American Horror Story: NYC “Smoke Signals” and “Blackout” (S11 E3&4)

American Horror Story: NYC started off fairly strong with two fairly tense episodes of murder and mayhem, death, and disease. Taking a step back and looking at the first two episodes, I realized I think I completely missed the allegory that lies right under the surface. If you watched the first two episodes you witnessed a few different storylines: a serial killer targeting gay men, a megalomaniac artist, and a disease sweeping the community as well as the deer on Fire Island. My initial thought was this disease sweeping the community was HIV/AIDS, as the show takes place during ’81, but in this episode, it appears that may be something else. Now I think I’m starting to realize that the serial killer is an allegory for HIV/AIDS.

This serial killer has been on the hunt for quite some time and has been widely dismissed by the NYPD, this correlates to how when the HIV/AIDS epidemic started it was widely dismissed by the medical field as well as politicians. Does this killer represent the epidemic and this disease is something completely different? Or is this season already losing focus and we’re witnessing the beginning of the end for this season?

Episode 3 “Smoke Signals”

Written by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Manny Coto directed by John J. Gray

In probably the muddiest parts of the entire season so far, Fran (Sandra Bernhard) and Dr. Wells (Billie Lourd) have a sit down for a cup of coffee. Fran tells Dr. Wells the deer deaths are attributed to the tick experiments that were part of Operation Paperclip—yes, Nazis are now canon in this story, on Plum Island in Massachusetts. Tick experiments were handled on Plum Island, and Lyme Disease was discovered for the first time in the states in Connecticut in ’75, though there is no real correlation between the experiments on Plum Island. Lyme Disease and other variations of it have existed in the U.S. long before these experiments. I’m not really sure why they would even feel the need to introduce this subplot if it does turn out to be Lyme Disease. Things then get a social commentary twist when Dr. Wells tells Fran that spreading false information like this is going to hurt more people in the long run.

An old looking image of someone centered in the screen wearing a gas mask

Stewart (Taylor Bloom) wakes up in his cage with the door unlocked. He slowly makes his way up the stairs and out of the apartment. Big Daddy (Matthew William Bishop) is guarding the front door though for whatever reason he lets Stewart leave. Stewart immediately goes to the police and talks with Patrick (Russell Tovey) who takes his claims and goes to Sam’s (Zachary Quinto), he comes up empty-handed and leaves the apartment after Sam basically threatens to out him.

Gino (Joe Mantello) goads Patrick into putting his money where his mouth is, though I’m pretty sure Patrick had shown in Episode 2 “Thank You For Your Service” that he is willing to go out on the frontline to these bars to try and find answers. Deciding to prove Gino wrong, again, Patrick goes to The Ditch, the bar that Stewart got the call from Sam. After waiting for hours Patrick finally answers a call from Whitley (Jeff Hiller), who tells him to go to another bar, Patrick obliges. Patrick follows the lead of another man at this new place, though it’s not Whitley, rather it turns into a very passionate, and almost angry, hook-up.

Adam (Charlie Carver) meets Theo (Isaac Powell) at The Ascension Bar for a date, while Gino goes back to visit Henry (Denis O’Hare). Gino shows the picture of Whitley to Henry, who has seen Whitley before, but says it’s not his job to really care. Henry goes on a mini-monologue stating he has seen too much death to really even care at this point. We also get a brief moment of Patrick noticing he is starting to get a mysterious rash. Back at The Ascension Bar Adam and Theo have a slightly heated conversation, with Adam thinking that Theo thinks he’s lower class; before this conversation can really be resolved, Big Daddy chains the door to the bar shut and throws a Molotov into the bar.

Adam gets delivered a Mai Tai in a split diopter shot

At the hospita,l we see Dr. Wells asking her boss, at Fran’s recommendation, if she can secretly start researching the blood of her patients…the boss obviously says no for many reasons. As Dr. Wells is leaving she sees the influx of burn patients from The Ascension Bar being rushed to the hospital. The final few minutes of this episode are pretty tense. Adam and Dr. Wells have some unspoken backstory, Gino and Patrick get into a cat-and-mouse chase with Whitley at the hospital, and Gino ends up trapped in one of the holding containers in the morgue.

Episode 4 “Black Out”

Written by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Charlie Carver directed by Jennifer Lynch

Right off the bat, after just a little hunting, Patrick finds Gino. Things quickly go south the next day between the two again, as Gino wakes up with a rash, promptly [and correctly] blaming it Patrick. The radio tells us today is set to be the hottest day of the year, and as someone who has been in New York on some of these hottest days of there year [even without knowing what the episode title was] that can only mean one thing: power failure!

Patrick takes a phone call at a payphone in an extreme closeup

Gino goes to the bathhouse to talk with Ms. Pizzazz, Kathy, (Patti LuPone), the singer and owner of the bathhouse, to ask her for help. Kathy initially tells Gino it’s not her place to make a statement before ultimately giving a statement for the paper, calling on local and government officials to look into this serial killer matter. Patrick gets called to a crime scene by Marzara (Kal Penn), and both Patrick and Detective Mulcahey (Brian Ray Norris) are wondering what they are doing in a completely different precinct. The death they are here to investigate is the death of Hans Henke (Casey Thomas Brown), one of the artists from The Warehouse.

Patrick knows this is not the work of Whitley, as Hans is covered in boils, rashes, and contusions, as well as teeth marks from his cats. Marzara starts to get suspicious of Patrick, saying that Patrick wants him to take these serial killings seriously, and now that he is investigating Hans’ death seriously, Patrick is telling him Hans’ death is not part of the slayings. It’s clear that Marzara is trying to do the right thing, and I can understand his anger with Patrick for getting in the way. Though it’s interesting to note that Marzara is really becoming unclear on Patrick’s intentions.

Theo and Sam break up in a terribly written and executed scene. This leads to Theo going over to Adam’s house and them hooking up. Okay, I don’t care who you are or how hot you are, I am not having a sweaty hook up in an excruciatingly hot day…that sounds absolutely miserable. Theo leaves Adam’s, and Adam happens to notice he has a voicemail. The voicemail is nothing but heavy breathing. Okay quick side tangent, this whole is he/isn’t he for Big Daddy is getting kind of tedious. Yes, the ambiguity of whether he is real or not is exciting, but there are no real context clues to help point the audience in a direction. There is nothing wrong with ambiguity in a story, but you need to give proper care to the idea and not just make it ambiguous for the hell of it.

The power finally goes out, we’ve been waiting for that, and Adam gets a phone call. I used to have a rotary phone, but I’m pretty sure it still had to run on power…right? Didn’t phones in the ’80s run on power? Anyways, Adam gets a call after the power goes out inviting him to a blackout party at The Warehouse. At the 55th precinct Marzara calls Patrick into his office, he is trying to find who is leaking all of this sensitive evidence to the press. Patrick finally uses this moment to come out to Marzara. I am all for being your true self and living your best life, but…your boss thinks YOU are the one leaking confidential information to an LGBTQ+ newspaper, about a serial killer targeting gay men, and this is the time you pick to tell your boss you are gay? Thematically it works perfectly, but if this were real life that would probably be number one on the list of worst times to do that.

Whitley then calls Patrick at the precinct and tells him, “people only pay attention when lives are lost,” which is systematically untrue. Then Whitley tells Patrick he is going to use this blackout to kill in the open at Central Park tonight. My dude, do you want to get caught? You are literally telling the only detective who really gives a sh*t about catching you your location? Does he know what’s going to happen later with Big Daddy…wait. I may have a new theory AS I’M WRITING THIS, which we will get to momentarily.

Patrick stakes out in the woods at Central Park in the dark

Adam heads out to the blackout party, only to be stopped by Sam. For some reason, Adam thinks it is a good idea to get in Sam’s car. They have a conversation about Theo, Sam tells him to back off and that he’ll pay him whatever to get out of the picture. Blinded by love, Adam doesn’t go for the bait and gets out of the car. Knowing when and where Whitley will strike next, Patrick and Mulcahey go to stakeout Central Park. This leads to Patrick being hunted by Big Daddy, who is now wielding a mace. Thankfully Patrick gets away safely when Mulcahey catches up to him.

So, my new theory: is Whitley working with Big Daddy? Is Whitley summoning Big Daddy? For the early half of their AHS career, Falchuk and Murphy excelled at subverting horror tropes and expectations; they liked to surprise. Sam truly believes Big Daddy is dead, but Adam does not. I think old Falchuk and Murphy would have kept Big Daddy alive in this universe and had a big reveal. Current Falchuk and Murphy, I think, would tell us the truth upfront that Big Daddy is dead, and what we are seeing is some sort of supernatural entity that is being summoned by Whitley. I don’t really think this is that far of a stretch. Operation Paperclip and Plum Island have already been broached, so what’s to stop them from taking it a slight step further and dipping our toe in the supernatural world? Why would Whitley try and get Patrick to come to Central Park if he is not even going to try and attack Patrick himself? I think it is because he has the spirit of Big Daddy wrapped around his finger.

At the blackout party Daniel (Hale Appleman) bursts in to ruin everyone’s time. Not mentioned earlier, when Marzara arrived at Hans’ crime scene they had Daniel arrested…even though Daniel was the one who called it in. Daniel tells everyone there is a sickness going around, that everyone needs to wake up…that it’s not safe. This scene is really well handled. I think it might be a scene written by Charlie Carver because Adam comes in to back up what Daniel is saying.

Later that night, Patrick tells Gino he came out, but Gino had a confrontation with Barbara (Leslie Grossman) earlier who showed Gino a full-faced Big Daddy mask he owns. This leads to argument number 9,382 between Patrick and Gino. The argument leads to Gino having some kind of episode, be it a panic attack or was caused by whatever bacterial/rash infection he has going on, and he passes out. They go to the hospital and the doctor tells them Gino has, get this, Cat Scratch Fever. I literally could not make this up if I wanted to.

At the park, Daniel and a friend are walking around, window shopping, when they hear something off in the distance. A sort of cutting and squelching sound. They see Whitley a few feet away cutting off someone’s head. Determined to get real evidence, they follow Whitley for quite some time all the way to his apartment, which just so happens to have electricity. Whitley goes inside, they wait a few seconds, and also go in. But oh no, Whitley knew they were behind him and holds the elevator for them! How kind. Once all three men are in the elevator the power goes back out, causing Whitley to use matches as a source of light.

Gino lays in a hospital bed after being diagnosed with Cat Scratch Fever

This scene is really intense and one of the best episode-enders from this season so far. You can just imagine how hot and humid this elevator has to be. Add to that the smell of the severed head in Whitley’s bag and the smoke fumes of the matches? That’s gag-worthy to me. Whitley tells them guys he knows they have been watching…the lights flicker…WHITLEY HAS A KNIFE.

Final Thoughts

Episode 3 “Smoke Signals” is a bit of a slog to get through, but Episode 4 “Blackout” was probably one of the most entertaining episodes in the franchise. It’s dark, literally and figuratively. It’s sweaty, it’s raw. Granted, I did say that Patrick picked an inopportune time to come out to his boss, I think it is a thematic powerhouse. It caused me to do a little fist pump.

Whatever running theory I have for the Dr. Wells subplot is probably wrong, and very misguided, but I just don’t think they are doing a clear job of telling this part of the story. It makes sense that they want to keep that and Big Daddy as season-end resolutions, but I want more with it. I want there to be more details that I can go back and pick up. Oh and the Whitley/Big Daddy theory? I’m also on the fence about that one, but I think that is the direction they will end up taking it in.

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Written by Brendan Jesus

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

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