07 “Test of Strength” (American Horror Story: Freak Show) [SPOILERS]

ahs freakshow

There comes a point, inevitably, when the weird is no longer weird. This is the tightrope that American Horror Story walks. What was bold, new and terrifying when it started four years ago isn’t necessarily bold, new and terrifying today.

Partly this is due to its own success, but it does need to beware the potential pitfall of doing the same thing again and again with different settings and costumes.

So far the series has done exceptionally well at innovation. Since starting with the haunted house trope in the first series it has moved through a succession of different ideas. Freak Show does keep it up, but I can’t quite escape the suggestion that it might be starting to retread the same ground.

After Jimmy’s arrival at the Mott household last episode, Dandy and Gloria give the twins the choice of staying with them or going back to the freak show. Bette wants to stay, but Dot — outraged that Dandy read her diary — wants to return. Which they do, demanding more than ever from Elsa in exchange for keeping the secret that she sold them to Gloria. Stanley, having failed to get Maggie to murder for him, threatens/blackmails Del into procuring him a freak, though he doesn’t prove himself startlingly capable. And Jimmy grapples with his role in the troupe.

Following on from last week’s “evil looking normal” theme, Del is a centre-piece to this week’s episode. He was absent last week, but here he is forced under Stanley’s thumb after being seen at the bar where his favourite male prostitute hangs out. And he’s a lot less squeamish about the whole thing than Maggie was. Not so hot with the actual doing, though. His attempt to drug Amazon Eve goes rather wrong, and he gets the crap kicked out him.

But the heart to heart it leads to with Jimmy, where he nearly stoves his son’s head in with a brick to give him to Stanley, is moving. Well, once he decides not to kill him. Del and Jimmy acknowledging each other as farther and son and wandering back drunk through the camp is a sight to see.

The twins have also had a pretty radical alteration. Back in the camp, they press their advantage over Elsa — who as of the last week can feel the freak show slipping from her grasp. Jimmy doesn’t trust her at all, and the rest of the freaks are largely following her lead. Bette wants stardom, and restyles herself towards that end, but Dot just wants to be normal. She implores Elsa to secure her the surgery she wants, whereas Stanley suggests a more permanent way of keeping the twins quiet. Unfortunately, Ethel overhears their discussion.

Of course, Paul is still slowly dying (Well, maybe… One feels like the writers haven’t entirely decided that bit yet), and Penny is mopping his forehead. Until she returns home to collect her belongings. Her father isn’t too thrilled at her choice, but takes a brutal revenge: drugging her, he has a tattooist draw a lizard-esque design on her face, and fork her tongue.

There’s a lot of subtext buried in here. Not simply the idea of the evil lurking behind the normal — and Penny’s father is darker than dark. The vandalism of Penny’s face juxtaposes neatly with Paul’s story, told to Edward Mordrake; recall that he left it un-tattooed because on a non-freak, it would have been pretty. And Penny now fits in, with the community that she wants to join Paul in.

In many episodes, that would be the darkest moment. But here, the writers have outdone it. In the closing moments, Del visits Ma Petite, and in a horrifying reprise of the last episode, suffocates her to death. Her unveiling at the museum is chilling to the core, especially when we thought we had escaped it last time.

This episode was tighter than previous ones have been, more focused on a few characters. The plot is shaping into a more detailed analysis of human evil of any series yet, and it is even surprising me by pushing the envelope on awful things that the characters can do to each other. Freak Show is proving a mirror for society in the finest tradition of the horror genre.

Closing thoughts:

  • How do you smash your hands and then shoot yourself? You better be intending to follow up that explanation of the Doctor’s death, AHS?
  • As far as the musical section goes, I quite liked Jimmy’s “Come as You Are”, but it didn’t fit terribly well into the narrative.
  • Speaking of Jimmy, he and Maggie were ready to run away at the end of the last episode. Did…did they both just think “Screw it”?
  • Dandy has been murdering people left right and centre lately. Why exactly did he let the twins just walk out of there?

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