‘American Horror Story: Double Feature’ Gives Us the Glorious Gift of Sarah Paulson’s ‘Tuberculosis Karen’
Just when it seemed all of the pleasures of the Before Times were lost, American Horror Story gave us an overstuffed premiere for the ages—and wasted no time in giving Sarah Paulson her latest nickname. Hypodermic Sally, who? This year’s haunted half-dead with a heart of gold heroine is called “Tuberculosis Karen.”
The theme of the season is Double Feature, and on Wednesday night we got a two-part taste of Part One: Red Tide. (I know, it’s confusing.) It goes down salty at first, and ends on heavy notes of iron.
We open on a family driving into Provincetown, Massachusetts, and doing their best to ignore the alarming volume of savaged roadkill along the way—including a massacred deer. Finn Wittrock kicks the Jack Nicholson impression he honed during Ratched into overdrive as this season’s struggling screenwriter-patriarch Harry, whose wife Doris won an Instagram design contest to stay in a creaky old house for a couple free months in exchange for a free home makeover. (It had over 100 applicants!)
The Jack Torrance vibes jump out almost immediately once the couple and their unnervingly ambitious daughter cross the threshold.
Harry is suffering from a severe case of writer’s block and hopes the chilly sea air will renew his inspiration. His pint-sized daughter, Alma, spends most of her time practicing violin—and asking her mother to let her take Adderall so that she can practice even more.
But no time to unpack little Alma’s worrisome Adderall cravings; she and Doris are far more worried about the pale, Uncle Fester-meets-Nosferatu-like creature that chased them all the way home from a graveyard. The local police chief (Adina Porter) is convinced the I Am Legend lookalike was simply a drug user and sends Harry and Doris on their way. But the two disemboweled bodies Harry finds on the beach are not exactly encouraging.
To make matters worse, evidently word got out about the new neighbors in town. Alma grows frantic when she spots three of the pointy-toothed ghouls outside her window. There’s also an ambient ghost story about some family of five that were all killed in their beds, but I’m sure that’s nothing to worry about.
The AHS universe thrives on interconnection and self-allusion, and this season continues that tradition proudly with the usual blend of parallels and fan service.
Speaking of which—did I mention that this episode also gave us Evan Peters and Frances Conroy singing “Islands in the Stream” at bar karaoke? As two pretentious-writer types, one of whom (Conroy) goes by the nom de plume Belle Noir? Macaulay Culkin joins this season as Mickey, a sex worker who makes a solid pass at Harry during the stymied scribe’s Shining-esque visit to a local bar before making his way back home, where he’s allowed his best friend Tuberculosis Karen to take refuge.
But back to those two ostentatious writers. Frances Conroy’s romance novelist is something between Magenta from Rocky Horror and Bridezilla with all the dazzling finery of a Drag Race contestant. Peters, meanwhile, might as well have stepped straight out of Queen of the Damned.
That’s a fitting point of reference—because as it turns out, the opioid problem the police chief mentioned has provided cover for a couple of vampires to hide in plain sight, munching on those society doesn’t really value. (Translation: sex workers and people with substance-use disorders.) Harry doesn’t know that when Austin offers him the black pill that will become his Faustian bargain (he doesn’t know much of anything). But desperate to finally write a hit TV pilot, he takes it anyway.
That’s when the Jack Torrance cosplay launches into overdrive. Harry types furiously at his laptop, crying at his own work as his daughter looks on with increased curiosity as to what, precisely, has provided her father such focus and drive. (Yes, she’s doomed.)
As always, the reference points are already abundant. In addition to The Shining, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! appears to be a cardinal inspiration here, at least in aesthetic. Lily Rabe, pregnant and swathed in muted cozy cardigans with long, flowing blonde hair, is a perfect echo of Jennifer Lawrence. Rabe, however, has more space to embrace her character’s rage at her husband’s masturbatory relationship to his work—and to play up the comedy in her own character when, for instance, she complains that she had to quit her last job because her clients “didn’t understand minimalism at all.”
Gore, a musical setpiece, Billie Lourd as a goth dentist, a little stunt casting, and Leslie Grossman as a pushy, unfeeling Hollywood agent? Sounds like all the ingredients for an AHS hit.
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