My verdict — sans spoilers — the first episode of Freak Show was in short: good, creepy, not perfect, but extremely promising. Which probably sums up my thoughts of each season’s première. Sucking me in is what American Horror Story has managed to do unlike pretty much any other show I’ve seen.
The result is that I’m prepared to forgive mid-season lulls, which was Coven‘s main issue. I know that each season has had its lovers and loathers, and it has something of a Marmite effect (Which, ironically, I can take or leave… -Ed). I can understand the criticisms, but somehow the series always wins me over.
In one way, this is a plus. But it does give Freak Show a bit of a mountain to climb. “Monsters Among Us” was a strong first step, but there is still a long way to go until Kendal Mint cake at the summit.
After last week’s episode ended with the carnies hacking up the corpse of a detective, the police are understandably sniffing around the camp. And Jimmy is, justifiably, worried. Meanwhile, Dell (a strongman with a temper) and his wife Desiree (a triple breasted hermaphrodite) turn up looking to join the troupe. Dell quickly starts to take over, introducing matinee performances and relegating Elsa to supporting status, next to headliners Dot and Bette, once it is discovered that Dot can sing. Elsa enlists Jimmy — who doesn’t realise that Dell is his father — to help get rid of Dell by framing him for the death of the detective, but Dell deflects the blame onto one of the freaks, Meep. And elsewhere, Gloria recruits Twisty the murder clown as a playmate for her deeply damaged son Dandy.
Okay, so there was a lot going on in this episode. The atmosphere of the freak show itself was much better portrayed this week, with focus shared between the twins and everyone else. The dynamic of Jimmy as de facto leader, being shaken up by Dell’s arrival, worked brilliantly. There was a scene at a diner in the town, where the carnies walk in on mass, and only leave when Dell beats Jimmy to a pulp, which worked excellently. The patrons were uncomfortable, but it was only because of Dell that they actually had to leave.
Dot and Bette, meanwhile, are playing out a fascinating microdrama. Last week we had thought-communication between the girls, but this week it is all done through Sarah Paulson acting against herself. Dot’s self-doubt, and her attraction to Jimmy, and Bette’s seething jealousy of her sister’s unexpected singing, are all shown through facial expression.
And it’s the latter which plays into Elsa’s scheming. After her plan to remove Dell goes badly awry, she whispers in Bette’s ear to prick her jealousy. We’ve already seen that they can and do do harm to each other, so what I think AHS is setting up here is an external representation of the carnies’ inner turmoil. It’s a neat idea, and I hope will play into a grander idea of metaphor for the whole series; but then, AHS does have a tendency to leave ideas unfinished.
And it is clearly more than happy to go for spectacle. The early scene where the carnies’ eat at a long table reminded me so strongly of Freaks, and there is a lot of aesthetic borrowed here. And the less subtle side too, with Desiree being pretty strongly in that camp.
Putting Twisty in with Dandy was a stroke of genius. Whilst some of the weirdness, I felt, came on a little strong with Dandy — cognac in a cut-glass baby bottle? — he is clearly meant to be “freakier than the freaks”. The psycho child grown up and, well, still basically the psycho child. When Twisty turns on him, he is only more fascinated, following the clown into the woods in time to recapture one his escaping captives, and set himself up as Twisty’s sidekick. Yeah, this won’t end well.
Oh, and every thought I had last week wondering what was under Twisty’s mask, I take it back. Every. Last. One.
My favourite part was the final scenes though. Having Dell frame the defenceless Meep was a cruel move, as Jimmy watches him taken away unable to do anything. And when, of course, at the end Meep’s dead body is left at the camp, it is heartbreaking. I can think of no better way, no more AHS way, of immediately making these outcasts the most human, relatable and sympathetic characters in the show.
I found this episode much stronger than the first — which I also enjoyed — primarily because it carried on much of what it started. The carnies are hated and feared, and even though Meep self-evidently isn’t the killer he is a handy scapegoat. Jimmy is an adolescent playing at leader, and Twisty is still the most terrifying thing on television — with the potential for Dandy to become as scary, if in his own way. This is shaping into a very different sort of series to the previous ones, but I like it. Envelope pushing at its very finest.
- Hat(s) off to Sarah Paulson. Acting two characters in one must be exhausting work, and so far she’s been doing it brilliantly.
- There is some tragic backstory coming for Twisty, I just know it. The way that he offers that little boy the toy seems to show that, although is is definitely the evil killer, there is some part of heart/clown/entertainer in him. I think that makes him worse, to be honest.
- Francis Conroy seems to be playing the same character she did last season. She was excellent as the ghost-maid in Murder House, and better still as the angel of death in Asylum. I’m hoping there’s space for a bit more from her later in the season.
- My ringtone is the American Horror Story theme music. From Asylum, I think. I may have to update it to Freak Show‘s circus version.
- American Horror Story is, one by one, justifying all of my irrational fears. This year: clowns. If they start on spiders next year then I may be done…