American Horror Story: Double Feature: Red Tide
August 25, 2021
Last we left the Gardner family, they were packing up the car and prepared to GTFO of Provincetown after they: were attacked by vampire LARPers; found a pair of dead bodies; and killed a man inside their house.
Harry Gardner decided that before he was going to get into a car and drive his family five hours back to New York City, it would be a great idea to pop a mystery pill some dude he met the night before gave him with the promise that it would open up his writing chakra or whatever. As soon as Harry takes his position behind the steering wheel, the drug kicks in, and he is simultaneously hit with a panic attack and visions of the TV script that had been eluding him this whole time. Overwhelmed with inspiration, he leaps out of the car, digs his computer out of the back, and rushes inside to put it all to paper.
Doris and little Alma are, understandably, alarmed by Harry’s behavior, and follow him inside where they find him furiously at work. Alma asks her mother when they are going to leave, and Doris admits that she’s not sure; Daddy is apparently inspired, and they need to support him. Alma then reveals to her mother that she saw her father take a pill: maybe it was Adderall? She knows some kids take it to help them focus. Maybe she should take one, too, to help her with her viola performance? Doris, horrified, is all, ABSOLUTELY NOT.
Doris goes downstairs and confronts Harry about his sudden burst of inspiration and asks him if he’s on speed. He insists that he’s not and, in fact, is INSULTED that she seems to think he could only possibly finish his pilot if he were on drugs.
That’s when Alma sneaks around the corner and tells her father that she saw him take something, and he hisses at her to “not be jealous because I have inspiration and you can’t play fucking Paganini!”
Also, honestly, in ten over-the-top seasons with countless over-the-top lines, this might be one of my favorites.
As Alma runs off, Harry becomes apologetic to Doris, explaining that he’s “not himself” and that the pages just “exploded” out of him. But it’s not just that he figured out what to write, what he wrote is good. Doris is like, “great, so we can leave now?” But Harry’s not ready, he has another idea for episode two. Also, he points out, is it really a great idea for Doris to walk out on this interior decorating job? Especially after what happened last time? Doris, stung, reels back and insists that those clients just didn’t understand her vision. Harry pleads with her: just another day. Or two. WHY WON’T SHE SUPPORT HIM?
Later, Doris and Alma return home having braved the vampire horde to buy some sandwiches, and Harry apologizes to his daughter for lashing out at her, noting that she is so much more talented than he is. Which … hey! How about instead of competing with your 10-year-old you try therapy?
Harry grabs a sandwich and returns to the computer with it, only to spit it out after a single bite, complaining that the taste made him sick. With that, Doris and Alma head upstairs to give Grumpus some space to finish his writing.
And, in fact, when Doris comes downstairs the next morning, he’s still writing. Reading some pages left in the printed, Doris is impressed by what he’s written: it’s actually good, and not just some Jack Torrance bullshit.
When Harry notes that he’s almost done with the entire season, Doris is like, yeah, this isn’t normal, but he just insists that Provincetown is his “muse.” Doris, noting that he’s been working non-stop, is acting like an asshole and hasn’t eaten anything in 24 hours again asks if he’s on speed, but he denies it and announces that he’ll go to the store and get something to eat.
On the way to the store, he comes across one of the Coat Guys in the middle of the street, chomping on … something. Soon, Harry is surrounded by four Coat Guys who lunge to attack him, before smelling something coming off of Harry, and make a retreat.
Once in the store, Harry bypasses the fruits and vegetables and pasta aisles and makes a beeline for the meat section, filling his cart with steaks. This catches the attention of the store owner who asks if the “writing is going well?” Harry wonders how he knew, when Tuberculosis Karen shows up and is like, “You stupid motherfucker, you took the drug, didn’t you? WELP, YOU’VE DID DONE IT NOW.”
Harry returns home with the steaks which he proceeds to drain into a pitcher, before blending the actual steaks into a meat smoothie and drinking it all down. Keto is a damn cult, y’all.
As Harry continues writing, upstairs, Doris and Alma discuss the situation and both admit they want to go home. However, Doris tells Alma that they have to be supportive of Harry: she’s never seen him so inspired. And while yes, he’s being a dick, they should give him a couple of days to do his work and let this fever pass. Alma wonders if the pill she saw Harry took made him a better writer, but Doris poo-poos this: there is no magic pill for greatness.
While Harry continues frantically writing, outside Austin and Belle are sitting in Austin’s car, pontificating on Harry’s situation and how if he stays on “The Muse,” he’s going to need to “upgrade” his diet to keep it up. With that, they go up the Cape for a “snack.”
The next day, Doris is chopping some carrots for a meal her husband is definitely not going to eat and listening to him rave about how he feels like Sorkin or Tarantino. Doris is like, “Great, can we go home now? Please?” But Harry is against it and suggests that Doris and Alma go home without him. Doris refuses, knowing that he’ll write himself to death if she leaves. Just then, she cuts her finger, and to her horror, he leaps on her, sucking the blood from the wound And I’m not saying that the knife rack behind Doris’ head is Checkhov’s Knife Rack, I’m just saying that considering they chose to frame the moment when Doris first begins to realize her husband is turning into a monster like this … just keep an eye on those knives.
Harry returns to Austin’s house for some answers: namely, what’s in the pills. Austin claims no one knows but “The Chemist.” Apparently, P-Town has had a long history with drug problems: first heroin, then meth, which eventually evolved into this mystery drug. According to Austin, it only works for people with actual talent; those who are without talent who use it have a sudden urge to shave their heads and invest in white pancake makeup and coats with questionable shoulder pads.
As for the whole craving for raw meat and sucking the blood out of his wife’s finger, Harry could look at it as a metaphor for the artist stealing the lifeblood of others to inspire his work. But if he wants to be literal about it, the drug depletes minerals from their blood, and Harry’s going to need to consume more than supermarket steaks to replenish himself. When Harry balks at the notion of becoming a vampire for a TV show, Austin is like, “Suit yourself. If you quit taking the pills, you’ll go back to normal, but you’ll never be as creative again.”
Harry returns home and apologizes to his wife for being a bloodsucking creep, and gives her the good news: they can go home tomorrow! Doris is relieved and adds that she can just take a bunch of photos of the house and finish the design project from wherever. She then moans that Harry doesn’t take her work seriously, that he doesn’t think she’s good enough and that interior design is just a hobby for her. However, her complaints are interrupted when Harry’s agent calls to tell him his series has been greenlit and it will star Joaquin Phoenix.
Additionally, he’s been offered an overall deal at Netflix, which yay! But also, oh no! Because when he tries to start writing again he’s got … fuckall.
Frustrated, Harry returns to Austin’s for more pills — I guess he used all the ones Austin gave him in that first baggie? — and Belle, who is also at Austin’s, warns that he’s not going to be able to stop using, now that he’s had a taste. Austin and Belle then instruct Harry to keep his coat on, while bearing their sharpened teeth: they’re going out to eat.
In the car, Harry calls Doris to explain that he’s been invited to join a prestigious writers’ group, and will be home as soon as he can. After he hangs up, he asks how many writers use the pills, and Austin replies, “Plenty. More lately: streamers.” Which just, bravo, Ryan Murphy, though no one made you sign that deal with Netflix, friend.
Austin and Belle explain that he’s going to need to feed once a week, 4-6 pints worth of blood. But don’t worry they have a whole system: they only prey on people who won’t be missed — like drug addicts who sell stolen shit on Craigslist.
Speaking of, the three of them arrive at some dude’s house, claim they’re there to see the “mountain bike” before pushing their way inside and eating him.
Elsewhere, Macauley Culkin and Tuberculosis Karen are hanging out when Macauley Culkin offers her one of the pills which he stole from Belle. Karen is like, NO THANK YOU PLEASE, pointing out that Coat Guys are the result of untalented people using the drug. And anyway, she’d rather be in the sorry condition she’s currently in than become a monster like Belle. Macauley Culkin explains that they aren’t at risk for becoming a coat-wearer: they are talented. Macauley Culkin points out that he’s started five screenplays, and he knows she’s an artist, before pulling out some of her paintings which he bought at a thrift store for five dollars. If she took one of these pills, she could be the next Picasso. Karen can’t bring herself to do it, but he’s like, “Yeah, but I can,” and swallows the pill.
The next day, Harry arrives at the tattoo parlor/dental office of one Dr. Lark Feldman. She explains that she became a dentist to make her parents happy, but became a talented tattoo artist after taking the pill. With that, she takes him to the back where she files his teeth into points to facilitate easier feeding, and designs a cap for him with which to hide them.
Back at home, Alma is struggling through her viola piece and decides to hit up Daddy’s stash. After taking one of the pills, she masters the piece that had been giving her such trouble but ends up passing out for her trouble.
After hours of Alma practicing, Doris asks her daughter to take a break: she has a headache and would appreciate a little quiet. But Alma refuses, hissing that her mother “doesn’t understand greatness. It sounds fine to you because fine is good enough for you. For people like Daddy and I [sic], fine is failure.”
Doris gawps at Alma’s cruelty, and then forgives her: there’s a lot going on, what with the new baby and being away from the city, but as soon as they go home … but Alma interrupts her, growling that she doesn’t want to go home, she’s never felt more at home than here in this place. She then tells her mother that Doris only wants to leave because she doesn’t understand greatness and art and inspiration. When Doris asks Alma if she doesn’t think she’s a great mother, Alma explains that she is who she is and wonders what part of herself would not be the same if she had been raised by some other ordinary woman.
Doris, who has sat here taking this bullshit abuse from her preteen daughter for much longer than any saint would, orders her daughter to her room to pack her things. NOW. THEY ARE LEAVING TOMORROW.
Harry goes for a jog; eats a hustler under a pier.
The next morning, Doris is alarmed when she can’t find Alma in her room, and her husband, back to typing WITH BLOOD DRIPPING DOWN HIS CHIN, is all, “Oh, she went for a walk.” Doris, understandably, is like, “EXCUSE ME, YOU LET HER OUT FOR A WALK AFTER WE’VE BEEN REPEATEDLY ATTACKED BY VAMPIRE COAT GUYS? ARE YOU INSANE?” Doris grabs her coat and heads out to look for her with the promise that once she finds Alma, the two of them are going back to New York without him.
And so off she goes, straight to the cemetery where the Coat Guys are gathered, watching her from a distance, and where she finds Alma chomping on a rabbit.
Alright, so this episode sets up the ground rules for our story:
- There is a pill that unlocks the creativity in those who take it
- BUT ONLY if they are actually talented; if untalented people take the pill, they become coat-wearing vampires
- The side effect of the pill is a need to drink human blood
- You can stop taking the pill at any time and return to your normal life
- But you’ll never be creative again
- Also, if you’re on the pill, the coat-wearing weirdos won’t eat you
And bravo to the writers for turning the kid into a pill-popping, roadkill-sucking monster in episode two; we usually have to wait a while to dive into that particular deep end.
I’m not going to make any predictions about where this goes, because this show defies logic and that particular brand of hubris, but, if I were working with those rules, at some point you have to have a character who is not talented try the pills and become a Coat Guy, right? And right now, based on the characters that we have before us, the obvious answer is Doris. But we’ll see. (Also, they are totally setting us up for a transformation of Sarah Paulson’s unrecognizable character; she’s gotta take the pill at some point and become fabulous, right?)
A couple of other things worth mentioning about this episode: the word “muse” is used A LOT. It’s what Austin decides to call the pill; it’s what Harry is inspired by supposedly; and in the previous episode, it’s the name of the restaurant where Harry meets Austin and Belle. The muses were, of course, the Greek inspirational goddesses of literature, arts, history, science, and philosophy. Their origins are confusing: sometimes they are the daughters of Zeus, sometimes they are older than that, and the daughters of Gaia herself; sometimes there are only three of them, sometimes there are nine; and sometimes, intriguingly for our purposes here, they are not goddesses at all, but water nymphs.
I only mention the water nymph part because Ryan Murphy had hinted that this season might feature “sirens,” the Greek monsters who lured sailors to their deaths with their songs and beauty. Water nymphs can also be dangerous and jealous and lure the unwitting to their undoing. And then we can’t ignore the imagery being used to promote this season: while the monsters so far have been clearly vampiric, there is also some sort of water monster happening:
I’m just saying, they are making it very clear that being inspired by “The Muse” is a dangerous gift.
And then there is Noccoló Paganini, the composer whose work Alma is struggling to master. Paganini was not just a composer, but also the most celebrated violinist of his time, a child prodigy who began playing instruments at five. He was so talented, that a rumor spread that he was “the devil’s violinist,” and he had murdered a woman and used her intestines to string his instrument, trapping her soul within. Interestingly, it’s believed he had Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the connective tissue, which would allow him to be able to reach three octaves at once with his long, stretchy fingers. Even more interestingly for our purposes here, the syndrome also earned him the nickname “Rubber Man.”
Finally, as I alluded to in the previous recap, there’s clearly something sinister happening to this small town in which all of its residents seem to be turning into monsters. When Stephen King wrote ‘Salem’s Lot in the 70s, he was channeling our national sense of disillusionment with the government following the Watergate scandal. Here, it’s hard to not see this depiction of a small town ravaged by addiction as a metaphor for the opioid crisis that hit Massachusetts and the Northeast particularly hard. I don’t think this story is going to be reduced to as simple a message as “DRUGS ARE BAD!” but I do think questions about who created the drug and why they did so will (or should) become an important part of the story moving forward. But considering how the writers on the show refuse to ever play by the rules of internal logic, who even knows where we’re headed.
American Horror Story airs on FX on Wednesdays at 9/10 p.m.