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American Horror Story: Delicate Can't Step Out of Ryan Murphy's Shadow

An unplanned mid-season finale sees a show struggling to be more than just the same old AHS.
  • Emma Roberts on American Horror Story: Delicate (photo: Eric Liebowitz, FX)
    Emma Roberts on American Horror Story: Delicate (photo: Eric Liebowitz, FX)

    American Horror Story: Delicate's strike-necessitated rollout isn't doing first-time showrunner Halley Feiffer any favors. With the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes (eventually) shutting down production of the latest AHS iteration, Wednesday night's episode, "Preech," served as an unplanned mid-season finale. The fifth episode in a ten-episode season doesn't usually provide the kind of cliffhanger that's preferred for a mid-season finale, particularly if we don't know when we're going to get the rest of an unproduced season.

    It's only the latest challenge that Feiffer has had to face in her position as the first individual to write an entire season of American Horror Story, which in turn is the first AHS season to be based on preexisting source material. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk remain as producers, but there was a reason they handed the reins over to Feiffer. The best-case scenario for Delicate was a season with a fresh voice and approach, one that would shake the show out of whatever tendencies and ruts it had found itself in after 11 seasons on TV. But through five episodes and faced with a (however unplanned) mid-season reflection point, American Horror Story is the same as it ever was, and you've got to wonder how much of a stamp Feiffer can hope to put on this show given the constraints she's under.

    While not exactly an inflection-point episode, "Preech" does advance quite a bit of the show's shadowy mystery plot, which by this point seems to involve a Satanic cult of witches, possibly headed by Siobahn (Kim Kardashian), certainly involving Ashley and Ashleigh (Billie Lourd and Leslie Grossman), who do seem to be immortal, at least as far back as the Elizabethan era, all involved in the business of procuring infants for… someone. We get a lot of this information via a hushed conversation between Io Preecher (Julie White), the mystery woman who's been skulking around Anna (Emma Roberts) all season, and Virginia (Debra Monk), Anna's disapproving mother-in-law, who showed up last week and announced to her son, Dex (Matt Czuchry), that she's suing her ex-husband for Satanic ritual abuse. Honestly, you could do a whole lot worse than Julie White downloading your show's conspiratorial macabre mythology, just like you could do a lot worse than Denis O'Hare as Anna's unsympathetic doctor coming up with deflecting explanations for her physical symptoms like "rib flare" and "round ligament pain."

    In other words, there are some fun things happening at the periphery of Delicate (including an insane visual gag involving Ava DuVernay's special-edition Ben & Jerry's flavor), but at its core, this remains very much just another American Horror Story season, and it's beginning to seem like there's just no getting away from that. That's not necessarily a bad thing, that a show can retain its identity through changes in writers, showrunners, and source material. Love him or hate him, Ryan Murphy is one of TV's great auteurs because of how diligently he's built all his TV shows under his very identifiable umbrella.

    In other words, a Ryan Murphy show is always going to be a Ryan Murphy show. On Delicate, that means a mix of pop culture influences (we can't get into all the ways Delicate plays in the sandbox of movie awards season, or we'd be here all day), pop history, starstruck casting, and wearing its influences on its sleeve. It's tough to tell where, if anywhere, Feiffer is making her voice heard as distinct from Murphy's. Some themes have emerged more strongly than others. There's been a strong streak of "believe women" running unsubtly through this season, especially now that Anna's gaslighting has been joined by Virginia's claims of Satanic abuse. There's been an even more intriguing theme of women doing harm to other women this season, the latest being Tavi Gevinson's masseuse character, Cora, violating Anna. This comes after Cara Delevingne as the sinister nurse who may or may not have caused Anna's miscarriage, Nicolette (Michaela Jae Rodriguez) skulking around Anna's home, Sonia (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) haunting Anna as the doppelganger of Dex's dead wife, and that's not even getting into the sinister nature of whatever Siobahn and the Ashle(igh)ys are up to.

    And yet whatever Feiffer's POV is, she's fighting through layers of adaptation (Danielle Valentine's novel Delicate Condition, upon which this season is based), inspiration (Rosemary's Baby, which is such a heavy influence on both the novel and the show that it seems at times like this might be setting up a reveal as an unofficial sequel), and the Ryan Murphy house style that has seeped into the very scenery that the cast has been directed to chew. Every dingy basement with whispered voices, portentous headline about a coven of witches running Hollywood, and character actress dressed like an art exhibition calls back to a previous AHS season.

    Murphy's heavy casting hand is also doing this show no favors. Emma Roberts has been an inspired performer in the past on AHS, but she's been consistently flat all season. And Murphy's insatiable draw towards Kim Kardashian has placed an amateur in perhaps the most pivotal role of the season. For as solid as the likes of O'Hare, White, Monk, Grossman, and Lourd have been on the periphery, there is a dead zone at the center of this season occupied by Roberts, Czuchry, and Kardashian, and it's sinking the season so far.

    Whenever the show does return to FX to complete this season, there will surely be twists and turns ahead. If you're the gambling sort, I might place a heavy bet on Dex being some kind of Satan-spawn — perhaps Rosemary's baby himself — but that's pure speculation. Wherever the plot goes, there are only a scant few episodes left for Delicate and its showrunner to step out of Ryan Murphy's considerable shadow and make their own mark on the franchise.

    New episodes of American Horror Story: Delicate air Wednesdays at 10:00 PM ET on FX, and stream next-day on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: American Horror Story: Delicate, Billie Lourd, Debra Monk, Denis O'Hare, Emma Roberts, Halley Feiffer, Julie White, Kim Kardashian, Leslie Grossman, Matt Czuchry, Ryan Murphy