In the second half of its ‘Double Feature’ American Horror Story sheds the cold New England winter of ‘Red Tide’ to make way for the burning California summer of ‘Death Valley.’
Props have to be given right off the bat in the execution of this episode. After six episodes, the audience has gotten used to a particular visual tone and style of the season which attempted to embody the narrative tone of the story—whether it succeeded is irrelevant. This episode was able to establish itself as something entirely separate to the previous half of the season, and despite the two different timelines that required different stylistic approaches, they still managed to make them both feel as though they’re part of the same narrative, and both completely detached in any way from ‘Red Tide.’
Both parts of the episode took some time to establish themselves and settle in, but once they did the story was able to really take off, and it seemed as though they intentionally gave a few minutes of introduction before diving into the aliens.
The beginning of the episode was interesting with the alien mind control angle, and it set up the tone for the 50’s part of the episode well.
The 50’s plot line was very compelling, and while the inclusion real people wasn’t at all unusual for any TV show, especially American Horror Story, as the previous six episodes of this current season can attest to their willingness to include real people within their narratives—the jury’s still out on the legality of implying Quentin Tarantino has to murder people and drink their blood in order to create his work. The inclusion of Amelia Earhart (Lily Rabe, Tell Me Your Secrets) isn’t a surprise, as she’s often related to aliens and other extraterrestrial stories, but it was interesting to hear that she was pregnant with an alien baby.
Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower (Neal McDonough, The Flash) was an interesting protagonist that became more sympathetic as time went on, and it would be great to see his wife, Mamie (Sarah Paulson, Ratched) involved with his decisions relating to the aliens, as he wasn’t shown to die at the hands of the possessed housewife.
The highlight of the 50’s section of the episode, however, was the physical alien creature itself. In contrast with the first half of the ‘Double Feature,’ which incorporated vampirism as a side effect of a drug with a half-baked attempt at drug addiction parallels, the B-side seems to lean into the original B-movie creature feature depiction of aliens with their big heads and eyes. Without any intentional campiness to the tone, as well as the level of visual effects, equipment, and acting talent they have at their disposal, the use of the prototypical alien was a nice touch, not just as an homage, but as a way to establish the visual style beyond just black-and-white 50’s energy, which was also done by the design of the spaceship specifically looking like a flying saucer.
In other homages, the reference to Alien in the scene where the doctors were dissecting the alien was actually very fun, not only because of the tongue-in-cheek reference, but also in that the visuals of whatever jumped out at them also seemed rather low budget, just like its host body. The intentional use of lower quality visual effects added to the overall experience in a generally positive way.
Another rather fun moment of that particular scene was when heavy emphasis was placed upon the film camera that was documenting the entire dissection process, only for Ike to position in front of the lens and stand there for the duration of the scene. It was most likely unintentional, but if that film reel is ever recovered in the modern day timeline, it would be hilarious to not see anything but the back of President Eisenhower as two doctors have an Alien-esque experience with a combustive pancake blob from space.
Of course, the second half of the episode jumped forward into modern day—a surprise, since many of the promotional material only showcased the 50’s timeline—which was where more scrutiny had to be placed, though it was only in the most minute of details. In general, the first half was able to get away with more suspension of disbelief as it was set in the past and around the secret going-ons of the government, but the second half doesn’t have the luxury of such face value acceptance.
The introduction of the four characters was actually rather entertaining, they seemed to be caricatures of wildly successful yet self-absorbed college students, especially Cal (Nico Greetham, The Prom) and his study abroad trips, and Kendall (Kaia Gerber, American Horror Stories) with her doting med student daughter characterization.
Despite first impressions, this group of friends wasn’t as obnoxious and easily hatable as many other college friend groups are usually depicted in media. That being said, they still fell victim to horror movie-esque bad decisions, though there may be a hidden reason to that, though it’s doubtful it’ll actually come to fruition.
It was a genuine surprise when they seemed to be given genuine dimension and character, as it wouldn’t have been out of character for American Horror Story to do so, but it was a positive one that introduced potential subplots for the rest of the season.
During their dinner, two major points were made. The first was by Jamie (Rachel Hilson, Love, Victor), who talked about the acidic semen of a guy she was seeing, which begs the question: is she an alien or was he? The end of the episode may have given that answer, as she also fell pregnant along with her friends, and it stands to reason that the aliens wouldn’t impregnate one of their own, but there is no guarantee that she isn’t a descendant of an alien-human hybrid from the 50’s. If she isn’t, then perhaps her ex-lover was an alien—he didn’t have a condom, perhaps due to his alien race’s need to procreate with humans?—and his semen was actually acidic in some way that wasn’t just due to a medical condition of Jamie’s. Only time will tell; or, perhaps, never will.
The second major point, and a crucial catalyst for this section’s narrative, was Kendall’s indoctrination to a cult. With the charismatic leader who preys upon the vulnerable—and there aren’t many other groups as vulnerable to manipulation as college students—and the devoted disciple who tries to convert her friends and wears flowy white dresses straight out of Midsommar, it wasn’t at all a surprise when he was shown at the end of the episode to be as sleazy as he was set up to be—what kind of a person guilt trips someone who wants to look up resources and answers to a traumatic event she experienced? A cult leader, that’s who—nor was it a surprise when his dogma influenced one of the protagonists enough to get four intelligent college students to make one of the most impractical and reckless decisions they could have ever made.
They should have never left their phones.
That was truly the most unrealistic part of the episode, as was Kendall as a person. Not because she fell victim to a charismatic cult leader, that’s understandable, especially considering her age and how easily college students can be persuaded, but the impracticality of her technology ban makes it near impossible to believe, though it does solidify the level of brainwashing she had to endure in order to counteract all the innate self-preservation instincts and common sense she has within her as a young woman in the United States; the amount of women who walk on college campuses with their phones ready to dial 911 outnumbers the amount of anti-technology arguments that could be made. If anything, it seemed she lost all brain cells when she gave up technology, so she can’t say anything about phones rotting her friends’ brains.
While that was ridiculous and irritating—though the more unrealistic part was that all her friends actually managed to leave their phones at home when they were heading off to Joshua Tree where any of them could easily fall victim to heat stroke or worse—it was her actions on the trip that really solidified that she wasn’t just brainwashed, she just didn’t know what she was doing to begin with.
As Cal had pointed out, technological advances are crucial to the medical field, which makes it strange that she would completely buy into the pseudo-Luddite mindset that her cult leader professor fed her because of all the arguments that could be raised in her other classes. But while she said words that would imply she was a med student, she certainly didn’t know how to act like it. Approaching mutilated cow carcasses and touching them with her bare hands is already against common sense, but as a med student she would be even more aware of the dangers of doing that, yet she did it anyways. Also, grabbing a person’s arm for a second is not enough time to accurately tell that their pulse is racing, so her evaluation of Jamie after their alien attack was enough to break the tension in favor of exasperation.
Overall, all the decisions made in the episode were logical and played into the futility of certain situations in which people can prepare as much as they want, but sometimes aliens will still fall from the sky and kill the doctors on staff in an underground government bunker, or steal people from their cars to impregnate them despite their best efforts to get away, but leaving their phones was the one decision that made no sense. Considering that the aliens could disrupt phone signals, it wouldn’t have made any real difference if they’d had them; if anything, it would have added to the horror, but instead the audience was left to scream in frustration.
However, that could have been the point. An homage to the ridiculous decisions of characters in horror movies past, another way to incorporate the B-movie into the episode, especially when in the second half where the black-and-white couldn’t do half the work already. It wouldn’t be a shock if that were the case, as the visual effects of the tentacles that reached into their car to kidnap them were very unrealistic, especially when compared to the current VFX quality at their disposal, especially for a show as successful as this one, and just like with the low quality in the 50’s timeline, it added a unique twist that was great to see on screen.
Hopefully, all of this was intentional, but only time will tell as the episodes go on and there are more effects to be seen; fingers crossed to remain optimistic.
Overall, this episode was entertaining and a solid start to the second half of the ‘Double Feature,’ and with Dwight Eisenhower at them mercy of a 50’s housewife possessed by an alien, and five characters—one being Amelia Earhart—all pregnant with alien babies, it will be interesting to see how things play out.