Anna’s lot in life takes an optimistic turn when it comes to fame and family as a sinister force asserts control and ‘AHS: Delicate’ teases its grander plans.
“Is it a boy, Mary?”
“It is a monster.”
Pregnancy horror stories can go down many different directions, whether they’re tales where disturbed individuals attempt to steal a healthy infant, evil offspring scenarios, or any variety of films where a dark pact is made with the Devil or some kind of malevolent magic. American Horror Story: Delicate has kept its audience guessing when it comes to its newborn neuroses, but “Vanishing Twin” pulls back the veil a little when it comes to the dark fate that’s befallen Anna. Answers are appreciated when it comes to any of this seasons’ broader mysteries, but AHS: Delicate’s fable-like explanation feels strangely out of place. It amounts to another installment that’s full of promise, but plagued with bland shortcomings. American Horror Story: Delicate rushes closer to its inevitable birth and “Vanishing Twin” telegraphs a precarious trajectory for the season’s second-half.
AHS: Delicate boldly begins in 1500s England during a fruitful flashback that painfully examines a generational pact across legacies that turns pregnancy into both a source of freedom and a prison. It’s a concept that Anna faces centuries later, albeit in more modern terms. “Vanishing Twin” treats this like a very fairy tale origin for this horror story. It may be effective in some respects, but there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done better through Murder House’s pregnancy dread or Roanoke and Coven’s cursed magical theatrics. A tone-setting vignette of this nature might have actually been a more effective way to start the season–or at least the second episode–rather than a piece of the puzzle that arrives at the half-way point that now feels extraneous. This would help the prologue play more naturally than the heavy-handed manner in which this pregnancy demon pact gets introduced in “Vanishing Twin.”
In not so subtle terms, AHS: Delicate connects the dots between its 16th century prologue and its 21st century clout-chasing. Hamish Moss (Dominic Burgess) seems to have engaged in the same witch curse to turn his movie, The Auteur, into a critical darling. This evil ultimatum is also likely the key to Anna’s recent success through Sibohan’s controversial tactics. None of this is terribly fresh ground, but American Horror Story at least shows its hand for the season. There’s also an easy joke to be made here regarding how Ryan Murphy himself likely entered some Satanic success pact, or at the least has been knocking back the black talent pills from American Horror Story: Red Tide.
“Vanishing Twin” operates like the inverse of past entries. Anna’s inner circle starts listening to her, but she also turns out to be pregnant after all due to a case of “vanishing twin syndrome.” However, the episode still gets lost in played out pregnancy horror set pieces that feel like watered down versions of Rosemary’s Baby and The Witch. Any of the domestic scenes in AHS: Delicate between Anna and Dex become weak links and it’s unfortunate that these two feel so stilted together. There’s such a lack of chemistry between Emma Roberts and Matt Czuchry that’s starting to drag down their scenes together. Maybe the tension between these two is part of this story’s point, but it makes for awkward television.
The Alcott/Harding family face further woes as Virginia (Debra Monk), Dex’s mom, gets in his head and becomes a wedge between him and Anna. Virginia shows zero sympathy for Anna despite the rough lot that she’s faced on all fronts. Her talk about society’s changing views towards pregnancy and motherhood makes for a refreshing reflection until her preaching reaches problematic territory. Nicolette (MJ Rodriguez) is an even more on-the-nose individual who briefly shows up to reinforce to Anna that there’s a sisterhood of women that come together during pregnancies. However, what Nicolette doesn’t talk about is the malevolent, codependent qualities that can also be born out of this cult-like state of mind.
It’s unfortunate that “Vanishing Twin” is such a muddy episode because there’s some material in it that really works. Anna gets a dark preview of the difficult future that may be ahead for her as the parent of a demon baby after she takes in a maybe-dead animal and feels the natural compulsion to nurse this creature back to health. Some of “Vanishing Twin’s” strongest sequences come out of Anna’s uncomfortable attempts to turn roadkill into a progeny…and then dinner. It’s extremely disturbing, both physically and psychologically, in a way that American Horror Story hasn’t been for seasons. It’s genuinely troubling and elegantly captured on the screen in a manner that dresses up this toxic, rancid act to look beautiful, just like Anna’s own confused actions.
For everything that works in “Vanishing Twin,” this episode also introduces Billie Lourd and Leslie Grossman’s characters, a pair of Ashleys that run a PR team together in what’s literally the “PubLIZity” sketch from Kroll Show. What are we doing here, American Horror Story? Is this what now qualifies for camp? This culminates in an absurd PR stunt that’s the most entertaining Roberts has been all season. Inexplicably, this braggadocious video resuscitates Anna’s career, which is the kind of thing that’s possible when Satan is running your press. These Satanic arrangements are treated like recent developments, but Anna’s been afflicted by supernatural phenomena all season. It seems like American Horror Story: Delicate is just playing it fast and loose with its creepy imagery while it coasts on vibes rather than narrative logic. “You don’t need to know…yet,” is given as cryptic, comforting advice in “Vanishing Twin,” but it also reads like the meandering season’s subtext.
“Vanishing Twin” takes some big steps forward, but at the end of the day it’s still just another version of a story where the struggles of fame, independence, and professional success are put in competition with those of parenthood. Next week’s “Part One” finale looks like it will head even further in the Oscar vs. Offspring debate, all of which feels a little defanged after arriving so soon after the comparable subject matter explored in the “Red Tide” section of American Horror Story: Double Feature. “Vanishing Twin” ends on a shocking, unsettling note and AHS: Delicate is likely to deliver even more of this in its mid-season finale. It just doesn’t feel impactful enough; and what could have been a promising opportunity to truly subvert a growing horror trope has instead resulted in a slow, predictable season that’s grown increasingly tired.
It may be too late for American Horror Story: Delicate to transform this shit sandwich into a Fabergé egg, but maybe something fancy with gaudy gems on it is still possible.