By Lili Loofbourow
Of course, I know who Kim Kardashian is. I’ve seen a million stills. I know some of the gossip. I could probably recognise a few of the sisters. But last week was the first time I’d seen Kim Kardashian in action.
The woman is terrifying.
On "American Horror Story: Delicate", Kardashian plays Siobhan, a publicist recently hired by the protagonist, Anna (Emma Roberts).
Anna’s acting career is finally taking off, just as she and her husband, Dex (Matt Czuchry), start working with a swanky IVF clinic to get pregnant.
The first two episodes are pleasurably creepy. Unsettling things happen to and around Anna that her husband dismisses with Czuchry’s trademark mix of charm and condescension.
Home invasions by vanishing figures, calendar hacks, time jumps. The IVF doctor (series regular Denis O’Hare) is encouraging, even avuncular. He says all the right things, but his energy is a little off.
In a season that’s explicitly about reproductive horror, incidental encounters become unreasonably alarming, too.
Everyone is behaving strangely around Anna, in fact, except Siobhan, Anna’s self-proclaimed “best friend”. I put it in quotes for a reason. If Siobhan isn’t evil, and I half-heartedly hope she isn’t, this is one of the weirdest portrayals of friendship I’ve seen.
Kardashian’s casting was controversial, but well within AHS creator Ryan Murphy’s wheelhouse; the man who created “Feud” loves exploring the intersection of pop culture, gossip and history.
Kardashian was, of course, a character in Murphy’s "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story", in which she and her siblings listened as Robert Kardashian, played by David Schwimmer, told them: “Fame is fleeting. It’s hollow. It means nothing without a virtuous heart.”
And although this particular icon isn’t known for her acting, maybe she should be. Reality TV is acting. I’ve never seen her shows, but she's deeply convincing here as a savagely unctuous public relations maven.
Whether she’s channelling her mother, Kris Jenner, who turned her family into a billion-dollar industry, or playing herself, she’s compelling as a cynical manager with an instinct for shepherding public figures through crisis to victory.
Siobhan gave Anna a chilling get-a-grip speech last week, warning her client friend that she needed to actively campaign during awards season, show a little gratitude to the team working on her behalf and express emotions other than angst.
Whereas everyone else in Anna's world acts a little bit like an alien, saying the right things while looking distinctly odd, Siobhan’s affect disturbs because of its peppy, calculated friendliness. Her “look”, with every angle accounted for and no hair out of place, is Kardashian’s, too, and bespeaks an almost monomaniacal commitment to the appearance of perfection.
Given her job, that makes it extremely easy to read even her casual ribbing of Anna as pragmatic, managerial – realpolitik disguised as genuine fondness.
This isn’t helped by the backstory of the characters’ friendship, which, at least as it is presented within the show, makes no sense.
It’s clear Anna is relatively new to IVF; she met Siobhan in a support group when her first round was unsuccessful. This comes up in a painfully expository speech that Kardashian does her best with, but the stilted dialogue, combined with Kardashian’s sugary delivery, makes the story it sketches out impossible to believe.
“Your joy is my joy,” Siobhan says to Anna, when the latter wonders whether Siobhan might resent it if she gets pregnant. “You’re my best friend,” she adds. "Meeting you at that IVF support group was the only godforsaken thing I got out of that process.“
The camera moves away from Kardashian's face during the “you're my best friend” line for good reason: Not even Streep could do it justice.
Siobhan is, of course, a potential villain, and she’s sometimes shot that way. Her office architecturally resembles a supervillain’s lair, she dresses a bit like a witch and the “B12” vials she orders Anna to take look like blood.
I don’t particularly want the story to unfold that way (too predictable), but the alternative seems unthinkable, because Anna and Siobhan have negative chemistry.
This is also and especially true at the level of the performance. Every time they're on-screen together, Roberts and Kardashian clash.
As an effect, it’s pretty interesting. Their styles almost physically pull against each other, with Roberts repeatedly submitting to Kardashian’s bubbly gravity.
Plot-wise, a shared commitment to artifice could have theoretically constituted a kind of common ground between the actress and her publicist, but Anna, to all appearances an anti-star – awkward on the red carpet, uncomfortable with fans – has no trace of Siobhan’s invincible polish.
Siobhan’s professed admiration for Anna therefore seems either baseless or insincere. It is, at the very least, confusing.
Put differently, if this storyline ends up being about female friendship, it’s a bizarre one, stripped of the usual intimacies. Anna seems not to know anything at all about Siobhan other than the IVF, and she acts more cowed than charmed by Siobhan in most of their scenes together.
I’m not surprised the mirror cracked when Anna and Siobhan started singing together in Anna’s bathroom.
To all appearances, a girly bonding scene, it somehow felt like the opposite – not exactly competitive, but deeply untrue. Strained. Off-putting.
This goes double for the vintage Madonna dress Siobhan procures for Anna, by the way. Siobhan is clearly supposed to be a genius at her job, but Anna is no Madonna, and that look did Anna no favours.
Should we assume that Siobhan is secretly sabotaging her client, because the latter was almost immediately upstaged on the red carpet by a younger actress? Or is this just one of those situations where a show declares an effect it was unable to visually deliver?
There’s gamesmanship galore in all of this, of course, with Kardashian knowingly peeking out – talking about how the public thinks famous women are asking to be stalked or abused, mocking Olivia Wilde’s public relations strategy while promoting “Don’t Worry Darling” and poking fun at herself. “Don’t rip it,” she says to Anna of the Madonna dress, in an obvious wink to the controversy over Kardashian herself wearing Marilyn Monroe’s dress to the Met Gala.
Kardashian’s delivery is generally placid, unblinking even at moments when she’s, at least in theory, commiserating with Anna over the creepy things happening to her.
The moments when that surface breaks down are therefore notable, and sometimes rewarding. One comes when Anna’s mirror breaks. (Siobhan is genuinely surprised, at least in part by the jagged line running through her perfect reflection.)
The most startling scene comes when Siobhan icily eviscerates Hamish Moss (Dominic Burgess), an executive at the Gotham Awards, for praising Anna’s beauty to diminish her talent.
Anna joins in. “Don’t placate me!” she hisses. But her performance is spontaneous and uncontrolled where Siobhan’s is deadly, precise.
The moment lands because Kardashian’s performance is usually bolstered and constrained by her real-life reputation for performing just as Siobhan says a public person should: strapping on a smile to do the hard work of being successful.
When she applies herself to the project of friendship, it’s unconvincing in the extreme, bordering on sinister, precisely because of how she herself has defined professionalism.
That supercharges the moments when her game face drops, however.
If Siobhan’s affect with Anna is sometimes suspect, it’s straightforwardly terrifying when, as in that moment with Hamish, she abandons the pleasantries and stares daggers at her target.
∎ "American Horror Story: Delicate" is streaming on Disney+