In all its time telling stories, American Horror Story does one thing very well: it finds ways to look into America’s darkness and twist it into horror. This is how the first season excelled so well and why any episodes of American Horror Stories become standouts. The latest episode, entitled “Milkmaids,” takes this to an extreme as it goes all the way back to before the country’s founding and deals with extremes in religion, sexism, and bigotry in colonial society. But one thing American Horror Story also tends to do is get distracted by its own addiction to shock value. Unfortunately, this episode didn’t quite learn lessons from AHS‘s shock tendency, instead leaning in both directions at the same time.
In echoes remnant of our own pandemic, the story follows a small town in the 1700s being devastated by an outbreak of smallpox. In their panic, the town turns to its devious pastor (Seth Gabel), who leads them astray while ignoring a smart milkmaid (Addison Timlin) — who is both unwed and uninterested in finding a man. Where the story devolves into shocking content is when a local prostitute (Julia Schlaepfer) seeks to cure men of the illness by having them suck the pus out of her pox. Also, the pastor tries to have the town become immune by digging up the dead and eating their hearts.
If the synopsis is any indication, it’s easy to see how the underlying horror of this colonial American nightmare was undercut by its more shocking elements. That time period offers a wealth of material for horror stories, as seen in many different novels and movies. It’s quite possible American Horror Stories has something new to add to the setting, but this wasn’t it. Instead of leaning into compelling character horror, it focused on out-shocking itself and, ultimately, the entire episode falls flat as a result.
American Horror Stories streams Thursdays on Hulu.