It starts as Ryan Murphy’s most grounded season of “American Horror Story” yet, but there are already so many secrets and lies and hints of much worse to come.
It’s probably been since the first season of “American Horror Story” that we’ve seen such a slow burn before the crazy begins, but there’s still so much to unpack here.
Season 11 of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s horror anthology is definitely light on the supernatural or science fiction at this point, and instead seems to be focusing on the real-life horrors of being a gay man in New York City in the 1980s.
Taking place in 1981, there are two looming threats to so many of the gay men who make up this season’s cast so far — though some of them may be a part of the danger themselves. Secrecy was certainly a bigger part of the LGBTQ+ experience then, with far less acceptance in society at large, and many of these men are really taking that to heart.
The first threat seems to hint around the corners of the real HIV and AIDS crisis that slammed into the gay community around this time, and was promptly ignored by everyone in authority because it was seemingly endemic to that culture — or at least that’s what they wanted to believe.
The other threat is much more immediate, as there is a serial killer lurking in the gay hot spots around the city. He almost seems inspired by real-life killer Richard Rogers, who was dubbed the Last Call Killer for his penchant for luring drunk men from piano bars. The details aren’t quite the same here, but is it coincidence that one of the detectives in this series shares a name with one of Rogers’ victims? Perhaps.
With these first two episodes, Murphy and his team have a lot of characters to introduce and a lot of groundwork to lay. At first, it almost looked as if this season might play it straight with this story, skipping on the supernatural, but it’s already started creeping into the edges of the story.
It’s all still a little quiet by “AHS” standards, which means there’s only been creepy phone calls, drugging, abduction, torture, dismemberment, murder, weird rashes and a bunch of stray cats at a p-ART-y.
The first scene of the season sets up the main threat to the cast right now in the form of Big Daddy (Matthew Bishop), a classic leather daddy type with a Bane fetish — if this took place after “The Dark Knight RIses.” He likes to lurk in fog and steam and then do horrible things when the camera is away.
For his first trick, he dismembered an airline pilot who went to one of those underground places where gay men hooked up. This introduced us to Patrick (Russell Tovey), the closeted detective who is the only hope for the gay community on the police force because the rest of the cops really, really, aggressively and violently do not want to care about someone killing gay men.
Can We Call It Covid-80?
Just like Covid was discovered in 2019 before becoming a pandemic in 2020, Hannah (Billie Lourde) first discovered this highly communicable disease a year prior in nearby deer on Fire Island. She said that symptoms include seizures, skin infection and liver failure. Later, while talking about a patient, she mentions a lesion on his foot.
Now, this could be related to the potential epidemic she’s exploring, or the timeline makes it very possible this is an early case of HIV. It could even be that the weakened immune system of HIV is why these gay men could wind up more susceptible to what we’re going to call Covid-80.
It does seem that Murphy and his team are trying to tap into something we all recently experienced, but filtered through this very real and scary time for gay men with another largely unknown disease.
The first moment we got confirmation that Patrick was gay was when his boyfriend Gino (Joe Mantello) came home to him. Gino is out and a journalist for a gay newspaper, The Downtown Native. After being accused of sexism — which is fair if it’s true they only wrote about issues gay men were concerned with — our minds were a little blown at the mismatch of these two men in this moment.
It’s no wonder Gino was so frustrated. The NYPD is intentionally refusing to take this serial killer of the gay community seriously, and in his own closeted way, Patrick is enabling and supporting that, for fear of jeopardizing his career. Gay men are in danger and dying, and the police do nothing and Patrick won’t even help Gino with a potential story on it.
We do have to give Patrick credit, though, for living openly with a gay man while working closeted for a homophobic NYPD. That’s a bold thing to do, even if he does live far from his precinct. It’s pretty fresh, though, as we also learn that Patrick just recently divorced his wife Barbara (Leslie Grossman), so it just feels inevitable he’s going to be outed and it will not go well!
Adam Survives Big Daddy
The final main character who looks set to be the driving force of this narrative is Adam (Charlie Carver), a young man dealing with a breakup who agrees to go to another gay meetup place with his roommate, this time under a bridge and in the nearby woods. When his roommate Sully wanders off with a man into the trees, Adam suddenly finds himself alone, and sees Big Daddy in all his leather-fied glory.
He proves as adept at running as he is at screaming his roomate’s name. Unfortunately, Sully proves to be a good guy, rushing to try and help Adam. And so, it’s Sully who finds Big Daddy, and isn’t nearly so lucky. But in surviving a close call, Adam becomes the first actual witness to what this guy looks like — at least, kind of. Big Daddy never seems to take that mask off.
We also can’t help but compare him to Rubberman … Murphy sure seems to work a lot of fetishes into these shows! Adam takes his story to Patrick, thus connecting those two narrative threads and characters, but Patrick brushes him off like his straight counterparts — at least officially.
After meeting Patrick, Adam continues his meet-cute with the couple by encountering Gino at a bath house bar. He overhears Adam lamenting his missing roommate and gives him his contact information. But the real big moment in that scene is that Adam sees a photo of Big Daddy on the wall behind the bar.
The bartender can’t help him with who the subject is, but he can point him to the photographer. Adam crashes the photog’s studio, where he becomes an unwitting subject for Theo (Isaac Powell) and learns that Theo called the huge dude Big Daddy because he never knew his real name. He also said he hadn’t seen him in years.
But he also said he knew Adam’s name, revealing that his grandmother passed her psychic gift on to him. He later says he can feel that “something dark is coming.” That becomes a common refrain throughout the episodes, adding to that feeling that all of this is just establishing the foundation upon which Murphy and his team are about to pour a giant bucket of crazy on.
Freddy’s Very Bad Day
Freddy has a dream of making it as an actor, but instead he meets Sam (Zachary Quinto). We met Sam earlier and discovered that he is the man who finances Theo’s art, but in exchange, Theo has to take rather perverse, disturbing and sordid pictures for Sam’s high-profile and very private clients who are secretly into some pretty messed up stuff.
Theo is known also for his more regular photography, so Sam uses that to convince Freddy to get shot. Now, this is where we have some questions. When Freddy arrives at the address Sam gives him, Big Daddy is at the door, acting as a bouncer. We then cut inside and Theo is taking pictures of Freddy. Is it actually possible that Theo doesn’t know Big Daddy is working the door? It’s possible because perhaps Sam takes care of all that. But if he does know, then he pretty blatantly lied to Adam about it.
As for Freddy, things take a turn when Sam takes over the shoot, flipping a stool upside down and telling Freddy to take his pants off. As if things couldn’t get more uncomfortable, we then follow Freddy to the bath house where he is lured into a steam room. Only, once inside he loses the man only to find Big Daddy.
That means Big Daddy followed him from the photo shoot to the bath house, but who was the lure? Was he in on this attack, or was her perhaps also attacked? Does Big Daddy work alone or is he part of some bigger operation? Is it part of what Sam sells to his clients? Maybe they’ve developed a taste for blood?
Patrick refuses to get directly involved with the murders, but he does tell Gino to go to The Brownstone, another establishment frequented by gay men, and start asking questions. He can ask questions that the NYPD has no interest. And so, Gino meets Henry (Denis O’Hare), an eccentric regular who tells him he’s seen Big Daddy, but not well enough to recognize him.
He then tells Gino that he seems drawn to men who like mai tais, but when he leaves with those men, Henry never sees those men again. After sharing a drink with Henry, Gino gets woozy on the street. Realizing he’s been drugged, he finds himself getting picked up by another man who’s not Big Daddy and put into a car.
He awakens to being tortured with injections under his fingernails and the threat of far worse. “Homosexuals are essential to the natural order of things,” he’s told by the man who abducted him. “And you will be a totem to that.” But everything turns when the man cuts his shirt to reveal his USMC tattoo. “You can’t serve twice,” the man declares to his “fellow brother in arms.”
And just like that, the torture is over and he’s drugged one last time before being set free. The man isn’t worried about leaving him alive, and even tells him to go to the police. They won’t do anything because, as he put it, they don’t want to.
Diagnosing Dangerous Men
When she’s not analyzing infectious diseases, Hannah works at a clinic that seems to cater to either exclusively or largely LGBTQ+ members. When we connect with her there, she’s telling Sam that he has cryptosporidium, an incredibly rare parasite that she’s somehow seen four times in the past month.
This could again be a hint at the HIV epidemic still looming and largely unknown in ’81, but there are more concerns when a woman in the waiting room talks about a rash she has with another man there. When she confronts a second man sitting by, he proves to be the man who’d abducted Gino. It turns out he also has a rash that won’t go away.
Later, Hannah believes Whitely has Kaposi’s sarcoma, which presents as lesions and is one of the main cancers that hits people with HIV. Is it coincidence that Hannah is treating two unhinged men back-to-back? Or perhaps she’s the only clinic serving this community.
We find ourselves imagining this starting as an allegory of AIDS and then exploding into something much worse. It’s already been hinted that this story will take place across multiple timelines, so perhaps this will explore what would happen if we never bothered to properly address a pandemic and it did mutate to incapacitate or nearly wipe us out, a la Stephen King’s “The Stand.” He hasn’t done apolocyptic plague yet. Could this be the darkness characters keep telling Adam is coming “for you”?
Adam decides to reach out to Gino, but happens to do so just as Gino is putting to bed his story about his own abduction, and the police disinterest in pursuing this real threat to the gay population. Adam suggests a hotline to solicit more information, and suddenly he’s on the payroll and the calls are in. But their flyers say “The Police Want Us Dead” — and you’ll never guess who didn’t take too kindly to that?
Adam got picked up by the NYPD and locked in a room with four of them, including Patrick and his boss Mac (Kal Penn), who threw all kinds of homophobic abuse at him. They were holding him for no reason, really, but wanted him to tell Gino that he’d made up his whole story. But then things got even weirder.
They told him that as police they couldn’t do anything to him, so they opened a door to a large man wearing nothing but a jock strap. He walked in, smacked Adam so hard it knocked him across the room and walked out, leaving Adam hurting and us so confused.
Does the NYPD have a man in a jockstrap on call for situations like this? Why just the jockstrap? Why did he come in for one slap and walk back out? Is he still waiting outside that door? Is the NYPD a lot kinkier than we know? And again, why just a jockstrap?
Secrets and Silence
We know that Big Daddy is a huge threat, though we’ve never actually seen him kill anyone, and we know that Sam is pretty messed up. But there are big efforts being made for us to worry about Patrick, too.
For one, he told Gino that he didn’t know anything about the gay leather culture, or the bandanna code that they used to indicate what it is that they’re into sexually. And yet, the audience first sees a scene where Patrick seems to have an intimate relationship (of sorts) with a box he has with leather gear and several bandanas very neatly stored.
Later, his ex-wife brings said box to Gino to tell him that she warned him that Patrick is a very good liar. He lied to her for years, and he could be lying to Gino, too. Now, Patrick uses silence as his tool to lie, so it’s more a lie of omission. He just doesn’t talk about certain things or answer certain questions.
Twice in the second hour alone, he manages to avoid answering Gino’s direct questions with a massive distraction, but it certainly looked as if he was gong to opt for silence — and then maybe an offer of sex or something.
The first moment came when Gino convinced him to come to a leather club with Patrick insisting the whole time that this is not his scene. Finally, Patrick confronted him about the box and its leather-y contents, but it’s just then that we got to actually witness a murder happen.
When they first get to the leather club, we see a young guy handed a mai tai from the bartender, only to not be able to find the guy who bought it for him. But the young guy rejects the drink, opting for a beer instead.
Later, a guy Patrick rejected is offered one, and he opts to drink it. Just like before, the bartender can’t find the guy who ordered it, but just as the guy finishes it, the voice emerges from behind him and asks him if he liked it. The voice also tells him not to turn around. Ultimately, though, the guy does turn around only to have a knife jammed into his neck.
So we’ve gone from finding bodies to murder in the middle of a busy club. The guy collapses, saving Patrick from having to confront his truth about the box and the bandanas (his only reaction was to be mad at Barbara for telling Gino, which sounds pretty narcissistic, manipulative and controlling to us).
Patrick later reveals the drink wasn’t drugged, so the only common denominator was that it was a mai tai. Was Big Daddy even involved in this? Someone else?
Indifference or Intent?
When we first met Gino he was being confronted by three lesbians led by a woman named Fran (Sandra Bernhard) who were laying into him for his newspaper never covering any stories about or of interest or relevance to women.
Later, after his abduction story comes out, they return with the same complaints. Ultimately, he offers to let them help out a double issue for Pride, which seems to satisfy them. One of those women was in Hannah’s waiting room (with the rash), but mostly their scenes didn’t make a lot of sense and seemed to have no connection to anything else.
Toward the end, though, Fran called Hannah out of the clear blue and asked her to meet her in Central Park. Now, two women who don’t know each other agreeing to meet in Central Park after dark in 1981 feels a bit of a stretch to us, but we’ll allow it.
What made no sense, though, was Hannah seeing Big Daddy there when she first arrived. Only, when she ran from him, she immediately ran into Fran and upon looking back, he was gone. So is Big Daddy really everywhere all these characters are or is there something else going on with these manifestations?
That’ll probably come into clarity, but for now Fran had promised Hannah some answers about the deer on Fire Island — we’re still not over the slaughter of all those fawns — and these unlikely diseases her patients have.
We know that it’s HIV (at least in the patients), but what’s happening with the deer makes less sense. Fran, though, said quite simply that this vulnerable population, the LGBTQ+ community, is under attack by the government.
So is HIV a bioterrorist weapon the U.S. government used against its own citizens, or was their attack whatever’s hitting the deer? Was HIV an unexpected side effect, as there is a connection to the earliest HIV outbreaks and Fire Island, as well.
Poor Stewart, we definitely know he didn’t know what he was agreeing to do when he answered that payphone outside of a club and inexplicably agreed to go to the random address the man on the other end of the phone game him.
People really were more trusting in the 1980s than they are now. Or maybe Stewart was just the kind of guy who loved the thrill and the danger. He didn’t, however, love being kept in a cage overnight.
We recognized the voice of Sam over the phone, but we didn’t expect him to hold Stewart captive in a small cage. And yet, he kept insisting that Stewart knew what he was getting into when he came over and that Stewart loved everything that had happened to this point — and honestly, we’re not sure Stewart really protested as much as most people probably would.
At the same time, it certainly didn’t sound great when Stewart said he was done and Sam told him he wasn’t done until Sam told him he was done, or that they were just getting started. Is this just a torture porn thing for Sam, or is Stewart perhaps enjoying being dominated as part of that culture?
Stewart really didn’t give us a good enough read, but Sam has definitely given us a read that he is one seriously creepy dude! And that’s not even to mention the fact that Big Daddy was again outside his door, except that Sam told Theo earlier that Big Daddy died years back, which Theo related to a doubtful Adam.
Need a Hand?
The final scene was obviously going to be a big moment, but even it could have stayed in that grounded reality most of these two episodes stayed in. After a daylight murder surrounded by people, the killer’s next move made it almost impossible for the police to continue ignoring it.
Patrick is called in by Mac to see the handiwork — so to speak — as the killer has hung a chain with five hooks attached to it, and on each hook is a different hand, seemingly from a different victim. Someone is demanding to be noticed and acknowledged. Some serial killers do crave that attention, so being ignored could push them to escalate.
So who really knows what about anything on this show? Do we even know what’s going on? Well, we do know the answer to that. On the surface, it seems to be an exploration of the gay culture in New York in the early 1980s just as the HIV/AIDS epidemic was getting started.
Underneath that, there’s definitely something darker bubbling. We expected something to break through beyond a subtle psychic message repeated throughout and a serial killer. But we fully expect it to come sooner rather than later. Maybe this slow burn pace is why they’ve decided for the first time ever to double-book episodes all season long.
“American Horror Story” airs back-to-back new episodes every Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on FX.