American Horror Story: NYC Starts Strong With Two Gritty Episodes (S11 E1&E2)

It’s back, baby! A new season of American Horror Story is upon us. After the woefully depressing American Horror Stories Season 2, I had immediately regretting offering to cover American Horror Story: NYC. I purposefully stayed away from any promotional materials, with the exception of the handful of filmmakers I saw sharing one of the images saying AHS stole from them, as I wanted to go in as blind as possible. One caveat I want to throw upfront is that not only did I not get to partake in the specific scene this story takes place during, but I also am not really the most knowledgeable about this subject matter. Though I proudly support the LGBTQIA+ community with all my heart, I will apologize in advance for any nuances, subtleties, or context I will probably miss.

Episode 1: “Something’s Coming”

Written by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk and directed by John J. Gray

Close up on the trash-riddled streets of New York in ’81, a group of flight attendants and a pilot pull up at a hotel. After a night of drinking at the bar with flight attendants Captain Ross (Lee Aaron Rosen) retires to his room, though not for the night. Donning a full leather daddy outfit, the Captain makes his way to a warehouse full of other leather-clad men getting their rocks off. Captain Ross goes up to a glory hole only to…quick cut to cop cars outside the warehouse the next day.

A father and son saw Captain Ross’ decapitated body while fishing in the Hudson River, now that’s a real American horror story. This is where we meet one of our main characters Detective Patrick Read (Russell Tovey). While Patrick is looking at the body he just so happens to give one of the officers a weird look when he drops a homosexual slur. Immediately it’s clear Patrick is going to have an interesting character arc, he’s obviously a gay NYPD detective and feels out of place. As someone who is considered the ‘less dead’ by detectives, I’ll be interested to see how he handles this serial killer who is picking off those within his own community.

A man in leather stands menacingly staring at his next victim

After doing a little bit of research, one of the subplots might very well go a certain direction I thought it was going to go. We meet Dr. Hannah Wells (Billie Lourd), who is doing research on a new blood disease that is rampaging through the deer population on Fire Island, an island in New York that is heavily vacationed by LGBTQIA+ people. Fire Island is an absolutely beautiful location; I once walked two and a half miles of sand dunes to get dollar oysters and clam chowder on Fire Island (who cares?). It’s a little unclear whether the deer are suffering from a chronic wasting disease, which can be transmitted through bodily fluids.

The next character introduction we get is reported Gino Barelli (Joe Mantello), a gay man who runs The Downtown Native a newspaper that reports on issues within the gay community. Fran (Sandra Bernhard) comes to the office with two friends to ask Gino why he doesn’t report on any lesbian-related issues, where Gino retorts the lesbian community isn’t being systematically stalked by a serial killer. We also find out that Gino is dating Detective Read. Gino is upset with Patrick that he works with homophobic police and is afraid to come out to them due to the potential backlash it would have. Living in the world we do now where you can be your true self, it’s interesting to see a storyline like this because while there still are people who are constrained to certain silences if Patrick did come out to his chief he would probably be fired immediately.

Adam Carpenter (Charlie Carver) is reeling over a recent breakup, only to be talked into going on a drug run with his roommate Sully (Jared Reinfeldt). Though things aren’t what they seem when Sully takes Adam to a gay hookup spot. Sully takes his leave with a man leading to Adam getting stalked by a buff-ass leather daddy, though Adam gets away safely Sully disappears. Cut to Chief Mac Marzara (Kal Penn), which is the most NYPD-sounding name. Patrick tries talking with Marzara saying that they should release some information to the press because there is definitely a serial killer out there. Marzara shows his true homophobic side and basically says don’t talk to anyone or you’ll lose your job. This really feeds into the whole idea of the true crime of the less dead, as well as showing how things most definitely went in ’80s New York.

Adam goes to a bathhouse to try and calm his nerves, while there he meets Gino who gives Adam his number for help with Sully. On the wall of the bathhouse is a photo of the leather daddy Adam saw the night Sully went missing. The bartender tells Adam the photo was taken by artist Theo Graves (Isaac Powell) who just so happens to be there now. Adam introduces himself and Theo tells him to come to his studio the next day. The very next day Adam goes to visit Theo, who is like a Robert Mapplethorpe type of artist with sexually charged imagery. Theo tells Adam the only way he will answer his questions is if he can take photos of Adam, which is an interesting proposition.

While Adam and Theo are taking photos we learn the man Adam is on the hunt for is named Big Daddy (Matthew William Bishop). Towards the end of this uncomfortable question and answer session, Sam (Zachary Quinto) enters the studio. It turns out Theo is only able to live the cushy life he does due to the financial support of Sam. Oh, and Sam is a major creep, but we’ll get to that later.

Patrick and Gino have a nice moment where Patrick realizes he needs to start learning to be comfortable with himself because at the end of the day he isn’t really giving anything to this relationship. Earlier when Captain Ross’ head was found a dark blue handkerchief was found in his mouth. Gino teaches Patrick what the colored handkerchiefs mean, light blue in the back right pocket means you like to give head, in the back left pocket means you like to give, grey is for bondage, black is for S+M, yellow is for urination, and dark blue is for anal. Patrick finally asks for Gino’s help and asks him to go to a bar called The Brownstone to snoop for information. While Gino goes to the bar Patrick meets up with his soon-to-be ex-wife Barb (Leslie Grossman) to serve her divorce papers.

At The Brownstone Gino runs into a man named Henry (Denis O’Hare), Gino may not be a spring chicken but Henry seems a lot older than him. There is a trichotomy between Patrick, Gino, and Henry that I find interesting. Henry is an elderly gay man who is comfortable with who he is, though he has quite a negative attitude toward the younger gay community. Gino is comfortable with all aspects of his sexuality and the community as a whole. On the other hand, Patrick is not only comfortable with his sexuality he refuses to engrain himself in the culture in any aspect.

Henry tells Gino there is a man that usually comes into the bar five minutes before closing, “when all the unloved queens too chubby or too sad or too messy have just about given up hope he rides in to bring the hope back to life.” Henry also tells Gino this mystery man likes the ones who drink Mai Tais. Also at the bar is Sam with young twink aspiring actor Freddy (John Bubniak), Sam is trying to talk Freddy into a photoshoot and gets a bit Weinsteiny with it basically telling Freddy how powerful he is and that he could ruin his career before it even started.

Adam sits at Detective Read's desk to file a police report

As Gino is leaving The Brownstone his vision starts to pulsate, he gets woozy and stumbles around the street. Thankfully there is a “good Samaritan” there to help usher Gino into a car. Freddy goes to Sam’s studio and is met with a container of Vaseline and a stool flipped upside down…hard cut to Freddy walking out of the studio limping. After Freddy leaves Sam tells Theo that Big Daddy is actually dead, which devolves into a large argument between the two. The final shot of this episode is heartbreaking when we join Dr. Wells on Fire Island. The cops have rounded up all the fawns on the island and 21 gun salute them into the afterlife. I think this is highly representative of how this serial killer is picking off younger gay men in Manhattan, though we will soon find out age does not matter to this killer.

Episode 2 “Thank You for Your Service”

Written by Ned Martel, Charlie Carver, and Manny Coto directed by Max Winkler

There was definitely a bit of a horror element in Episode 1 “Something Is Coming,” and it gets ramped up more right out of the gate in this episode. Gino wakes up with hands tied together as the killer vacuums the floor and measures the carpet grains with a ruler—might be OCD? The kidnapper, who we find out in this episode is named Mr. Whiteley (Jeff Hiller) takes scorching hot needles and shoves them under each of Gino’s fingernails. Whiteley tells Gino his purpose is to be a totem of the natural order in the coming war, and that the public needs to see that they bleed the same blood as everyone else. Whiteley sees that Gino has a USMC tattoo and tells him that he can’t fight in two wars, ultimately letting him go for the main reason that no one will care to look into Gino’s claims if he goes to the cops.

Adam sits in an interrogation room as multiple cops abuse him for saying negative things about them

Dr. Wells is monitoring blood cells under a microscope, noticing there is a sort of amoeba that is attacking other blood cells. We find out she is looking at Sam’s blood. The doctor tells Sam this is something that the body usually takes care of itself through the immune system…and she has seen this issue in four other people this month. While I assumed this season was going to go in that direction, as this takes place in ’81, there had been little inclination about the idea of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Sam leaves the doctor’s office where we see three other people in the waiting room, each of those people is experiencing a weird rash that won’t go away; this is an early symptom of HIV. It also turns out Mr. Whiteley is one of the patients waiting to see Dr. Wells.

Adam goes to Gino’s office to give him a photo of Sully, where Gino tells him all about the traumatic experience he went through. A lightbulb goes off in Adam’s head when he recommends they start a tip line of some sort for gay men to call and track any strange occurrences they may have. The tip line is a hit and the phones go off the hook. Adam and Gino go around town putting up signs for the tip line when out of nowhere he gets tackled by a cop. When Adam wakes up he finds he is surrounded by Patrick, Marzara, and two other cops. Adam gets questioned, and assaulted, by the cops because they are upset Gino ran a story quoting Adam as saying the cops don’t care. Once transported to a holding cell Adam infers to Patrick that he knows he is gay, though Patrick vehemently denies it.

Outside of their apartment, Barb confronts Gino with a box of restraints she found with Patrick’s stuff, also in the box are multiple colored handkerchiefs. Barb tells Gino Patrick is a very good liar, and I think Gino starts to believe it. The whole concept of Patrick being afraid of his sexuality and actively trying to hide it from the ones he loves is handled really well I think. It’s not over the top but it is handled very tactfully. Later that night Gino gives Patrick an ultimatum, which results in the two of them going to a bar to try and get some information about whatever the hell is going on.

Taking a step outside of the bar is Stewart (uncredited) who answers a payphone, on the other end is Sam. Sam talks Stewart into coming over for a good time, and Stewart obliges. Back inside the bar, a man who hits on Patrick is killed by Whiteley in the middle of the bar after receiving a Mai Tai, which is promptly noted by Gino.

A top down view of Detective Read getting out of his car to investigate 6 hands that were found

The last few minutes of this episode throw a lot our way. Dr. Wells gets a call from Fran to meet up, where Fran tells Dr. Wells that she knows what is causing the rashes as well as what is happening with the deer on Fire Island. Spoiler alert: it is the U.S. government. Sam kidnaps Stewart and it is alluded that he sexually assaulted him—oh, and Stewart is chained up in a cage now. And finally, Patrick gets a call about some new evidence that was found: six severed hands hung on hooks in an alley. Finally, this is enough to prove to Marzara that something is actually going on and they should probably start looking into it.

Final Thoughts

Well, anything is better than what I sat through for Season 2 of American Horror Stories. These first two episodes do an excellent job of painting the picture of the world this story is taking place in. Knowing that this is at the very beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic lends an amount of horror to the setting, but then again so does the blatant homophobia that is going on through not just the police but the LGBTQIA+ community as well. There’s this weird disconnect between Gino and the group of lesbians that want to write for his paper, and I’m not sure if they will explain what exactly this issue he has is.

While there isn’t a huge amount of horror elements in the typical American Horror Story sense of horror, there is this really heavy foreboding cloud looming over the story. I’m interested to see where the story goes from here, and I hope there is a lot more Denis O’Hare. I can’t tell if this whole deer subplot is going to play into the whole story properly, but I can definitely say the bar is set high from these first two episodes.

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Written by Brendan Jesus

I am an award-winning horror screenwriter, rotting away in New Jersey.

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