The first part of American Horror Story’s double-feature season, Red Tide, is a macabre metaphor. Horror is the sublime’s shadow, and in exploring our country’s addictions through vampiric tropes, Red Tide is a sublime story of America’s current horror.
Struggling writer Harry Gardner (Finn Wittrock) decides to take his family — pregnant wife Doris (Lily Rabe) and young daughter Alma (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) — to off-season Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, for a three-month sojourn. Wintertime Provincetown is dead quiet, awaiting the summer tide’s tourist money. Locals hint at a municipal malevolence, and indeed, the Gardners are several times assaulted by Pale People who police say are probably just tweaking drug addicts.
To clear his head, Harry visits the only restaurant in town that’s open and finds himself bemused by two lounge lizards unselfconsciously crooning “Islands in the Stream.” The alabaster youth and glittering gal buy him a drink, saying they intuitively know Harry’s one of them: a writer. Harry discovers that the pair are the meteoric playwright Austin Sommers (Evan Peters) and the prolific best-selling novelist Belle Noir (Frances Conroy). A homeless addict known as Tuberculosis Karen (Sarah Paulson), trying to score some table scraps, sees Harry with the couple and screams at him to stay away from “those bloodsuckers” — and she doesn’t mean it figuratively.
In time, Austin reveals the secret to their literary success: “tragic magic little black pills.” Harry’s no dupe — what’s the catch? Austin replies, “Who cares! You chose this life . . . You could have been an ad man, but you chose to be a writer, because you don’t live in this world, you observe it, you interpret it, you feed off it. You chose it because you want love, attention, and barrels of money.”
Harry chooses the pill. Soon he’s writing better than ever, but cravings follow creativity. When Karen sees Harry at the supermarket, filling his cart with juicy rib-eyes, she sizes things up: “You never knew thirst before now!”
Harry returns to Austin for answers, but also for more pills. As Austin tells Belle, Harry’s not here for pills per se, “he’s here for the Muse.”
Harry says it’s just for one more book. Belle’s heard it all before: “Just one more book . . . and then I’ll just stop for good. There’s nothing more addictive than success. You’ve tasted it now, and you’re never going to be able to live without it.” The pills enhance talent to the level of genius, but the metabolic demands while using the pills drain the body of essential nutrients that can only be satisfied in sufficient quantities by ingesting human blood. The price of genius is not a pound of flesh but a pint of blood in this modern-day vampire tale.
Just as Austin and Belle become successful writers, extracting the stories of the unexplored lives around them, they’re also successful vampires, feeding on poor people who go unnoticed when missing. Harry is their recruit to vampirism, which is an apt metaphor for one of America’s real-life horror stories: addiction, whether that be physical dependence, as on opioids, or metaphysical, as with avarice and aspiration. The tragic magic black pills that lead to genius at the cost of inhumanity combine elements of all three American addictions raging in recent years. All addictions are destructive both to the user and those around them.
Isolation comes naturally to the creative and artificially to the successful. Austin and Belle’s karaoke “Islands in the Stream” is a creepy and beautiful symbol of this. Belle, a bedecked bestselling author, has near forgotten the time when she was just another self-publishing nobody. When she’s standing in the hovel where gutter gigolo Mickey (Macaulay Culkin) lives, she wonders aloud why he doesn’t wake up every day wanting to kill himself. “Your poverty offends me,” she tells him.
We learn from the Chemist (Angelica Ross), the maker of the pills, that “the talented ones need the blood but their rage comes from their arrogance that they’re better than everyone. The rage of the untalented is . . . against a world for giving them dreams that were too big.”
The most horrifying of indifferent aggressions comes after Alma sneaks a pill to perfect her violin practice. She convinces her father to let her keep using, which forces him to murder more frequently to satisfy both his and Alma’s metabolic needs. This leads to more bodies and garners the attention of the local police, scrutiny that Austin and Belle cannot tolerate. If the pair’s uneasy truce with Provincetown locals is to remain quietly tolerated, Austin and Belle will need to stop Harry’s increasingly reckless and frequent murders once and for all.
Separately, Alma develops an intolerance of her mother’s artistic ineptitude as a pitifully mediocre Instagram-lauded interior decorator. After Doris delivers her baby, Harry and his literary agent Ursula (Leslie Grossman) keep Doris in the dark about the present circumstances so that Harry can finish his books. But when Doris catches Alma nibbling the baby’s toes, Alma seemingly comes clean. Knowing Doris is talentless, and knowing that talentless people who take the pills become mindless Pale People, Alma pleads with her mother to join them in genius and greatness, asking Doris why she can’t believe in herself as Alma does. Out of a mother’s love and fear of losing her family rather than a desire for greatness, Doris takes the pill, and the result is as Alma expected. As Doris is released to roam the dunes alone, the scene is framed by Harry, Alma, and now Ursula, standing by them in a wifely and motherly role. “Nothing’s more tragic, pathetic, and sad,” she says, “than a person with no talent trying to make it in this world.”
The poignant parallel to Doris’s fate is Karen’s ruin. She and Mickey, both life’s dregs, are in it together. Mickey finds Karen’s paintings from before the time that opioids and meth took hold of her and marvels at her talent, asking her to “imagine what you could be if you took those pills.” “You could be like Picasso!” he tells her.
For a moment, the pair dream about what they’d do to flaunt their success and show up those who were cruel to them. But Karen breaks down. “I don’t want to be like them. What if you end up like one of the bad ones?”
Surveying his shack, Mickey concludes, “Anything’s better than this.” He takes a pill and soon begins to write winning screenplays. He wants Karen to join him, but she refuses. Karen has survived the Pale People only through Belle’s protection in exchange for victim procurement. These heinous acts become too much for Karen to bear. She refuses Belle’s latest request: Doris’s baby. Instead, Karen plots with Mickey to steal the baby — dreamily thinking they could raise him together and that a child might force her to get clean. But she botches the cradle robbing and upon fleeing down a darkened lane is beset by Pale People. Mickey finds her huddled in a dooryard just as they are about to bite her. Safe because they won’t attack a talented pill-popper, he keeps the Pale People at a distance long enough to offer Karen a choice. “We could be together. Rich. Famous. Successful. Happy. Why can’t you believe in yourself like I believe in you?” Like giving a doomed woman a gun to shoot herself, Mickey leaves a pill — and just before the Pale People bite, she takes it.
When Mickey next sees Karen, he’s delighted. He drives her to the beach to paint. There’s a homeless man on the beach, “like a picnic,” Mickey says, already having forgotten he was that homeless man just a pill ago. Mickey offers to help Karen with her first kill, but as she embraces Mickey she resignedly says, “I think I’m going to help us both.” With a sad smile, she chomps down on Mickey’s jugular. After painting for a while, she calmly and cathartically walks toward the water, slitting her wrists, and is then consumed by the waves. She’s washed herself clean — in water and in blood — of the Muse’s sin.
In the U.S. opioid crisis, major pharmaceutical companies made billions off thousands of addicts. The families who owned and ran those companies philanthropically supported the arts, culture, and science — but is it enough to absolve them in society’s eyes? Some well-heeled students swallow Adderall to study better. Other young people without resources tune out with drugs because “anything is better” than what seems to them the desperate lot of failure. Red Tide’s modern take on an age-old horror addresses topics we’re still too terrified as a nation to put a stake through.