Insanity, Class, and Cannibalism in Channel Zero’s Butcher’s Block

In Channel Zero’s third season, the show pulls back from the claustrophobic focus of its first two and sinks its teeth into the rotting underbelly of American class warfare. Butcher’s Block is broader, bloodier, and funnier than either Candle Cove or No-End House, but while its lens may be wider it lacks none of their piercing insight. Its grisly thrills pluck a single string of a vast and sprawling web of social injustice, mental illness, and class treachery.

When Sisters Alice (Olivia Luccardi) and Zoe (Holland Roden) Woods arrive in the show’s nameless city, they’re coming from a childhood shaped by their mother’s violent schizophrenia and Zoe’s own ongoing struggles with the same illness. Alice, dragging unpaid college debt behind her and seeking purpose in social work, lives in fear of developing schizophrenia herself. Alice’s relationship to both her mother and sister is one defined by forced good cheer and resolute emotional distance, as though they’re wounds she’d rather look away from than tend.

No Way Out

In Butcher’s Block, poverty is a maze from which there is no escape. From the desolate rust belt streets of the show’s titular neighborhood to the student loan collection calls that dog Alice throughout the series, the show depicts the grinding, gut-churning stress of living while poor with unsentimental ugliness. Mental illness is handled in a similar fashion. “I feel like I’m catching on fire in slow motion,” says Alice of her inherited schizophrenia, just beginning to manifest symptoms. It’s a potent image, conjuring a sense of profound frustrated helplessness and the angry chewing sound fire makes when burning human flesh.

Potent, too, are the show’s bubble-headed personifications of Alice’s incipient illness, their eyes huge and vacant, their skin cracked by raw red fissures. Their vacuous grace and their dogged pursuit of Alice are exquisitely uncomfortable, a realization of her fear that there’s no running from what’s already inside her. Luccardi’s body language every time the creatures get close is convulsive and frantic, viscerally conveying the terror she feels at being pressed face to face with her own grinning, distorted reflection.

Soft-spoken Joseph Peach (Rutger Hauer) and his family are touched by none of these scourges. Worshipers of a bizarre horned god to whom they sacrifice children in tribute, they are blessed with immortality, the ability to recover from any injury short of decapitation, and a pocket dimension of endless luxury and leisure. They are the sole characters in Butcher’s Block who’ve escaped the grind, their wealth transmuted into an even more rarified kind of power. In their untouchable might they inspire fear, but also jealousy and want, a longing to leave daily drudgery behind, to become a part of their family.

Whether any of the Peaches is sane — from enthusiastically married-in Edie (Diana Bentley), who treats belonging to a cannibal death cult like a wonderful outing she’s lucky to be on, to her giggling, sadistic husband Robert (Andreas Apergis) — isn’t important. What matters is that they’re safe from the consequences of their insanity, protected in equal parts by black magic and a police force more interested in lining its own pockets and defending the wealthy than in protecting the town’s citizens. The only price the family pays for their lives of endless ease is tendered in the coin of their victims’ flesh.

Both Zoe and Alice taste the release of belonging to the Peaches’ family when Joseph “extracts” their schizophrenia, removing the illness in the form of a gigantic centipede. Zoe’s relief at being freed from the weight of her condition is palpable, but the horror of her cannibalistic hunger is too much for her to bear. In a few deeply harrowing scenes she slices chunks off of her own body to keep that hunger suppressed, unable to inflict violence on others in order to relieve her own suffering.

In the end she chooses to swallow her centipede again, and in the series’ final moments we see her staring ashen-faced at her reflection while she downs a fistful of medication, alive and functional, but struggling each day. Alice, initially horrified by her sister’s brush with the Peaches, later gives in out of fear of her own oncoming madness. Her callous dismissal of the lives it takes to feed the family’s hunger and the children sacrificed to maintain their lifestyle is a viciously honest mirror held up to America’s own narcissistic fixation on the right of the individual to amass wealth.

The mere existence of money and power like the Peaches’ creates impossible choices for anyone who comes into contact with it. To Alice, that terrifying, mind-bending might is her own personal way out, her escape from the labyrinth of poverty and debilitating sickness, from a future of struggle and institutionalization. When her opportunity comes, how can we blame her for seizing it in an act of class treachery in spite of all the misery she knows she’ll cause? How many of us might do the same, or worse, to be free of the never-ending stress of scraping by day after day without any help in sight?

The Food Chain

Not only do the Peaches hunt the poor of Butcher’s Block for sport and revenge — claiming with suspicious vagueness that residents of the neighborhood murdered Joseph’s daughters years ago — but they offer up children snatched from the Block to appease their god and keep his gifts. It’s a rough verdict on landlords as social parasites, one that rings distressingly true in a country where billionaires own houses that could board entire military divisions while the destitute freeze to death in the street by the hundreds. The Peaches’ wealth is thoughtfully conflated with direct and brutal violence against the bodies of those who generated that same wealth in the first place as workers in their meat-packing plants, a fact of American life we tend to ignore or treat as natural and just.

Butcher’s Block leans into the ugliness of wealth through both its supernatural imagery and its depictions of cannibalism. Meat drips and squelches. Chewing mouths are shot in gut-churning closeups. Spittle and blood smear everything and everyone more than liberally. The Peaches may be monsters, but they’re human monsters, and their consumption of their own kind is framed both as gross exploitation and as a sickening display of decadence, a way to render literal the price in blood of their beautiful candlelit rims and impeccably tailored clothes. Their wealth isn’t enabled by these displays of carnivorous disdain for their social inferiors; it’s synonymous with them.

Channel Zero’s third season is the most timely of its four, a reflection on our frantic, seemingly endless moment in history and a cuttingly insightful look at the reasons it’s happening. The rich offer the rest of us a golden dream of freedom and happiness, sure, but it’s a dream held up on our collective backs at the cost of our sweat and blood, a dream which will only ever have room for a tiny fraction of our struggling species. Butcher’s Block strips away the affable, nebbish facades of men like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to show with ruthless honesty the blood on their chins and the warm clots of scraped and dripping flesh under their fingernails. No matter their refinement, their easy charm, their public and enthusiastic activism, the rich eat only one thing, and it’s us.

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