Review: ‘American Horror Stories: Milkmaids’

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So far, this season of American Horror Stories has brought four vastly different stories from the far corners of its shared universe. From dollhouses and magic to ghosts in video doorbells seeking closure, even serial killers in killer cars looking for their latest kill. However in American Horror Stories: Milkmaids, viewers are transported to a time farther back than the first three, a time that is as dark in the show as it was in real life. 

Writer Our Lady J developed a tale that was interesting for some reasons, although became clouded by the grotesque macabre aspects at the center of Milkmaids. The message felt overshadowed by traditional American Horror Story shock value, similar in aspect to Hotel (season five), one of the only seasons of the original series I considered turning off. American Horror Stories: Milkmaids sees the return of Seth Gabel, who played Jeffrey Dahmer in season five, along with Cody Fern who has appeared in both the flagship series and the spin-off series. So is American Horror Stories: Milkmaids for you? Let me break it down in case you’re hesitant.

[Warning: Spoilers from American Horror Stories: Milkmaids are below!]

18th-century problems 

There is something incredibly terrifying about 18th-century New England as the backdrop for a horror film or show. Milkmaids uses this background exceptionally well as it explores the panic that smallpox has on this small town. When audiences first meet Thomas (Fern), he’s grieving the death of his wife, who had succumbed to smallpox. In his grief and desire to protect himself and his son, Thomas talks with the village pastor, Walter (Seth Gabel) about a rumored cure for the pandemic.

American Horror Stories: Milkmaids
LtR: Cody Fern as Thomas and Seth Gabel as Walter. American Horror Stories (FX/Hulu)

Similar to the game of telephone, Thomas tells Walter about how people could be cured and immune to smallpox by eating the hearts of the recently deceased. Walter, who I feel should have been the voice of reason as the village pastor, thinks this idea is brilliant and devours a heart like it was a large pastry. Perfectly normal, right? Walter believes that he is indeed cured and goes on to encourage the entire congregation to do the same.

Now at this point, someone will speak out about how crazy this plan sounds right? No. Desperate for any salvation from smallpox, the congregation eagerly jumps on board and set out to start digging up their deceased loved ones. In fact, the only one who is questioning this plan is Thomas, who set this entire plot in motion, because sure. Why not…

Shunned in American Horror Stories: Milkmaids

Running parallel to the smallpox storyline is another about the milkmaids for which the episode is named. Celeste (Julia Schlaepher), a prostitute in the small village, was shunned by the congregation at the word of Walter. Having been on the receiving end of Walter’s wrath, Celeste spoke out about his cruelty, which lead to her shunning. She seeks refuge with the milkmaid from the town, Delilah (Addison Timlin). 

Milkmaids
LtR Celeste (Julia Schlaepher) and Delilah (Addison Timlin). American Horror Stories: Milkmaid (FX/Hulu).

While living together, Celeste continues to sleep with men, allowing them to drink from the open sores that cover her body. Throughout the episode, Delilah makes the connection that the men who drink from Celeste’s wounds haven’t contracted smallpox, indicating that the infection creates immunity for the wider pandemic. It also becomes apparent that the sore come from cowpox, contracted from cows themselves.

Delilah’s goal becomes to spread the word about the potential cure while stopping the village from digging up bodies and eating the corpse’s hearts. Celeste and Delilah’s relationship continues to grow, with romantic feelings becoming apparent as the two spend more time together. However, those in the village aren’t happy with the cure nor with the two women’s affection for each other.

What went wrong in American Horror Stories: Milkmaids

There was a lot with this episode that didn’t work for me. The scenes of Walter and the congregation eating hearts definitely make me queasy. Some may compare it to the scene for Game of Thrones, however, Milkmaids felt entirely different. The energy was more sinister, with Walter even enjoying the act of cannibalism. 

American Horror Stories: Milkmaids Thomas
Thomas (Cody Fern). American Horror Stories: Milkmaids (FX/Hulu).

Even worse than these scenes were those with the men drinking the infection from Celeste’s wounds. These moments made me sick to my stomach, even having to close my eyes a few times. While I understand why some felt these scenes were necessary to the story, they felt unneeded in my opinion. The story could have reached the same conclusion without the need to show the men going through with the act.

American Horror Stories: Milkmaids also felt like it wasn’t sure what kind of horror story it wanted to be. With the setting of the 18th century, the story could have easily been about the milkmaids and the “magic” they possessed. There were so many elements that were already there, that an exciting story could have been woven. But then you had to factor in the cannibalism, which could have been an interesting story by itself. Together, the two stories didn’t go together as well as I would have hoped.

Final thoughts

The message that Our Lady J was trying to tell was an important one. The writer was trying to tell a story that is as old as time and one that members of the LGBTQ+, like themselves, are dealing with. People are afraid of that which they do not know. Similar to the AIDS epidemic of the 80s, panic easily sets in when these 18th-century people are afraid for their lives. Great lengths are looked for to avoid death like those we love. I think everyone can relate to that message as the Covid-19 pandemic is still ongoing. 

That being said, this important message could have been delivered in a different casing, with a story that felt more congruent and not so disgusting. I understand that Milkmaids was supposed to make people uncomfortable, as to help drive home the need to find solutions to similar problems, but I fear that the episode may have worked against itself. The actors and actresses involved did well with what they were given, however, this episode will probably reside at the bottom of my list and I won’t be returning for a second watch.

What did you think? Did you enjoy American Horror Stories: Milkmaids? Let us know over on Twitter! And if you haven’t already, check out our review on American Horror Stories: Drive; an instant classic in my opinion!

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