This season of American Horror Story opened with the most shocking premiere ever: nary a dead body, faceless ghost, or blood spill in sight.
Seriously — there wasn’t even a shot of fetish gear or a serial killer that resembles a real-life serial killer a little too closely. In fact, most of the terror was all in the main heroine’s head (or was it?), making for perhaps the most restrained premiere episode of American Horror Story yet. A few creepy motifs, like a dead baby bird on the side of the street and a spider in the main character’s hair, and one pretty harrowing anesthesia-induced nightmare sequence did cement that this is, in fact, a horror show. But for the most part there were no severed limbs splattered across the halls of the lead’s sleek Brooklyn Heights apartment. Showrunner Halley Feiffer and director Jessica Yu spun up a first episode like nothing else in AHS history.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for the premiere of American Horror Story: Delicate.]
Delicate focuses on Anna Victoria Alcott (Emma Roberts), an actress who’s recently catapulted to the spotlight after the surprise success of a horror movie. In the midst of adjusting to her newfound popularity, she’s also been desperately trying to conceive and is in her third round of in vitro fertilization. But when she heads to her latest appointment, she can’t help but shake the feeling that someone is following her. That dread only grows as she keeps experiencing lapses in memory, all while items around her house keep being moved and the appointments on her digital calendar keep being adjusted without her knowledge.
The episode grounds the horror in how often Anna’s concerns are dismissed and her own desires pushed aside. Anna feels that something is off, but everyone in her life — from her husband Dex (Matt Czuchry) to her publicist and best friend Siobhan (Kim Kardashian) — tell her that she’s just a little hormonal and overwhelmed. Additionally, her decisions to sometimes prioritize her career (she’s on track to be nominated for an Oscar!) over this possible pregnancy earn her many judgmental comments from her male doctors. It all speaks to the stress many women feel about choosing between family and career, but taken to the most extreme. And that’s without adding in the strange black-clad figures that may or may not be following Anna, and the dead baby bird she keeps fixating on.
Feiffer and Yu create an atmospheric sense of dread that has little to do with jump scares or new monsters. Instead, it’s done via the overly austere minimalist sets that heighten the hostility, and with the trippy mirror shots that warp reality. She’s doing her best just to stay afloat, but everything she does is undermined and questioned. It’s clear that the world around her — the people and the places — are out of reach and only exacerbating her feelings of detachment. AHS settings typically heighten the horror (to the point where many of the seasons’ subtitles are literally the location of choice), but in this case it’s not about how inherently scary the setting is, but about making the everyday incredibly dissociative and eerie.
By keeping the horror firmly planted in Anna’s mind, this season seems like it might actually tip into firm psychological terror, instead of the often overly schlocky shocks of AHS’ past. Even last season, the comparably restrained AHS: NYC, which dove into the more human horror of being a queer person in the midst of the AIDS crisis, had its fair share of gory serial killer lairs, dubiously consensual BDSM scenes, and severed body parts. Whether or not this psychological dread will continue effectively has yet to be seen, especially given the show’s track record of introducing a cool concept and then immediately fumbling it. But it is the second AHS season in a row to take a more subdued and human-focused route, and perhaps indicative of a greater rebirth for the show and its rightfully abysmal reputation. And with a fresh new showrunner in charge, perhaps, just maybe, AHS can finally be steered in a new direction. I’m hopeful, even though that may very well end up getting me stabbed repeatedly in the back to die a very gory death.
New episodes of American Horror Story: Delicate premiere on FX on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EDT, and stream on Hulu the next day.