVF with a creepy doctor. She has dinner with her husband’s business partner, Talia, who happens to be his first wife’s best friend. She goes on TV and makes of-the-moment jokes about fucking Tom Sandoval. She goes to a gallery party and meets her husband’s newest client, Sonia (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) — a woman who paints canvases with her own menstrual blood and bears an uncanny resemblance to Adeline.
But, this being American Horror Story, that’s hardly what the episode is about. From the outset, Anna is bombarded by strange occurrences. Running late to her egg retrieval, she stops to notice that a peculiar woman (Cara Delevigne in a dark wig) has been peering at a fallen bird’s nest with a cracked, half-gestated egg at its center. She’ll run into the same woman smoking outside the doctor’s office, which Dex will laughably explain away as coincidence. (Dr. Hill is the “primary fertility specialist in the city according to New York mag.”) The same woman will appear again on the red carpet at Dex’s opening. A character called Ms. Preecher (Julie White) shows up a few times, too. First, she’s a mad woman in the waiting room whispering “You are her” to a bewildered Anna. Later, real or imagined, she’s in the studio audience at Andy Cohen, causing Anna to lose her concentration on TV.
Whether what happens to Anna is real or imagined is a running theme of “Multiply Thy Pain” and while that’s not new terrain for AHS, how Anna’s grasp on reality is tied up with her infertility is provocatively fraught. When she leaves her progesterone suppositories on the kitchen counter instead of the refrigerator, is she being undone by stress or is the housekeeper trying to sabotage her? Are the hormones she’s taking causing her to imagine things, or is she really being followed? Is she scatter-brained with medical worry, or has someone really hacked her online accounts, even changing the times and dates of important doctor’s appointments in her calendar?
Watching the premiere of Delicate, I couldn’t help thinking about the latest season of Serial. “The Retrievals” follows the stories of women who underwent IVF at a clinic where a nurse was stealing fentanyl and replacing it with saline. The women experienced tremendous pain during their retrievals, but a theme that emerges across the series is medical gaslighting. How do doctors address a woman’s pain? How do women express it knowing that we may be doubted? The medicalization of Anna’s infertility doesn’t stop at the operating room doors. She believes herself to be fraying at the edges — at one point she even declares herself that it’s the hormones! — but instinctively she knows that’s not the truth. We, the audience, know it’s not the truth. There really is an Anna Victoria Alcott “Barbie” doll — marketing detritus from Anna’s days as a teen soap star — waiting for her in the Watch What Happens green room, its plastic stomach marred with an “X.” We know for sure — unless Anna’s imagination has kicked into overdrive — that there’s some deranged person on the internet using the handle “Annihilate Anna” to leave trolling comments on New York Times articles about Anna’s acting comeback (rude) and Adeline’s obit (“Sooo much prettier than Anna. Sad :( ”).
The implantation procedure is tough on Anna, too. She hallucinates her own mouth sewn shut like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale, and Ms. Preecher, in a dress of blood-red organza, kissing her with a bloody mouth. And then it’s over. She’s in bed, groggy and alone in her sterile apartment when we catch back up with the home intrusion. The second time around, the scene moves slower. It’s clear the intruder is a woman, for example, and Anna chases her from the apartment. Critically, she’s not bleeding. What appeared to be blood on her hands and carpet is revealed to be — I’m pretty sure? — red lipstick from a tube Talia gifted her at dinner. The lipstick she’s only worn once, on the same night she met a woman with the face of her husband’s first wife who paints in blood. Lipstick, Preecher, Cara Delevigne’s bob. There are patterns emerging. Cycles. It’s the same lipstick the intruder uses to scrawl a cryptic message for Anna on the bedroom mirror: “Don’t do it, Anna.” But do what exactly? The implantation procedure has already happened. The movie has been shot and Andy Cohen pandered to.
The title “Multiply Thy Pain” is a phrase cribbed from the series’ epigraph: “Unto the woman he said, I will multiply thy pain and thy conception; in pain thou shalt bring forth children. —Genesis 3:16.” As far as descriptions of pregnancy go, it’s damningly accurate. The series’ subtitle, “Delicate” — borrowed from the Danielle Rollins novel Delicate Condition, a pregnancy thriller on which the twelfth outing of AHS is based — is less so. There are many preposterous idioms for expecting: bun in the oven, in the family way. A realtor once conspiratorially disclosed that I was getting such a great deal because the previous renter had “fallen pregnant” and absconded home to Greece. But perhaps the most deceptive expression for it is “delicate condition.”
Pregnancy, from the enervating cycle of “trying” to the early weeks of brain-dulling nausea to childbirth in all its forms, is a violent condition. Even if you relish it, crave it, remember it fondly, it’s a gothic story of survival. Which is to say, it’s perfect for American Horror Story.