“Milkmaids” is an impressively nasty bit of work as American Horror Stories continues its run of form.
This recap of American Horror Stories season 2, episode 4, “Milkmaids”, contains spoilers.
The beauty – although perhaps “beauty” isn’t the right word in this case – of the horror genre is that it can be so many different things. Haunted houses? Demonic possession? No problem! Masked serial killers, haunted cars, evil dogs, psychotic fans of pop literature? Come one, come all. Small-town religious zealotry, sexism, and drinking the gunk from smallpox pustules? Sure!
American Horror Stories season 2, episode 4 recap
Enter “Milkmaids”. American Horror Stories is on an unexpected run of good form this season, and the latest episode, which was released late on Hulu due to technical difficulties, much to the uproar of the fanbase, is probably the best of the bunch thus far. It’s certainly the most disgusting, which here is kind of the selling point anyway.
We’re in 1757 New England, and smallpox is rife. Everyone’s dying, and anyone who isn’t is turning to increasingly drastic measures to stave off the possibility. In that climate, Celeste, a milkmaid and part-time prostitute, has more to offer than her body. She’s festooned with boils but has never fallen ill; she’s adamant that the pus they excrete is a gift of healing from Saint Lazarus, and that the men whom she has, ahem, “serviced”, who have fed from the boils, are living long and healthy lives.
The nakedly villainous Pastor Walter isn’t having it. He’s a man of the cloth, so he doesn’t want Celeste for her healing properties, only for sex. He also, thanks largely to the rumor mill, becomes dangerously into cannibalism, so much so that he manipulates the entire town into digging up their dead and eating their hearts. This, he thinks, is the real cure for smallpox, not realizing – or, frankly, wanting to realize – that it was Celeste’s boil pus that actually boosted his immune system (she’s not a healer, but it’s a long story involving a cow).
So, that’s the central tension, but there’s plenty more besides, including a rift that develops between Walter and his associate Thomas, the parentage of Thomas’s weird son Edward, and a lot of baked-in systemic prejudices that lead in a roundabout way to a miserable but oddly satisfying twist ending. Sometimes, it’s just nice to say, “I told you so.”
Still, “Milkmaids” knits its story together impressively well, and cycles between modes of horror – gross-out pus-drinking and heart-eating, prehistoric belief systems, ingrained social prejudices, the corrupting contagion of power – to consistently surprising effect. It builds a great atmosphere, goes to some fun places, and consistently delivers on basically every level a horror fan would want.