This American Horror Story: Double Feature review contains spoilers.
American Horror Story Season 10 Episode 10
It took the full four episodes, but American Horror Story has finally tied its two story threads together using the most unlikely character. Of course, it wouldn’t be American Horror Story without a last-minute twist that may or may not make sense, and Death Valley continues that tradition with a jam-packed finale episode that doesn’t necessarily tie up the plot, but definitely doesn’t lack for big, crazy ideas.
That has never been a criticism leveled at any Ryan Murphy show. However, the execution of those ideas, and sticking the landing of a season, has been an issue in the past. While the finales have mostly worked for me, to varying degrees, Death Valley has been the one where all of the flaws inherent in Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk’s idea of television has started to show through the coat of genre paint. Ambiguous endings are fine for a show that tends to carry ideas forward, but unless Death Valley is leading up to some sort of vampires versus aliens (or aliens versus Asylum aliens) in the future, it’s unsatisfying, to say the least.
One of the points Death Valley has made is the impressive amount of impact Mamie Eisenhower had on the United States of America. She was the right First Lady at the right time to have a huge cultural impact, and while she was overshadowed by Jackie Kennedy, she was in a lot of ways more influential, if her stories about birthdays, Halloween, and Thanksgiving are to be believed. Sure, she failed on Evacuation Day, but they can’t all be winners, and three out of four (plus popularizing the color pink) isn’t something to sneeze at. Since this is American Horror Story, she did more than the public knows about. Specifically, she’s the infamous Watergate informant Deep Throat and a key player in the alien plot to overthrow America, because of course she would be. And all it took to turn her against America was the chance to live forever in a hanger in Area 51.
One of my favorite elements throughout Death Valley has been the way that the various conspiracy theories about aliens have been tied in with conspiracy theories about the United States government to form a perfect storm of Time-Life’s Mysteries of the Unknown series of books (and more importantly, one of the most blood-chilling commercials of all time to those of us who stayed up until the witching hour watching cable TV). Sure, aliens were the reason the Kennedy brothers were assassinated, and Marilyn Monroe was overdosed, but they also brought down Richard Nixon, so maybe they’re not all bad? If you can ignore the part where they’re going to wipe out humanity and replace it with big-eyed alien-human hybrids that look suspiciously like gray aliens, they’ve done a lot for humanity’s technological growth.
One of the reasons why Mamie Eisenhower’s heel turn works is that the script (from everyone involved in the back half of Double Feature: Brad Falchuk, Kristen Reidel, Manny Coto, and Reilly Smith) doesn’t make Eisenhower a bad person for turning on humanity. Sure, she’s vain and petty, but she’s no Nixon. She’s scared. She’s afraid of being forgotten, of being overshadowed, and most of all dying slowly in a hospital bed like her late husband. That pushes her over into the clutches of the aliens, and makes her a key figure in their plans as they move to eliminate Nixon (Craig Sheffer, whose Nixon has grown on me) and join forces with the reptilian aliens represented by Henry Kissinger (Eric Nenninger). Kissinger’s human disguise isn’t nearly as good as, for example, Val Thor’s, but when you’re standing next to a sweaty, drunk Nixon, it’s pretty easy to look normal.
It doesn’t make a ton of sense, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to watch Sarah Paulson make catty remarks, hang out with Leslie Grossman’s Calico, and wear flowing pink in the midst of the white party that is the alien baby factory. She sticks out, in a big way, and while she was a loyal servant of the alien cause for a long time, she’s also a patriot at heart. All her frivolous measures, like birthday parties, have been beneficial to the American people, and she sacrificed a great deal to keep the country safe and intact while navigating the thorny patches of American history, and when it’s do-or-die time, she at least tries her best to do the right thing, but it’s already too late.
Axelle Carolyn has a solid hand with her performers, and the episode moves well between the various segments. It’s cleaner than it has any right to be, what with all the exploding heads, cut throats, and people getting gunned down to preserve conspiracy theories. The visual of Eisenhower sashaying through all-white halls as a bright pink dot of Greatest Generation optimism is a lot of fun, and there’s a good rapport between her and Calico. Centering the story around Mamie Eisenhower, rather than a more obvious villain like Nixon, is a bold move. It works better than it has any right to do with how Carolyn and company construct the shots of Mamie Eisenhower coming out of the shadows as Deep Throat mashed up with her amused confession to Val about linking herself to a dirty movie being the last thing anyone would ever expect.
There are some very clever transitions between scenes, and the episode has good flow without getting slowed down during exposition dumps. The effects are used as appropriate punchlines, and American Horror Story is never shy about blood and gore when necessary. It (the half-season, not the episode) just felt a little too rushed, with too many ideas and not quite enough development. It’s a common complaint for the show as a concept, but it feels even more accurate here.
Am I disappointed in the way Death Valley played out? I am, but it was only four episodes; it was a mini-series within an anthology series, and given the amount of difficulties that the production must have run into during our current never-ending pandemic, it’s not a surprise things feel frantic after a pretty solid beginning half in Red Tide. It’s a down ending, and it’s unsatisfying, but is it any less of a downer than vampires running wild in Los Angeles, or even the Harmon family all ending up dead in Murder House?
It’s certainly abrupt in a way those other endings weren’t. Sometimes, things end badly, even if you try to do the right thing in the end. I can’t be that mad at a show that mashed together all my favorite conspiracy theories and blew up a whole lot of heads in the process.