Things take a turn for the worst in this episode of American Horror Story. After taking the little black pill at the end of the last episode—or “The Muse” as it is later dubbed—it didn’t take long for Harry (Finn Wittrock, Ratched) to be fully consumed by the effects of the pill and all the side effects tied with it, and—to tie in with the drug addiction parallel—it didn’t take long for the drug to drive a wedge between Harry and his family. But even with the pill and its strange side effects, things turn far more sinister when Harry discovers that, once he’s taken the pill, he can never stop.
While tense scenes that are meant to show how all consuming and destructive the effects of drugs are, Harry’s writing scenes were far more amusing than they were meant to. The man starts to tear up as he mutters how good his writing is, it’s ridiculous, but wasn’t meant to be.
In general, all the scenes where Harry’s writing is praised by either himself or others were rather uncomfortable. While their reaction to Joaquin Phoenix signing onto the project and loving it enough to do it for free was endearing—“I would never do that, but it’s so nice that he offered!”—the entire situation was ridiculous and far fetched, but it wasn’t fully clear whether that was the intention or not, especially with the more serious tone of the rest of the episode; the scene where the flesh phantoms surround Harry could have been funny, but due to the execution it was clear it was meant to be more foreboding and intriguing, which was the case, so this Netflix green light scene was an outlier.
If the discomfort were to be diagnosed, it would probably be due to the fact that this is a TV show and the writers are the ones talking about how Harry’s work—aka. their work—is transcendent and so good that Joaquin Phoenix would shoot it for free, and the entire episode there was a lingering fear of someone reading Harry’s work out loud; there will never be a piece of work that everyone will perceive as brilliant, and the threat of having to hear what the writers think is the greatest work imaginable really takes attention away from the episode itself.
After all, when Tony award winning playwright Austin Summers (Evan Peters, Mare of Easttown) freaks out because he came up with the line “a hole in your soul,” there is room for concern.
The most interesting aspect of Harry’s growing vampirism was the way the rest of the town reacted. Mikey (John Lacy, Just Mercy) wasn’t the least bit surprised about Harry’s cravings and deduced for himself that Harry’s writing was probably going well. This begs the question of just how aware are the people in town and what the dynamic is between the human residents and the vampiric residents, as well as how many vampires are there. This does help clear up why the flesh phantoms wander around in broad daylight without being bothered and gives another meaning to Chief Burleson’s (Adina Porter, The 100) dismissal of the attack on Doris (Lily Rabe, The First Lady) and Alma (Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Anne with an E; she had been acting strange when they tried to push her on the situation, but until this scene, her apathy could have been attributed to typical police work as her demeanor is not unlike those of many officers in various true crime cases, and considering the insinuation of the town having an understanding between themselves and the vampires, there could be an angle of police corruption and enabling to go with the drug abuse narrative.
As for Harry’s interactions with the other vampires, these interactions built off of the hints and foreshadowing of the previous episode, Austin and Belle (Frances Conroy, Joker) teaching their problem-free philosophy to Harry like they’re a depraved Timon and Pumba. Their warped rationalization based off elitism, conditional respect for human life, and a perverted sense of self-importance—which seems to be a side effect of the pill—is delivered through various lamentations about how the pill only works if the user has talent, the use of the term ‘talent’ seemingly synonymous with “worth as a person,” and how the people they go after are just wastes of space and resources and the only productive thing they will ever do for society is dying so their blood can be drunk by people like them, as if a person’s right to live is measured by what they can do for others rather than for merely existing.
A flaw in the already inherently flawed mindset Belle and Austin try to indoctrinate Harry into is illustrated through the scenes with TB Karen (Sarah Paulson) and Mickey (Macaulay Culkin, Home Alone) where it’s revealed that the two of them are actually incredibly talented in certain art fields the same way that Austin and Belle are, TB Karen being a painter and Mickey being a screenwriter. Belle and Austin look on Craigslist to make snap judgements on whether people who have committed crimes or are addicted to drugs deserve to live, but this scene reminds the audience that a person’s situation is not indicative of who they are; people are born into poverty and addiction is an illness not a moral failing, and TB Karen and Mickey have the talent to create inspiring content for the rest of the world, but they don’t have the same circumstances and resources that Belle, Austin, and Harry do.
What’s even more ironic is that, in the previous episode, Austin makes a Les Misérables reference when TB Karen tries to take the scraps of food from the bar, Les Misérables being a story about a man being more than the justifiable crime he committed and more of a good person than the police inspector who sees him as scum of the earth and looks down upon the people whom he was born with because he was able to get out of his situation even though, for most, it’s near impossible no matter how hard they try.
The vampiric motifs and genre references within the episode were an interesting touch. Beyond the flesh phantoms walking around in the daytime due to the constant overcast sky in Cape Cod, Belle tells Harry that they only take the pills in the winter and rest during the summer, which is a reference to the vampires can’t go out into the sun. While they didn’t quite ask to be let in, they did wait until the man let them into their home before they stepped in and attacked him, which is a nod to vampires needing to be invited in.
There are also running visual motifs not necessarily specific to vampirism, as this episode also has scenes of the fox in the dunes and scenes of people struggling or working amidst tense violin music.
Speaking of violin music, Alma and Doris’ plot line this episode was particularly interesting. Alma herself proved to be as interesting and volatile of a character as she was set up to be in the previous episode, her ambition already edging the line of destructive without the added fixation on taking whatever Harry had in order to perfect her violin music.
While an extreme depiction, Alma does represent youth in general when it comes to drug use. The reason children are exposed to substances and begin to abuse them range from situation to situation, and Alma is interesting as her parents are not pressuring her in any way to perfect her violin skills any more than she is already trying, nor is she in a situation where her parents are negligent or abuse substances themselves—at least, not at first. But it’s when Harry takes the pills that he inadvertently exposes Alma to them and introduces her to the very real mindset that the risks are worth the rewards when it comes to using drugs. As she mentioned, kids at her school take Adderall to focus, and while that is true for students who have prescriptions, she seems to be referencing those who aren’t prescribed the medication and instead procure them through other, illegal means.
Not only is this statement completely contradictory to Doris’ statement in the premiere of how Alma is homeschooled—did she mean that just for the three months or in general?—it also refers to child substance abuse and how the opioid epidemic doesn’t only affect adults, but there is an almost higher risk for youth, for a variety of reasons.
For Alma, all it took was for the idea to be planted in her mind before she snuck a pill. It wasn’t clear exactly why she blacked out, as it’s clear she isn’t turning into a flesh phantom, so it could be that the pill will have different effects due to her age and body’s maturity level. Either way, her symptoms were exactly that of Harry’s but far more rapid and elevated, her inflated self-importance and ego, inability to empathize with her mother—which is mirrored by Harry when he and Doris get into an argument about Alma’s disappearance and he demands to know why she won’t support him even though she’s proven herself to be the most supportive wife and mother in the entire world—and a thirst for blood.
While it’s clear that Alma is going to be a driving force for the rest of Red Tide, there’s also the question of Doris and TB Karen. They both seem to be similar in that the narrative doesn’t seem to set them up as ones who will succumb to the allure of the pill, instead on the sidelines of the people in their lives who have taken it as they try to keep them human. That being said, Karen has been established to have more resolve than anyone else in the show, able to say no despite everything even when Mickey takes it and tries to persuade her into doing the same. Throughout this episode, Doris has been forced to examine herself and whether she actually has an innate talent towards her interior decorating, and there was a scene where she drinks water, possibly foreshadowing a time where she will take the pill and, possibly, face the opposite fate of her husband and daughter.
With the episode ending on Harry murdering a male sex worker, it will be interesting to see how things evolve over the next few episodes before the finale of Red Tide and just how this narrative will end.