This American Horror Story: Double Feature review contains spoilers.
American Horror Story Season 10 Episode 8: Inside
As a reviewer, I find it a lot easier to talk about something I like than something I don’t. For whatever reason, I’m generally more positive about American Horror Story than most of its critics, and often a lot of its fans. The stuff that doesn’t work for me doesn’t deter me from enjoying the stuff that does. As such, some things get a pass, but episodes like “Inside” make it difficult to overlook the flaws, particularly when some flats jump out the moment a character walks on screen.
I’m not here to bury Craig Sheffer for his portrait of Richard Nixon. It’s a thankless task; Nixon as a person is hard not to exaggerate, and the best exaggerated performance is Billy West’s take on the President’s disembodied head in Futurama. Nixon is both very well known and not especially well known to modern eyes, and as most people have some idea of what to expect from someone playing him, it makes it difficult to turn the sweaty, shifty-eyed not-a-crook into a three-dimensional person.
Not that American Horror Story is interested in making Nixon a person. The face-mopping, hunched figure disrupting Neal McDonough’s Ike Eisenhower while he tries to enjoy a round of golf is less a human and more a collection of racist, paranoid, power-hungry, venal urges smeared with a thick layer of Brylcreem and stuffed into a suit. Granted, that may not be too far off as portrayals of Nixon go, but when that character smashes his way into the narrative like a flop-sweaty Hulk, it’s distracting to say the least. Granted, Sheffer’s impersonation rounds into better form by the end of the episode (or at least you get used to it), but by that time there’s been a lot of Cold War politicking by Tricky Dick.
To give credit to screenwriters Manny Coto, Kristen Reidel, and Brad Falchuk, throughout the episode, the conspiracy theories that have popped up around extraterrestrials on earth appear in some pretty clever ways. All the way through, Nixon appears and meddles in pretty much everything at the behest of Mamie Eisenhower (Sarah Paulson), who is not quite what she seems to be. Nixon permeates the hour, sleazing his way throughout the historical story line, leaving a slime trail in his wake as the otherwise good man Eisenhower is forced into making decisions he’s not especially fond of for reasons far beyond his control.
Sheffer’s Nixon is scummy and weak and, for lack of a better term, political. His take on things, be it as a Red-baiting congressman or as the former vice president, has just enough sensibility in it to worm into the consciousness despite the odiousness of the messenger. Sheffer portrays Nixon as the obsessive he’s known to be regarding the presidency and his interactions with John Kennedy, and his short-sighted selfishness and the manipulative efforts of the aliens overcome Dwight Eisenhower’s innate decency. Thankfully, Mike Vogel’s JFK is a little more restrained, both in word and action, and Alisha Soper’s Marilyn Monroe is bang on with an effective, albeit brief, exchange with JFK in confidence about her own belief in alien life. A belief that, if the episode set-up continues, will lead to her untimely death much as it did for JFK.
The conspiracy building in the first half of the episode kicks in hard in the second half, in which the uninteresting pregnant college kids from the previous episode really start to show and are summarily whisked away by the men in black (the real ones, not the ones from the Will Smith movie) and taken away to an all-white room to lay on all-white tables, wear all-white clothing, bathe in all-white lighting, and eat micro-nutrient packets floating in the most 1950s of food items: gelatin. For the most part, the viewer is left as confused as Kaia Gerber’s Kendall, but thankfully the newly-introduced Calico (Leslie Grossman, with great hair) is there to try and keep the kids calm and compliant for their new alien overlords.
She’s not successful, for obvious reasons. Director Tessa Blake makes great use of the weirdness of the alien environment, and doubles down on the body horror, particularly when Troy (Isaac Cole Powell) begins to fully freak out about the idea of giving birth without the required body features. Troy seems to be the only one to have the proper response to Angelica Ross’s alien midwife character, and that’s before she pulls her mask off and reveals just what a human-alien hybrid creature grows up to look like. Ross is clearly having fun in the role, and there’s effective chemistry between her and Gerber, who’s great at the sobbing break-down in the intake room. (That the other two are less freaked out is a testament to the power of denial and alien sedatives, I guess.)
Of the dueling segments of the Death Valley section of American Horror Story, the black-and-white segments still work better, even with the difficult introduction of Nixon. It eventually rounds into something resembling solid form, and while the modern segments are clearly inferior, there are enough good moments scattered throughout to keep things interesting enough, particularly once the MIB show up and start doing nefarious things. I like the ideas, and I look forward to seeing all the other conspiracy theories to pop up in the next two episodes, if only because I’m a mark for Valiant Thor and the many entertainingly false conspiracies around the technological innovations of the 20th Century.