This review contains spoilers for American Horror Stories: Rubber(wo)man.
The first two hours of American Horror Stories are a Ryan Murphy Weakest Hits. Literally, this first episode revisits the origin show’s titular Murder House and some of its murderers. But more broadly, this initial two-parter is every tendency I loathe about the powerful television creator I’ve been known to defend. Just a bunch of a pretty white gays tap dancing their way through racist brutality.
Michael and Troy are a gay couple with a dream. They want to run ghost tours out of the famous Murder House just like our queer ancestors always imagined. The year is 2021 and cis white gay men who look like former models should get to do whatever their hearts desire gosh darn it! Watching Matt Bomer and a long-haired Gavin Creel commiserate and bicker, I felt like show creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk were revealing how they see themselves. And just like Murphy and Falchuk have parented several monsters, Trichael are raising one of their own.
Their daughter Scarlett is technically the protagonist of this lesbian love story even if Troy and Michael are the only characters with any development, humor, or specificity. Scarlett is another pretty white cis gay but because Ryan Murphy is trapped in the amber of a Prop 8 protest, her life is one of turmoil. Sierra McCormick also looks like a model — or at least a CW darling — and no overalls or bob can sell her as the weird girl. In fact, she looks so much like her love interest Paris Jackson, it’d be easier to believe them to be sisters than the star-crossed lezzie outcast and popular girl. Alas Scarlett is something of a psychopath.
As obsessed with unnecessary plot as he is with white men who look the same, Murphy offers several explanations for Scarlett’s sadism and eventual murderess ways. First, she was kidnapped as a baby by a woman whose own child was murdered by her husband. Second, she’s obsessed with violent porn. And third, the murder house itself is taking over as she embodies the Rubberman — aka puts on a haunted latex fetish suit.
Despite his own sadism toward young actors, I’m not surprised Murphy contextualizes BDSM in this way. He’s always had the respectability politics of a No Kink at Pride viral tweet. Troy and Michael are Murphy’s gay ideal. Black latex is the stuff of nightmares. Scarlett masturbates thinking about her crush Maya and a mere orgasmic choking is made synonymous with a jump scare.
Murphy’s conservative streak and terrible writing could be forgiven if it weren’t for his totally skewed vision of who is granted humanity. As I wrote about in my generous review of Ratched, Murphy’s approach to horror is consistently racist. I rolled my eyes when Scarlett’s therapist was Black — but that trope quickly became the least of my worries once she was the show’s first brutal kill. Similarly, it wasn’t lost on me that all of Maya’s friends were people of color and that their cliché high school popularity is framed as a greater privilege than Scarlett’s whiteness — but again, things get worse after Maya’s advances are revealed to be a prank and Scarlett murders all four of them for revenge. And then, almost as an afterthought, a Latino construction worker is brutally murdered immediately upon introduction.
This is a horror show and people are going to die. But when Trichael meet their eventual doom it is done off-screen. The majority of the violence in these two episodes is inflicted upon people of color despite our four main characters — Scarlett, her parents, and her new ghost crush Ruby — being white. It wouldn’t surprise me if all of this is just a product of Murphy’s liberal-minded colorblind casting. But at this point intention doesn’t matter. These episodes are a brutal look into who Ryan Murphy deems worthy of a personality and who exists only to aid or bully a white gay before getting their throat slit.
Beyond my thematic issues, “Rubber(wo)man” is also an incompetent work of television writing. I was excited by this spin-off because I hoped the shortened anthology format would prevent the usual Ryan Murphy problem of starting strong before getting lost in mess. Instead he just accelerated his usual arc with a season’s worth of story packed into two episodes. There are endless twists, tonal shifts, and a barrage of references to past American Horror Story seasons. It feels like attending the concert of an aging rocker — it’s so bad it makes you wonder if the music was ever even good to begin with.
The good news is this is an anthology show with different writers, directors, actors, and stories for each of the season’s remaining episodes. This isn’t good news, because I think future episodes will be great. It’s just good news, because there’s no way they could be this bad.
Three seasons of Pose later and Ryan Murphy is still the same man who thought being in a glee club was the same as experiencing racism. Murphy is determined to think of himself as an underdog. No amount of money or power or influence will heal his adolescent scars or broaden his worldview beyond his own identity. Murphy has undoubtedly made Hollywood a better place for cis white gay men like himself. I used to find that inspiring. But as the limitations within that purpose reveal themselves again and again, all I can see is horror.