I’ve mentioned before in my reviws that American Horror Story‘s latest season is heavily inspired by the 1930s horror film Freaks. On a couple of occasions they have almost recreated whole scenes from the cult classic.
It’s a brave move in a way, but also a necessary one. In terms of the brand of horror which American Horror Story employs, Freaks could have been an early progenitor. There’s the body horror element, clearly. But that is neither the whole nor the larger share of it.
What is becoming clear already in this season, is that whilst the freaks may have all manner of physical deformities, it is the unseen perversions and damages which are the real freak show; a field in which the “normal” characters are far and away the most disturbing.
After her dreams being crushed by Edward Mordrake last episode, Elsa hopes that Stanley, who claims to be a talent spotter for a TV network, will be her ticket to the high life. Stanley, though, is working with Maggie Esmerelda to procure freaks to sell (as body parts) to the ‘American Morbidity Museum’; and he has his eye on Dot and Bette. Desiree, meanwhile, is forced to go to the Doctor, where she discovers that she never was a hermaphrodite, but is a woman — who has had a miscarriage. And after his mother learns that he killed Dora, Dandy looks for a way to let out the latent homicidal urges that Twisty helped him tap.
This whole series is running on Elsa’s greed and jealousy. In the first episode that was what led her to recruit Dot and Bette to the carnival, and since then it has been what had her pushing them away. One suspects that without as fine an actress as Jessica Lange, it wouldn’t work quite as well as it does. But that — she — has always been AHS‘s greatest strength. Quite how they’ll cope without her next season I’m not sure.
This episode we witness her hopes rise and then be crushed, twice over. The scene where she (again) performs Bowie’s “Life on Mars”, only for the audience to grow bored and restless — and the cutting of the audio was a brilliant aural metaphor. They came to see the freaks, after all, and as Edward Mordrake pointed out, Elsa is a freak who pretends to be normal. So after she accepts Stanley’s offer of her own TV show, only to see him go after the twins, there’s only one endgame. It can surprise nobody when she pitches up on Gloria’s doorstep offering to sell the girls.
Stanley, though, is a brilliant character. His fantasies of how he would kill the girls — Bette with the poisoned titular cupcake, and Dot later by suffocation — and deliver the bodies to the museum are cut short when Dot refuses the cake on both their behalves. After being more on the sidelines in seasons past, it’s good to see Denis O’Hare with a more central role. He is brilliantly creepy, pulling off the slimy conman with aplomb. Maggie, next to Stanley, is more muted, but when she’s done grappling with her revulsion it’s hard to see her coming down on any side but Jimmy’s.
And to “Lobster Boy”. Falling into Desiree’s drunken arms after rejection by Maggie might feel a little obvious, but it’s still a pretty shocking move. More so when the pair emerge from the caravan with blood running down her legs. It’s a shame that so much of Desiree’s characterisation is rushed out — recounting her life story at the doctor’s office felt a little wooden, and with an actress like Angela Bassett it could have been done a lot better. But her realisation that she isn’t, in fact, a real hermaphrodite is brilliant to watch, and her confrontation with Dell — once he’s back from his, err, male prostitute — over the revelation that he is Jimmy’s father and just as much a freak as her, goes right to the heart of what I was outlining above.
Now, I like Michael Chiklis. I think he has real potential. He does the burly thug well, but that’s a little too obvious. I’m used to AHS pushing boundaries, and I have to say that I think it’s holding back here. The casual violence to the doctor treating Desiree is all well and good, and in any other show I would nod and accept, but it’s a bit restrained for American Horror Story. Hopefully they’ll set loose in later episodes, but I want more than just a stereotype hardman, please.
Over in the land of the normal-looking freaks, Gloria isn’t buying for one moment Dandy’s suggestion that Dora was murdered by a burglar. There’s a fascinating little snippit of conversation where Gloria tilts at Dandy’s father’s fate, and says that well-bred (inbred… -Ed) families used to be proud of a psychopath in their number as a mark of, err, quality, I guess. At any rate, after doing a monologue about wanting to be an actor, to a very American Psycho exercise montage, Dandy heads into town and meets the same male prostitute that Dell has a thing for. Luring him back to Twisty’s caravan, Dandy kills him. Or tries to. Somehow, no matter how many times Dandy stabs him, the man is still alive, left pleading for Dandy to kill him even as he starts sawing body parts off.
There’s something darkly amusing about Dandy. The spoilt child aspect, the fact that he seems to balls up every attempt at murder. The shoehorning in of Gloria’s regret at having neglected him as a child was somewhat unnecessary, as I reckon most viewers had figured that much, but Dandy is becoming a joyously terrifying character.
This episode moved the plot, and a fair few of the characters, along in leaps. It didn’t have quite the emotional gut punch as last week, but it was still very enjoyable. One thing I will say: American Horror Story is not small league any more. Its cast list proves it. They need to adapt their approach to writing for an ensemble cast, to make best use of the talent they have on screen. If they can bring the characterisation that they are giving to the likes of Elsa, Dandy and Twisty to the rest of the characters — which I admit is a tough ask, within time constraints — then they may yet reduce my reviews to gibbering and gleeful laughter. I’m sure I can find a gif of Dandy for that, after all.
- I already miss Twisty.
- It looks like Gabourey Sidibe is going to be joining the cast imminently. She was excellent in Coven, so I have high hopes.
- I’m not sure how Stanley thought he was going to get away with murdering the twins without anyone else noticing. Despite what Elsa may think, they are the headline act.
- So, was Dandy’s victim not dying at the end just a nod at his general ineptitude, or are we starting to get supernatural. I say starting, last week had the ghost of a dead freak taking a mutilated, psychotic clown to heaven. I’m not sure what my point was, really…