The latest American Horror Stories has gorgeous shots of trees. Gorgeous pines. Beautiful oaks. I don’t actually know any of the trees featured in the show’s national park, but I really enjoyed some of the vibes that Manny Coto was going for with these sweeping shots of nature. There’s just a natural menace that exists within this vast realm that is so frequently explored by campers and rangers, but that we actually know so little about.
But, this is American Horror Stories. This is a show that will always manage to sort of waste the potential greatness it kicks off with. It’s always caught between wanting to be prestige television and wanting to be a goofy little B-movie. Murphy and Falchuk have occasionally managed to find a sweet spot in between those things and Coto, as the primary writer throughout this season of episodic nonsense, has had his share of ups and downs. “Feral” doesn’t know which of these two tones it’s going for, which is a shame for an episode chock full of moments that could be further exploited if it leaned into messiness.
“Feral” is a lot of things in one (which, really, is something that can be said about most Murphy/Falchuk shows): it’s got a missing child, references to Bigfoot, drug cartels, an Australian park ranger in an American national forest, and, uh, feral mutants that live in the woods. The episode’s cold open—a simple enough instance of a child disappearing in the woods—prepares the audience for one thing, but the rest of the episode delivers something else. Its found-footage styled opening credits promise something intriguing, but more than that, it offers a tiny showcase of what AHS could do if the people behind it actually chose to engage with form.
Imagine, if you will, an episode that was entirely shot like a found-footage film. That the episode introduces the concept of Bigfoot and then fakes out the viewer by pivoting to feral human beings, some of which are mutated beyond recognition, isn’t the problem. The problem is that the episode doesn’t commit to the nonsensicality of its story. I know I’ve complained about this in the past, but the series is truly at its best when it leans into a certain camp sensibility (and how comedy and horror intersect). A few moments in this episode attain that, particularly those with Cody Fern of all people.
Fern is, quite possibly, the only person who is totally aware of the kind of performance he should be giving. Where Aaron Tveit and Tiffany Dupont try hard to sell the drama that Coto has lazily written (made worse by the fact that neither actor looks like they’ve aged the ten years the episode spans), Fern is keyed into the humor that lies within. When Fern’s park ranger walks in with an Australian accent, it’s immediately offbeat and humorous when compared to the self-seriousness of the journey to find a missing child. When he starts going on and on about conspiracy theories—not Bigfoot, but the concept that wild people live in the forest, that the government has suppressed this information, that thousands of missing people are eaten by feral beings that have mutated due to inbreeding or something, that they might just be hundreds of years old, that they exist within every single national park, and that the government continues to allow it “because capitalism”—you can’t help but be drawn into the episode. It’s idiotic, but it’s exactly the kind of idiotic I expect from the series at this point.
Where most of the episode falls into rather boring territory, the thing that deserves highlighting beyond Fern is the feral beings themselves. At first it’s the same basic “something in the woods” shots you get in any horror teasing, but once they’re revealed, it’s delightful to watch the performers move around. Their designs are all unique and they inhabit space in a way that reminds me of performers at Halloween Horror Nights or any given haunted house where oddities chase you around. They also have one of the most entertaining kills of the season so far, which comes in the form of tearing Cody Fern’s park ranger apart and eating his intestines. It’s not especially unique, but god is it entertaining to watch a bunch of mutant cannibals eating someone’s guts.
Between this and last week’s final shot of Ba’al being forced to bone Billie Lourd, I can’t help but find myself disappointed that these two haven’t been as consistently self-aware as previous episodes in the season. “Feral” has the missing child expectedly turn up as part of the feral party, but what’s so charming about an introduction that could have sucked is how flat-out absurd it is. A throne of bones appears out of nowhere, the child is sitting on it and somehow the leader of this pack of cannibals, and he’s still wearing the compass his father gave him before deciding to eat them all. That the entire episode wasn’t on the same wavelength of that is just a shame. But, hey, maybe next week will be better.
- It is a damn shame that Cody Fern didn’t make a “dingo ate my baby” joke because that was absolutely the first thing I thought when he showed up
- For a short moment, I was convinced this episode was going to turn into a random zombie thing, but I’m glad it ended up not being that.
- One thing I wish this episode did was shut the fuck up a little more. If it wanted to lean into the horror/drama of it all, it would have been better off letting the characters and audience stew in the sounds of the forest. But, sadly, as I have stated in the past, this show is not good at horror.
- The dude who guides them through the forest truly had some of the worst dialogue so far of the series. “His Wheaties have been in the milk too long” and “this ain’t no marriage retreat and I sure as hell ain’t no Dr. Phil” are both just terrible lines and he cannot sell the betrayal of the family whatsoever.
- One of my favorite genres of cinema is “parents losing a child and dealing with that” and god does this episode truly suck at exploring that. This probably says too much about me and I should have kept it for my therapist.
- And, last but not least, can we talk about the fact that this man claims there are pot farms in the national parks, but those pot farms are home to dangerous cartels who kidnap people and sell them into human trafficking. It’s just… a very dated concept about weed of all things. Like, this is some Weeds era nonsense.