‘American Horror Story: Double Feature: Red Tide’: Siren song

American Horror Story: Double Feature: Red Tide
September 1, 2021


Harry is in the process of processing this when they receive a visitor: Officer Adina Porter who is responding to complaints about their daughter? Something about seeing her walking through town covered in blood? Officer Adina Porter would, understandably, like to speak to the child back at her office. Alone. Harry protests, and having been fairly blasé about it earlier, Officer Adina Porter is suddenly very interested in the outbreak of crime in Provincetown: the town is covered in dead hustlers, and now fourth-graders dripping with rodent blood, and so yeah, she has a question or thirty.

However, before anyone can be brought in for questioning, Doris has a sharp pain and falls down the stairs, which is one very extreme way to get the fuzz off your back.

Doris is taken to the hospital in Hyannis Port, where the doctors tell her that she needs to stay with them for four or five nights so they can monitor her blood pressure. Harry gives Alma some vending money and shoos her away, only to notice the way she … pauses … in front of a tray of blood bags. Alarmed, he rushes over to her and points her in the right direction, towards Doritos and Snickers and away from the bodily fluids.


As for Doris, she asks Harry to stay at a hotel there in Hyannis Port rather than return to Provincetown, but he suggests something one better: he’s going to take Alma back home to New York City.

Except, yeah, he’s not returning to New York City with Alma because then the show would be over. No, they head back to Provincetown because addicts gonna addict, and plot needs to plot.

On the drive back, Harry assures Alma that she won’t have to talk to the police: he’ll tell Officer Adina Porter that she almost made Mom lose the baby and with the threat of a lawsuit, she’ll back off.

As for Alma, Harry asks, when did she take the pill? Alma admits that she took one the other night because she couldn’t get the Pagnini piece right. But now! It feels so easy! Alma then waxes philosophic about the nature of greatness, and how she feels like everyone normal in the world could just disappear and it wouldn’t matter. Harry, smirking, agrees.

But he briefly remembers that he’s supposed to be a father and tells Alma she doesn’t need to take the pills: she’s great already. Yeah, but Alma doesn’t want to be “great,” she wants to be the “greatest.” And if she has to eat a bunny or two, she doesn’t mind. Harry warns that bunnies won’t be enough, and while it will be harder to be great without the pills, she can do it. Alma reluctantly agrees, but only if he stops using, too.

Back at the house, Harry tries to write while sober. It doesn’t work. Soon he’s digging through the trash for his little black pills, and when he turns around, Alma is waiting, hand extended.

Dad of the year over here, he places a pill in her palm.

The two go to The Muse for rare steaks, where he continues to try to convince his daughter that taking the drug isn’t a viable choice for her: he only needs to use for three months out of the year, but she’ll need to use all year round. Also, she’s just a kid; they have no idea how using a drug like this will impact her development as a woman. But Alma don’t care: she doesn’t want to get married and have children, she just wants to play music. Harry wonders what they’ll tell Mom, but Alma has her own question: why are they still with Doris, anyway? They don’t need her. Harry is shocked! by his daughter’s callousness and insists that they love her and she loves them and that’s what matters.

Harry does set a single ground rule: Alma is not allowed to get her own blood; he will bring it to her. Look at that! Boundaries! He’s set one! Alma agrees and then informs her father that she’s hungry. Now.

Right, so, this batshit insane scene.

Using Belle and Austin’s method of targeting obvious drug addicts, Harry shows up at a young woman’s house asking to look at the bicycle and blu-ray player she advertised. But before he can slit her throat, he’s knocked unconscious from behind.

When Harry comes to, he finds himself tied up in a basement, stripped down to his unmentionables. When he breaks a small window on the exit, a big burly dude on the other side of the door is outraged: he doesn’t come to Harry’s house and break his shit, does he? The woman gives Harry a Viagra and explains he’s going to want to take it, before detailing their plans for him: basically, he’s going to be the star of a snuff film, in which Burly is going to rape him to the point of prolapse (I AM SO SORRY — IT’S A TERRIBLE IMAGE. BLAME RYAN MURPHY.) and while that happens, Harry will also be expected to simultaneously have sex with her which seems … unlikely. Then they kill him.

Harry agrees to take the Viagra and is brought out to the room where the filming is to take place. But while the would-be director fusses with the camera, Harry chews through his bindings with those sharpened fangs of his and then chews through her throat. Before Burly can get away, Harry manages to shoot him in the leg and informs him that Burly gets to watch Harry eat her, while he slowly bleeds out.

Soon, Harry is back home with a Thermos full of Burly’s blood for one very hungry Alma.

The next morning, Harry receives an unexpected visitor: his agent Ursula. She came all the way from Los Angeles to check on him and to bring some huge news: Quentin Tarantino wants Harry to write his first limited series, which has been greenlit sight unseen. Harry is shocked, but pleasantly so, and wonders why Tarantino, who famously writes all of his own material would bring him in. And basically, the answer is Tarantino recently got married, so it is harder to do the things he needs to do to write … and he knows Harry will understand what that means.

But that’s not the only reason Ursula is here: she’s noticed Harry’s writing has changed, and she’s curious what it is that has so inspired him. Harry mumbles something about the quiet and the architecture. And that’s when Alma interrupts, complaining about being hungry again.

With that, Ursula asks for a restaurant recommendation and takes her leave.

At The Muse, because obviously she’s eating at The Muse, it’s the only restaurant open in the winter, Ursula ignores Macauley Culkin as he makes eyes at her, and tries to ignore Austin and Belle as they sing, “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late.” But soon, Ursula finds herself yelling at the waitress to make them stop.

This, as you might imagine, irritates our would-be lounge singers, who, as they make their way past her, gaze longfully at her throat.

After they leave, Macauley Culkin finally makes his move, only to be rejected: Ursula likes her men with darker complexions and way less meth in their veins. With that, she leaves the restaurant, only to be chased down by Macauley Culkin. He wasn’t trying to pick her up, but he did hear from her hotel’s bellboy that she was a big shot agent from Los Angeles, and he just wants her to read the five scripts that he has (very recently) written. Ursula is skeptical, but agrees to read them — and possibly use them as kindling in her room’s fireplace.

But she doesn’t burn them; instead, she seeks Macauley Culkin out to figure out how the hell a methhead like him wrote a $3 million screenplay. She knows there’s something fishy going on: Harry is suddenly Mark Twain? And she knows exactly who Austin and Belle are … so are they all selling their souls to the devil? What’s the deal?

And Macauley Culkin, he just blurts it all out: there’s a pill and if you have any kind of creative talent, everything you do is great. Macauley Culkin warns that the downside to the pills is fucked up.

Can confirm.

She then threatens Macauley Culkin: get her some of those pills, or his scripts go into the garbage.

And so that night Macauley Culkin breaks into Belle’s house and steals some number of pills from her stash.

As for where Belle was — she, Austin, and Harry feed on a house of addicts, where Belle and Austin notice Harry storing some blood in a Thermos.

Except Belle and Austin aren’t stupid, and on the drive home confront him about the Thermos, and who the blood is for. He immediately confesses that his 9-year-old daughter snuck a pill, which … why would he tell them that? Why not claim that he was saving it in the event he couldn’t feed immediately? In any event, as he exits the car, they make him promise that his daughter not use anymore. But as soon as he’s inside, they agree that they are going to have to kill both Harry and Alma. And I mean, I get it, but maybe they should ask themselves why they brought him into their little club in the first place?

The next morning, Macauley Culkin attacks and kills a hustler on the beach (though, not easily, considering Macauley Culkin is a Hobbit). Except this time, there’s a witness: one Holden Vaughn, an interior designer who is spending the winter in P-Town. He says with confidence that it was a gay-bashing incident, despite being too far away to make out who it was who did it. When Officer Adina Porter asks him to come to the station to make a statement, he declines: he just made one.

When Macauley Culkin arrives home, he finds Belle waiting for him, full of insults for his shithole of an apartment. She confronts him about the missing pills, and he admits he stole them. She warns him of Coat Guys’ fate, and he’s like, no worries, I wrote some scripts and an agent loves them: I’m one of you now! Belle bristles at the suggestion and tells him that he now owes her a Thermos of blood from each of his kills and orders that his first kill will be Ursula, because she doesn’t like it when people criticize her singing.

Quick question before we go on: so she wants Thermoses of blood, but it was noticeable that Harry brought home his own Thermos of blood? Again, why did Harry tell them the truth so quickly? Why didn’t he just tell them he was saving it for later? I suppose the pill enhances talent, not intelligence.

Macauley Caulkin then goes to Ursula’s hotel room, armed with a crowbar, where he finds her bathing, and completely vulnerable. For her part, Ursula is unimpressed and asks him if he’s there to murder her and drink her blood. Macauley Culkin says he doesn’t want to, and she discourages him: she doesn’t think it’s likely her colleagues will help him get that gig writing the reboot of Speed Racer. Macauley Culkin can’t believe this news and putting the weapon down, marvels that he’s a someone now. Well, Ursula adds, not if he murders her. Also, she has another request requirement: she wants to meet the person making the pills. Macauley Culkin is hesitant: it’s known around town that they should stay away from The Chemist’s home. Ursula, however, is pretty sure The Chemist will want to meet her because Ursula is going to make them very rich.

So Macauley Culkin takes Ursula to The Chemist’s house, who, in fact, is not at all interested in meeting them. Ursula asks for five minutes of The Chemist’s time, threatening that she’s happy to go talk to the police about her work if she doesn’t hear her out. The pitch: let Ursula pick 15-20 writers that they will supply exclusively with the pills, and The Chemist will get 10% of their post-pill earnings plus back end. She’ll soon be the richest woman in Cape Cod.

Instead of taking the deal, though, The Chemist goes to Belle and Austin to bitch at them for getting strangers involved and orders them to get rid of Ursula, Macauley Culkin, and Harry, Doris, and Alma.

Speaking of the Gardner family, Harry is going out for a hunt for Alma and has enlisted Ursula to babysit. However, Ursula is not much of a babysitter, and she heads upstairs for a 7 p.m. nap. You know, like adults do.

The moment Harry pulls away, Officer Adina Porter, who has been waiting in her car outside, heads up to the house and asks Alma if they can talk for a little bit. Once inside, after trying (and failing) to make some small talk with Alma about the origins of her name, Officer Adina Porter notes that she doesn’t know what is going on in this town. She doesn’t think Alma and her father started it, but she does think they are involved. Drug addicts and hustlers are being murdered and going missing up and down the Cape, people that won’t be missed. But they’re still people, she stresses to Alma, and other people cared about them. Now, Alma’s a child, so she won’t be held responsible. But Officer Adina Porter wants to understand what the fuck is happening; is it a cult? a blood disease?

Alma instead asks Officer Adina Porter a question: has she ever had a dream? Officer Adina Porter admits that she wanted to be the first female Army ranger, but she was 10 years too early. Alma asks if when she was in war if she killed people, and Officer Adina Porter clarifies: they were the enemies, so it wasn’t “murder.” Alma asks how many people Officer Adina Porter would have killed to become a ranger: she bets Officer Adina Porter would have killed everyone in the entire country.

Officer Adina Porter, thoroughly freaked out now, tells Alma that she would like to take her down to the station now, but Alma has other ideas, and using the knife she had hidden behind her during the entire conversation, she stabs Officer Adina Porter in the throat. Officer Adina Porter collapses over the coffee table and bleeds out.

And when Harry returns home, he finds a dead officer bleeding into some bowls on the floor, and Alma and Ursula, seemingly oblivious, playing Gin Rummy in the kitchen. “Grab a drink, Harry,” Ursula instructs. “We need to talk.”

Alright, so we’re past the “exposition phase” and now in the “barrelling full-steam ahead batshit insane phase” of the story, so there’s not a whole lot to unpack here. I do think it’s interesting that for a story about unbridled creativity, the series continues to “pay homage to”  — or “blatantly rip-off” — other movies. In this episode, the basement snuff film scene is basically the “Get the Gimp” scene in Pulp Fiction, in which — spoilers for a 27-year-old movie incoming — Butch and Marsellus are held captive in a pawn shop, where Marsellus is raped, and Butch saves them both, killing their captors. (And don’t forget that the “Gimp” in this scene is a precursor to AHS‘s Rubber Man.) It’s a nice touch (or acknowledgment of what they are doing) that the very next scene in this episode following Harry’s escape from the snuff film auteurs is the one in which Ursula informs Harry that Quentin Tarantino wants him to write his new limited series because “that motherfucker is a better writer than I am!”

This homage to Pulp Fiction plus the previous episode’s nods towards The Shining (and to a degree, ‘Salem’s Lot) made me think about how this season is called “Double Feature,” which is an explicit reference to films. I don’t know what, if anything, to make of this, but I do find it curious that there have been so many film allusions so far.

As for the snuff film scene itself, it felt a little gratuitous, a little show-offy: “I can be as outrageous and offensive as Tarantino!” I can only hope that there was a plot reason for it, like that the footage that was shot before Harry escaped comes back to play a role, or that his fingerprints were left all over the scene since his captors removed the gloves he was instructed by Belle to ALWAYS wear.

The other direct film reference in this episode was to the Wachowski sister’s film, Speed Racer, though I can’t figure out what it could possibly have to do with this story. Style over substance is a common criticism of the show; maybe that’s it?

A more indirect film reference is one that I am irritated I didn’t catch until this episode: Ursula. Ursula, of course, is the name of the sea witch in The Little Mermaid, which ties into this whole idea that this half of the season is somehow related to sirens.

Sirens are creatures from Greek mythology who were first imagined to be some sort of woman-bird monster who would lure sailors to their deaths with their beautiful songs and enchanting music. They were said to have been Persephone’s friends, who were given wings by Persephone’s mother, Demeter, so they could search for her after she had been abducted by Hades. Other stories suggest Demeter cursed the sirens, turning them into monsters when they failed to intervene when Hades kidnapped her.

Sometime in the seventh century, sirens were described as having a fishtail rather than bird bodies, and by the Middle Ages, they had become full-on mermaids, indistinguishable from the creatures.

The most famous story involving sirens comes from The Odyssey, in which having been warned about all the dangers that lay ahead by Circe, Odysseus orders his men to fill their ears with beeswax as they sail past the sirens’ island. He, however, wants to hear their famous song, because he’s something of an insufferable asshole. So he has his men tie him to the mast of the ship, and makes them promise that they will not release him no matter how much he might indicate he wants to be untied. What I find sort of interesting about the story is that as they sail past, Odysseus sees the sirens being as beautiful as Helen of Troy, but his men recognize them for what they are: hungry monsters with vicious claws. Anyway, they make it by safely.

A lesser-known story involving the sirens is that Hera once set up a singing competition between the sirens and the muses, and the sirens lost. And here’s the interesting part of this story: the muses plucked the sirens’ feathers to make crowns out of them, and “Out of their anguish from losing the competition, writes Stephanus of Byzantium, the sirens turned white and fell into the sea at Aptera.”

Additionally, this is Circe’s description of the siren’s island:

First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them.

Two things about this passage that I find relevant: 1. some have interpreted the description of the sailors’ bodies rotting on the sirens’ island as suggesting that the sirens are cannibals (if you can describe a monster as being a “cannibal”) but 2. this idea that if you hear the sirens’ song, you’ll never go home again.

Obviously, we have the cannibal component happening in this show, but more subtly, there is also this issue of people who are under the control of this pill being incapable of going home again. Time and time again, Harry has had opportunity to take his family and return home to New York City, return to normalcy, return to NOT EATING PEOPLE, and time and time again he falls under the pill’s siren song.

Finally, I go back to this notion of muses vs. sirens and will note that some Classicists have compared the sirens to the muses of the lower world. From Wikipedia:

Classical scholar Walter Copland Perry (1814–1911) observed: “Their song, though irresistibly sweet, was no less sad than sweet, and lapped both body and soul in a fatal lethargy, the forerunner of death and corruption.” The term “siren song” refers to an appeal that is hard to resist but that, if heeded, will lead to a bad conclusion.

The show has repeatedly made reference to “the muses,” down to naming the only open restaurant in town “The Muse.” But what if this is all wrong: what if the thing that is inspiring those who take this drug is not the power of the Godly muses, but of the monstrous sirens? What if, in a way, the abusers are becoming sirens themselves, in the sense that their art is entrancing to those who are exposed to it; but also that like the hideous creatures that Odysseus’s sailors see on that island, the untalented who take the pill reveal the truth of who they actually are: monsters who feast on the flesh of their fellow humans. 

American Horror Story airs on FX on Wednesdays at 9/10 p.m.


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