American Horror Story: Double Feature: Red Tide
August 25, 2021
Well, well, well, look who is back: both American Horror Story after a year-long COVID break, and me, your not-so-trusty blogger. Back in 2019, I didn’t recap American Horror Story: 1984 for a variety of reasons that mostly boil down to “I didn’t want to.” But this season is different: for once it’s been receiving strong reviews; it has brought back the best players in the American Horror Story repertoire; and instead of being one season that is ten episodes long (which has proven over and over again to be plenty long enough for the writers to completely lose the plot and internal logic of the story), this season is two different stories told over ten episodes.
The first half of the season, “Red Tide,” takes place in a haunted beach town during the off-season; the second half, “Death Valley,” appears to involve aliens? Maybe? I guess we’ll have to wait until the end of next month when the episode “Take Me To Your Leader” premieres.
How or if the two parts will tie together remains to be seen.
So let’s head to the beach, shall we?
“Red Tide” opens with what could generously be described as an homage to the opening sequence of The Shining or what could be called a blatant rip-off of the iconic opening sequence of The Shining: a family car, shot from high above, driving down a twisting highway, except instead of towering mountains, they are driving beside large sand dunes.
As the parents in the front seats yammer about how “creepy” and “beautiful” the area is, Alma, the ten-year-old girl in the backseat, is counting the roadkill they pass, and she’s up to ten when her parents see it: the dead deer in the middle of the road.
Harry, the dad, stops the car to investigate, heeding his pregnant wife Doris’ warning to NOT TOUCH IT, as it could give him Lyme Disease. (I mean, probably not, but better safe than sorry, I suppose.) Upon getting closer to the deer, Harry notices that the animal’s throat appears to have been torn out — it doesn’t exactly look like an animal that was hit by a car, but instead an animal that had been attacked. Harry, disturbed, returns to the car, and as the family drives away, the carcass is snatched violently off-screen by … something.
The Gardner family finally arrives at their Provincetown destination: a handsome, weathered home in a classic Cape Cod style. They are greeted by the house’s caretaker, Martha, who provides some exposition: Provincetown is where the Pilgrims first landed (so up yours, Plymouth); they are there in the off-season: during the summer there are as many as 60,000 people in P-Town, but during the winter, it could be as few as 3,000; all of the houses are haunted in Provincetown; and they shouldn’t swim near the seals. (YEAH, YOU JUST TRY TO STOP ME, LADY.)
As for why the Gardners, who are New York City folk, are planning to live in a frozen beach town for three months: Harry is a TV writer struggling to finish a pilot; Doris is an aspiring interior decorator who has been tasked by the home’s off-screen owners to redecorate it; and Alma is a home-schooled viola prodigy.
Harry heads to the grocery store to pick up supplies, walking through the disquietingly empty streets, and seeming to not notice the red houselights that are flicked on as he passes by.
Once at the store, Harry is assaulted by a completely unrecognizable Sarah Paulson, screaming at him in colorful language, urging him to leave town. And I quote: “Get the fuck outta here, fucker! Out of this town. They’re gonna munch on your balls!” To her credit, she certainly has quite the grasp of imagery.
The grocery store owner, Mike, shoos her away and out of the store, explaining that the locals call her “Turburculosis Karen” but that she’s mostly harmless. As for Harry, Mike knows all about him, as his sister is Martha and he’s been filled in. Because small towns, man.
The next morning, Harry struggles to write something, anything, while in the next room, Alma plays an exquisite piece, far beyond what any 11-year-old should be able to play. Harry asks that she stop playing because it distracts him, but Alma sighs that she needs to practice if she’s going to be first chair in the New York Philharmonic by the time she’s 18.
Doris and Alma decide to take a walk and explore the town so as to give Harry a little quiet writing time and head straight towards the cemetery because this is a horror series, after all. While Doris continues to worry about Lyme Disease, a figure emerges from behind a headstone — pale, gaunt, zombie-esque, wearing a coat with genuinely alarming shoulder pads.
Soon, he’s chasing Doris and Alma down the street and back to their house. Once they make it safely inside, the creepy Coat Guy stalks around the building, looking for an entrance, banging on the doors and windows.
However, when the Gardners call the cops, Officer Adina Porter is less than impressed with their story and assures the family that it was likely just a harmless junkie, too stoned to really cause any problems. Besides, there’s not any crime on Cape Cod, they need to calm down. Harry points out that when he googled Cape Cod crime, the murder of a Truro family of five popped up so …
But Officer Adina Porter waves it away as an organized crime hit. Anyway, welcome to Provincetown!
Harry and Doris discuss going back to New York but decide against it, seeing as this is a big opportunity for both of them. I’m sure this is the right decision and everything will work out just fine for everyone.
That night, Alma is woken up by rapping at her window, which ABSOLUTELY NOT. When she goes to investigate, WHICH AGAIN, ABSOLUTELY NOT, she sees Coat Guy standing on the sidewalk across the street, and this time, he’s brought two buddies! Super fun! Now let’s pack and head back to the city, please!
Alma sleeps with Doris that night, while Harry works downstairs. Or “works,” as nothing is actually written by the time Alma and Doris wake up in the morning.
Harry goes for a jog on the beach, but even that ends horrifically when he comes across two bodies whose intestines are decidedly in the wrong place. The police respond with what apparently is their particular brand of insouciance, shrugging that a Great White probably got to them. Because you know how Great Whites like to eat fully dressed swimmers in Massachusets in the winter. Happens all the time.
Upon returning home, Harry
orders Alma and Doris to pack their shit and get in the car suggests to Doris that they go out on a date night and get dinner. However, when she becomes nauseous, she sends him out by himself, with instructions to bring back something like a burger or a steak: she’s craving red meat.
Harry goes to the one open restaurant in town, The Muse …
… which is also lit with those foreboding red lights. He’s immediately hit upon by two hustlers, one of whom is what appears to be a Macauley Culkin, but both men are shooed away by the hostess.
…yep it sure is a new american horror story season pic.twitter.com/kA4cwE9CNB— a fortune teller (@seabirdfeather) August 31, 2021
Once seated, Harry enjoys a performance of “Islands in the Stream” by one Austin Summers and Belle Noire, two fellow writers who also come to Provincetown for the winters, as Harry later learns when they invite him to their table for a drink.
There, they reveal that they are both acclaimed writers, thanks in part to how this place inspires them. Harry admits that he could use a little inspiration, explaining that he’s suffering from writers’ block on this pilot he’s supposed to be writing.
Around this same time, Tuberculosis Karen bursts into the restaurant to forage on leftover scraps from patrons’ plates, and before she is thrown out by the management, she yells at Harry again, this time warning him away from his new friends whom she calls “bloodsucking motherfuckers.” This being an American Horror Story, we can only assume she means it literally. As for Belle and Austin, they sigh at what a terribly flawed human being she is, before adding that Harry should find his inspiration soon enough.
OK, SO THEN A LOT OF STUFF HAPPENS.
Harry returns home that night, and after double-checking the locks and windows, and on his sleeping family, he is jumped by Coat Guy who got into the house somehow. Fight fight fight, and Harry bashes Coat Guy’s face in with a fireplace implement.
Over at Belle Noire’s place, she is in bed with Macauley Culkin who offers to stay the night for $40 extra. Instead, Belle requests, she’ll give him $200 for a taste. He declines, reminding her that she nearly killed him last time, but she insists: $300 for a suck or he doesn’t get shit. He reluctantly agrees, and she cuts his arm and greedily sucks at the wound. See? Tuberculosis Karen, she’s not crazy after all! They are bloodsuckers! LITERALLY.
Speaking of Karen, she’s busy dumpster-diving when she receives a call on her cell phone. Karen insists that she can’t do whatever it is that the person on the other end of the line is demanding, but then the voice, clearly Belle’s, firmly instructs Karen that she has three hours.
Back at the Gardner house, the police take Coat Guy’s body away and instruct Harry to come in for an official statement in the morning. He asks if he needs to lawyer up, but they’re like, “Dude, why? You were attacked in your own home. This is an open and shut case, despite the whole thing where the guy looks like an extra from a community theater production of Nosferatu.”
Once the police leave, Harry is like, “ALRIGHT, THAT’S IT. WE ARE LEAVING. TOMORROW.”
But Doris is like, “I mean, yes, your daughter and I were menaced by a zombie, and yes, you found two disemboweled corpses on the beach this morning, and yes, you just murdered a man in our kitchen, but I have some curtains to pick out!” Still, even Doris has to admit that it’s probably for the best that go home, interior design project or no.
Back at Belle’s house, Karen arrives with a pillowcase that seems to be mewling like … a baby? A human baby? Belle sneers that people sell their souls for greatness — she did — but it takes a piece of garbage to sell their souls just to get close to greatness. But Karen insists that she hasn’t sold her soul to be near Belle, just to the drugs that Belle can provide … and for the protection she offers from the others. “OK WHATEVER GIVE ME THE BABY.” Karen does as she’s told and hurries out of the house as the exterior red light is turned off.
The next morning, Harry and the family are busily packing up the car to get the fuck out of Dodge, when he receives a call from Austin urging him to come to his house: he has something that can cure Harry’s writers’ block.
What happens next is one of those overwritten and overwrought Ryan Murphy scenes: Austin rambles about day drinking and expensive pajamas before offering Harry a packet of black pills, insisting that they will unlock his creativity. Harry demands to know what catch is, and Austin goes on a grandiose monologue about the nature of writing, and how all writers are egomaniacs whose souls will only be filled with love and attention and barrels of money.
Harry tries to decline the pills, but as he makes his exit, Austin slips them into Harry’s pocket and insists that he hang on to them, if only to try them once.
Back at the house, Harry takes a call from his agent who is like, “THE HELL YOU’RE LEAVING PROVINCETOWN. NOW SIT DOWN AND WRITE THAT PILOT. IF YOU FUCK THIS UP, YOU WON’T GET ANOTHER SHOT IN THIS BUSINESS.” And with that little kick in the pants, Harry pops one of those little black pills, all the while Alma sees everything.
Before we close out this recap, we have to talk about The Shining, which this story is ripping off without shame: a writer and his family escape to a remote location in the dead of winter, hoping that the isolation will help him overcome his writers’ block and complete his masterpiece. The child has her own gifts that will be fully unlocked by the location, while the vulnerable mother tries to hold everything together.
And so, yes, on the one hand, this season appears, like The Shining, to be yet another bit of writing navel-gazing: writers writing about a writer who is trying to write. (Although I am sure if you asked Mr. Murphy or any of the other writers, they’d tell you it’s actually about the creative act in general and the struggle for inspiration and expression.) But what I find curious — especially because I believe that this season was already planned before COVID struck — is this theme of isolation in the wake of the lockdown and our ongoing season of quarantine. It would be easy to read the Gardners leaving New York City for the confines of small town life as a metaphor for the many New Yorkers who fled the city during the worst months of the COVID crisis, looking for safety and a little breathing room (no pun intended). Or even more broadly than that, the Gardners resemble many of us during lockdown, trapped with our loved ones, terrified, and slowly driving each other crazy.
And while that does make for a nice timely metaphor for this moment that we are living through, I think the original intention was to make some sort of statement about the creative process and how it can be isolating and alienating. It goes back again to The Shining and while Stephen King has made it clear that what he was writing about was parenting and anger, you can’t ignore the setting of that novel and film: an isolated hotel, huge, empty, cold; and you can’t ignore the main antagonist: a writer, struggling with writer’s block, struggling to create. There’s a statement in there about the nature of writing itself: how it is lonely, how it can be maddening, and this, I think, is really what the show is actually alluding to with these blatant references to The Shining.
There’s another Stephen King reference being made here, too, that I would be remiss to not point out: ‘Salem’s Lot, one of King’s first novels. In it, a writer returns to his sleepy little New England hometown to write a book (~cough~) and finds himself in the middle of a vampire infestation – practically everyone in town becomes a vampire. What is interesting about ‘Salem’s Lot as it relates to this season of American Horror Story is that while King has explained that the original idea was inspired by thinking about what would happen if Dracula were alive in the 20th century, it was also inspired by the growing sense of paranoia and distrust in the government that emerged in the wake of Watergate in the early 70s.
From a 1980 interview with King: “Every novel is to some extent an inadvertent psychological portrait of the novelist, and I think that the unspeakable obscenity in ‘Salem’s Lot has to do with my own disillusionment and consequent fear for the future. In a way, it is more closely related to Invasion of the Body Snatchers than it is to Dracula. The fear behind ‘Salem’s Lot seems to be that the Government has invaded everybody.”
I don’t want to give away too much of what is revealed in the second episode in this recap, but I suggest you put a pin in this sense of dread and paranoia that there is something … wrong … in this small town, and that everyone seems to be either infected with it or covering it up or possibly both. And I’m not saying that the government is involved … I’m just saying it would be one way to tie it into the back half of the season if they were.
ALRIGHT, ONTO EPISODE TWO.
American Horror Story airs on FX on Wednesdays at 9/10 p.m.