The most recent installment of the Serial podcast is called “The Retrievals.” It’s about several women who received IVF treatment at the Yale Fertility Center. While undergoing treatment, a nurse working at the clinic was stealing the fentanyl and replacing it with saline. The women complaining to their doctors and nurses about the extraordinary pain they experienced during the procedure were dismissed because they were women; because they were well-off women who doctors assumed weren’t accustomed to any level of pain; and because they were women already emotionally sensitive because of the stakes involved in IVF, and because their hormones were all over the place because of the treatment.
In other words, the ordeal created the perfect environment to chalk up their complaints to female hysteria. Some of the women — all professional doctors, lawyers, drug counselors, etc. — couldn’t bring themselves to even complain about the excruciating pain because they did not want to be considered hysterical. Thus, because doctors did not take their complaints seriously, the offending nurse continued stealing fentanyl for months before being caught.
It’s hard not to think about “The Retrievals” while watching the first episode of AHS: Delicate — is this season about female pain and the way that men so often gaslight women into believing that their complaints are hysterical? I’m reluctant to give too much credit to an installment of American Horror Story, but this season — the 12th of the FX series — is different in two important ways. It’s the first time that Ryan Murphy is not the showrunner — it’s being taken over by playwright Halley Feiffer (“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City”) and for the first time it’s based on existing source material, Danielle Valentine’s novel Delicate Condition.
The latter point is critical because it means this season of AHS will have a structure. It is refreshing for a television show that typically writes itself into a corner by the third episode and has to devise increasingly outlandish ways to escape it. It’s also evident in the first episode, which does not begin with a pregnancy and ends with an alien time-traveling demon baby.
Instead, Delicate seems to be something akin to Rosemary’s Fetus. It centers on the efforts of indie film actress Anna Victoria Alcott (Emma Roberts) and her husband, Dexter Harding (Matt Czuchry), to conceive a baby through IVF. Things don’t take long to go sideways: Someone keeps moving her medication, changing her appointments, and breaking into her home. She also senses that someone is following her.
Given Anna’s heightened emotional state because of the IVF treatment, her husband and her doctor, Dr. Hill (Denis O’Hare), dismiss her concerns and chalk them up to hysteria. Dexter even gets upset with Anna for interfering with his night with her paranoia. Anna is also jealous of Dexter’s first wife — who died — and is trying to navigate her career while trying to have a baby. This is where Kim Kardashian comes in, as Anna’s publicist, Siobhan Corbyn. As novelty casting goes, Kardashian at least feels well-suited to the role, although not so well-suited that it’s possible to see her as anyone besides Kim Kardashian.
Relative to other AHS premieres, not a lot happens in the opening episode of Delicate, and that is to its credit. Halley Feiffer seems interested in telling a story driven by character instead of spending ten episodes genre-hopping. It’s not yet clear if this season of AHS will be good, but at least it will be different. After over a decade of the same Ryan Murphy bullshit in different packages, any change is a relief. Then again, we’ve all been fooled into thinking that this is the season that AHS doesn’t fall apart midway through. That’s never been true, so I’m reluctant to get our hopes up too much here.