A war between faith and science determines the fate of an infected village in a gross episode that doesn’t have as much to say as it thinks.
“Love doesn’t heal, Celeste, only science can do that.”
Both American Horror Stories and American Horror Story proper have tackled endless subject matter that has explored the entire world across multiple time periods. However, 1750s New England during the height of the smallpox outbreak is new territory for the anthology series. There’s a tremendous amount of merit in telling an 18th century plague story, both in terms of the era’s blunt visuals, but also with how it can hold a mirror up to society’s own fragility during the past few years. “Milkmaids” begins as the episode from this season of American Horror Stories with the most potential, but ultimately it’s an entry full of disappointing decisions that squander its strengths and make the installment feel like excised storylines out of AHS: Coven, Roanoke, or Red Tide.
“Milkmaids” pulls a lot from the actual history of smallpox and inoculations, but its primary agenda is to disgust, not educate. “Milkmaids” deserves credit for actually making me gag and not holding back when it comes to its pus-bursting prescriptions, but this episode needs more than just grotesque imagery to succeed. Some of the episode’s most effective moments involve the nihilistic set design where heaps of bodies accumulate like waste. However, it’s all too short-sighted, much like the alleged cures that this remedial society embraces.
The big buy-in with “Milkmaids” involves the disgusting premise that the saintly Celeste (Julia Schlaepfer) is gifted with prolific pus that has the power to heal smallpox. A feud between religion and the occult forces the community to become divided and for false prophets to rise. This schism is to assert control of the minds of this New England community, but in a much more serious sense it’s to ultimately determine if they’ll live or die in this infected world. There’s some transparent commentary here on the absurd lengths that people will go to get healthy, but it pushes a shockingly tone-deaf message that irresponsibly equates vaccines to pustule secretions.
“Milkmaids” circles many of the same points, which weakens its formula. There’s roving persecution which brings the Salem Witch Trials to mind, as well as a doctrine that states that those who are healthy or sick are determined by God. The episode attempts to say something deeper through the eternal sanctity of milkmaids as these forgotten martyrs of society, but this doesn’t fully come together and it leaves the broader points of the episode curdled. “Milkmaids” creates heavy connections between Celeste’s insistence that nobody gets sick from having sex with her and the HIV crisis, which the episode’s writer, Our Lady J, has been quite vocal about in both real-life and writing for Ryan Murphy’s Pose. These parallels certainly aren’t lost on the audience, but they become one of many half-baked themes that “Milkmaids” doesn’t push hard enough. There are lots of good ideas in this episode, but the script is too frenetic for any of them to properly crystalize. By the end of “Milkmaids” the episode feels like Martyrs meets The Witch meets Soylent Green (and with an inexplicable hint of Porky’s), yet with none of their nuance.
The milkmaids remain the primary figures of conflict, but a patriarchal quarrel between Pastor Walter (Seth Gabel) and the grieving widower Thomas (Ryan Murphy regular, Cody Fern) further divides the village. Thomas rebels against Walter and is deemed a problem that needs to be extinguished. None of this is handled with any subtlety as characters flatly discuss “leaps of faith” and “acts of God,” all of which feel hollow in this context; and they’ve previously been explored to much greater effect through other iterations of American Horror Story. Seth Gabel does a fine job as the episode’s villain, but it’s hard not to imagine that Cody Fern would have been more interesting as the deranged Pastor rather than the apathetic Thomas.
“Milkmaids” emerges as the weakest link in season two of American Horror Stories, but this misfire shouldn’t discourage the series from attempting bolder experiments, period storytelling, and overt social commentary. “Milkmaids” uses real-life health horrors to help this antiquated tale resonate in relevant ways, but it’s this same discussion that spoils the episode’s flavor. The end result is a gross, graceless, gaudy episode of American Horror Stories that’s more likely to turn stomachs than heads.