“AHS: Delicate” Review – Episode 3 Recycles Old Themes and Shows Signs of Storytelling Fatigue

American Horror Story: Delicate has been off to a strong start with its unique season. After an encouraging pair of introductory episodes, “When the Bough Breaks” proves to be the season’s slowest, most atmospheric, and least substantial entry. American Horror Story at least understands that Jennifer Lynch is the right person to get behind the camera for an episode that’s sparse in dialogue, but dense in cryptic sequences where characters explore caverns and haunted spaces that shouldn’t exist. If nothing else, this energy really keeps the audience on their toes over what’s actually happening and what might just be some figment of Anna’s feverish fugue state. The viewer is just as foggy and disassociated as Anna. Just like how Anna’s face blemish/likely-spider-nest continues to grow, American Horror Story: Delicate further develops its story. Anna’s worsening facial imperfection reflects the slow burn surface level nature of “When the Bough Breaks.” It’s just a bad reaction, fighting to break out from makeup, as it festers over time.

Anna has spent much of American Horror Story: Delicate in doubt and “When the Bough Breaks” is when she finally reclaims her narrative. She’s told early on in this episode that “nobody is comfortable with anything…we’re all just learning on the job.” This turns into a mantra that carries through the episode as Anna searches for an ally. Anna just wants confirmation that she’s not imagining all of this or alone on this journey, which she eventually gets by the episode’s end. The biggest fault of “When the Bough Breaks” is that it positions Dex as Anna’s biggest suspect, which feels like a long overdue and insultingly obvious complication for Anna to reach. In this respect, AHS: Delicate feels like it’s just doing its due diligence as it checks each hypothetical suspect off of Anna’s hit list (enter Pose’s MJ Rodriguez as the “house manager,” who contributes nothing other than functioning as another possible acolyte). Most of Anna’s woes and this episode’s obstacles stem from suspicions over Dex, even if these presumptions are misguided. 

Anna’s fears and accompanying memory loss collide with troubling dreams and hallucinations. Anna’s subconscious and reality get bombarded as she experiences plenty of on-the-nose baby-based nightmares and even more cliché haunting set pieces where witchy figures creepily chant infantile nursery rhymes. It’s all very obvious and only further underlines the first two episodes’ points–which were already well made–instead of presenting its own ideas. American Horror Story has a history for some stunning practical and prosthetic effects work, but “When the Bough Breaks” includes some of the worst CG that’s even been featured in the series. It doesn’t help an episode that’s already largely style over substance. 

Anna’s paranoia is at an all-time high in “When the Bough Breaks,” but she’s also more resolved than ever to get back in the saddle and make sure that she does have this baby. If not for herself, then to spite whatever darker forces are working against her here. Speaking of darker forces, AHS: Delicate plays it fast and loose in this department in a way that requires a lot of suspension of disbelief. I praised the previous entry for its heightened camp, some of which was guilty of the same oversights. However, “When the Bough Breaks” isn’t as nearly as successful. There are random elements like how Siobhan’s caller tone is “Rockabye Baby” that are just creepy touches with baby veneers that are present, but without any real explanation. They’re unearned eerieness. 

The same is true when it comes to the arbitrary doll effigy that Anna finds on the beach. Why is it there? These aren’t questions that American Horror Story: Delicate sincerely wants its audience to ask, but it’s still an empty way to tell this story even if the gimp-core death bunnies are a very American Horror Story-esque sight. They’re clearly designed to be this season’s big Rubber Man sexy/supernatural spectacle. 

All of this feeds into a sense of magical realism that increasingly takes over the episode. It’s most prominent with the Alice in Wonderland-like tiny door shenanigans. This is perhaps the episode’s most effective material and there’s a real sense of awe and wonder to Anna’s strange journey. That being said, it’s still no Channel Zero: Dream Door and far from the best execution of this door-that’s-there-but-shouldn’t-be concept. There’s also a lot of success in Anna’s covert communication through calendar notes. It’s such an effective, unique device that does a lot with a little. Similarly, on several occasions Lynch captures the scene’s tension in the most effective ways possible, like through a car’s sideview mirror. Despite these fun flourishes, there’s not enough to latch onto in “When the Bough Breaks” that hasn’t already been covered.

Magical realism and palpable paranoia aside, the big twist that “When the Bough Breaks” builds towards–while effective–is a foregone conclusion for most horror fans. Anna feels a kick and her non-baby is somehow still on the way. Not only that, but there are even bigger revelations in store regarding Anna’s offspring that the audience should already expect to hear. This wouldn’t be a deal breaker in a standard season of American Horror Story, but with only two more entries in AHS: Delicate’s “Part One,” time shouldn’t be wasted on a reductive tone poem that muddles its point. There’s absolutely no reason why the events of this episode couldn’t have been fit into last week’s installment instead of drawing them out in this manner.

News of a baby–human or otherwise–results in blind optimism that drives Anna through the episode’s final act. Any preexisting distrust and doubt that Anna previously had gets eradicated by prenatal bliss and excitement. It’s a promising direction for the next two episodes even if “Part One’s” conclusion seems destined to feature Anna’s reunion with her stolen child. We’ll see where these familiar ideas go since there’s still the possibility that it births something unique and brilliant out of these overdone ideas. It’s not unlike how Anna’s bloody and bemused smile still shines through a mouth full of stained teeth. All that American Horror Story: Delicate can do is wash away the blood, rinse, and repeat.

2.5 out of 5 skulls

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