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Thursday, September 28, 2023

“AHS: Delicate” Review – Episode 2 Strengthens Its Treatment and Increases Its Scare Dosage

‘AHS: Delicate’ tells a terrifying tale of doubt and distortions as Anna’s IVF treatment takes several turns for the worse.

“Would I ever do anything to hurt you?”

American Horror Story, as a postmodern horror anthology show, is reflexive and self-aware by design. It’s all about holding a mirror up to not only society, but also the horror staples that audiences have taken for granted. American Horror Story has always had a lot to say on the public versus the private and the compelling dissonance between the two. AHS: Delicate, which is explicitly set in the artificial world of the film and entertainment industry, is especially interested in this territory as an actress struggles to prepare for her biggest role yet–being a mother. “Rockabye,” which successfully evolves the season premiere’s themes, digs even deeper into how identities can blur together as the public erases the private. 

“Rockabye” is an American Horror Story episode that’s obsessed with awards recognition, social media clout, and how a stalker is the ultimate form of celebrity status. AHS: Delicate examines the toxic feedback loop that’s produced through social media–or a gaslighting cult–that’s even easier to believe when someone gets lost in their head. “Rockabye” argues that it doesn’t make a difference if this paranoia is because of a vicious algorithm or because an actual conspiracy is afoot. Just give in and give birth to a spider baby.

Halley Feiffer is quickly proving that she knows how to properly develop a story and “Rockabye” is an even stronger follow-up to last week’s season premiere. AHS: Delicate features some genuinely unnerving visuals in “Rockabye,” but it’s also far sillier than the previous episode. “Rockabye” proudly operates as a big satire of Hollywood’s glitz and glamor while it simultaneously fetishizes and mocks the same material. The audience gets a bit of a deeper look into Anna’s career, which exists in a world where The Auteur and Daddy, Do You Love Me? are the year’s top cinematic triumphs. There’s an abhorrent encounter between Anna and a fan that “Rockabye” plays like a monster attack. It’s almost a full minute before AHS: Delicate even lets this overzealous fan fully come into focus, as if they’re too ghoulish to be seen unaltered. It’s a blunt segment that lacks any nuance, but feels intentionally so in its presentation of Hollywood’s artifice where the public is at war with the private until it’s impossible to tell which is which anymore. Lipstick-covered hands look a lot like blood, after all. 

Now that the audience and Anna know that somebody is after her, American Horror Story: Delicate has fun with the revolving door of suspects that might be preying upon this hopeful mother. AHS: Delicate continues to dangle Dex around like a plausible suspect and he certainly seems complicit in something sinister, even if it’s just passive listening. Siobhan’s B12 shots also look like pretty obvious red flags even if Mrs. Preacher, the anti-IVF social justice warrior, is Anna’s biggest suspect. The list of possible predators grows nearly twice as long by the end of the episode and since this is American Horror Story it’s likely that they’re all complicit in some fashion.

Anna’s dreams of motherhood begin to accelerate right when her acting aspirations start to finally be taken seriously. Anna the Mother versus Anna the Actress has been a clear theme since the season’s start and it’s hardly a revelatory concept. Nor is Anna’s apparent jealousy over the hot new name in the industry who’s the voice of the next generation and all-too ready to replace her. These overdone ideas are simply stressors that are meant to exacerbate Anna’s “delicate condition.” “Rockabye” presents many of these concerns as Anna’s personalized insecurities, but there’s plenty of broader discussion on the media’s rampant male gaze and the objectification of women, especially on the cusp of big physical changes like pregnancy and motherhood.

It feels very natural when Anna and Dex’s next move is to temporarily leave the city as an escape from the media’s news cycle and public perception. It’s the perfect opportunity to de-stress and detox. The focused pacing of AHS: Delicate means that Anna and Dex don’t even spend an entire episode upstate, but it’s still a helpful exercise early on in this season. The two of them find a fun dynamic as the series strips away the excess and distills this story to its barest bones for a large piece of the episode.

Jennifer Lynch has been one of American Horror Story’s best directors since her debut work in Roanoke, but in “Rockabye” she gets to channel some of the same energy as her 2008 psychological horror film, Surveillance. “Rockabye” allows Lynch to play to her strengths as she repeatedly explores untrustworthy technology and the fluidity of events and records where something like time, that’s supposed to be infallible, becomes unreliable. Even constants that we perpetually trust, like our face, can begin to peel away and reveal itself as a false veneer. “Rockabye” occasionally takes the rhythmic sound of Anna’s sonogram and mimics it in the episode’s musical score so this welcoming sign becomes a dooming tone. 

Perception and paranoia are crucial ingredients in “Rockabye” and some of the episode’s most effective moments are the more muted sequences where Anna loses sight of herself rather than the blatant face stabs or mirror shatters that are also present. Anna’s growing stress rash, Dr. Hill’s shifty behavior when he turns up on the phone, or the fact that entire weeks disappear from Anna’s memory all stand out the most in an episode that’s full of tangible terrors. Less is more in AHS: Delicate and “Rockabye” really sells this. The tiny kicks from a baby can leave an even greater impression than the water breaking.

AHS: Delicate and Jennifer Lynch also show that they have a sense of humor about all of this and that it’s okay to not take every minute of this horror show so seriously. There’s a Cara Delevingne fakeout scare with a baby that actually gave me a good laugh and finds the perfect tone. The season premiere wasn’t lacking in camp, but “Rockabye” is much sillier than the previous episode, whether it’s through these trope subversions or playful dialogue. On that note, Kim Kardashian gets to have a lot more fun in this episode. She does her best Ari Gold impression as she spits out insults about cat’s assholes and blackmail blowjobs. 

There’s also plenty of on-the-nose moments in “Rockabye”, such as when Kardashian’s Siobhan shames Jamie Lee Curtis’ “nepo baby” status. “Rockabye” knows how to transform these scenes at a moment’s notice so that they jump from one extreme to another. Anna’s acceptance speech at the Gotham Awards is a great example of this where her worst fears reach almost comedic complications only for the grotesque blood vomit and Anna’s growing helplessness in the moment to really sell the horror of this sequence. Lynch creates plenty of intense visuals throughout “Rockabye,” but this is an episode of American Horror Story where the hospital and healthcare system are the worst horrors of all. This may seem like a glib generalization, but the scenes where Anna learns that she’s the victim of gross malpractice are delivered with clinical precision that’s worse than any spider monster.

“Rockabye” is a strong second episode in American Horror Story: Delicate that’s bolder and bigger than its predecessor, but still true to the premiere’s foundation. “Rockabye” moves at an impressive pace that gets a lot done narratively while it bombards the audience with disturbing imagery. Emma Roberts continues to be the weakest element to the season, which is unfortunate in a year that’s so heavily focused on her character, but “Rockabye” expands Anna’s range. She’s left in a far more interesting place at the end of “Rockabye” than she is in the season premiere and it will be interesting to see if Anna fights back or surrenders. Anna is at her highest and lowest points over the course of “Rockabye,” but AHS: Delicate seems to only be getting started with her. 

3.5 out of 5

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