American Horror Story Gets its Weird Groove Back with Freak Show [Review]

By Kate Collison

Only three episodes into the fourth iteration of American Horror Story, and I am already 1000% more invested in these freaks than I ever was in the lackluster characters of Season Three’s Coven. Writer/Producer Ryan Murphy is at his best when portraying the struggles of the social outcast, whether it’s the overeager musical theater nerds of Glee, the stigmatized HIV/AIDS victims of Normal Heart, or the mentally ill of American Horror Story: Asylum. Freak Show, living up to its title, is no exception.

The art direction is as dizzying and fabulous as it always has been. The creepy-circus atmosphere is reflected through tilted, sometimes kaleidoscopic lenses that switch without warning between images of child’s play and disturbing violence. As is the staple of AHS, there is an especially healthy serving of the latter. Which, of course, brings me to the clown. Sweet Jesus, the clown. It is a testament to the show that a full-blown coulrophobe such as myself still tunes in each week, because this killer clown (who hacks victims to death with scissors and terrorizes children he’s imprisoned in his trailer) is the physical embodiment of my worst nightmares. I also really love that this hulking clown-monster covered in blood and grime can wander the streets of a small 1950s Florida town and not get stopped by anyone. This is a place where little people are kicked out of diners, yet Twisty gets to walk around like it’s no biggie. He’s even picked up by a woman as a plaything for her crazy son (who is in his own way even more terrifying, thanks to his disturbing tendency to distract himself from his boring, privileged life by torturing animals and people).

I will take what is probably the unpopular side of the current AHS argument and say this: I love the musical numbers. Last season’s Stevie Nicks storyline and random musical performances just seemed like Ryan Murphy had leftover Stevie Nicks licensing from a scrapped Glee episode, and it was painful. In Freak Show, the musical numbers are done with purpose. They are perfectly campy and bizarre, just the way a freak show should be. To all the haters who say this season is some sort of Glee-AHS hybrid: you’re right, and it’s amazing. This season’s background music is also the eeriest and best it’s ever been on the show, so major props to composer James S. Levine.

As for the “freaks” themselves: the most interesting character development is that between the “two-headed lady,” conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson), whose jealous tension is palpable (and sometimes physical). Personally, I would stab the whiny sister too if I had to share a body with her, but I am really looking forward to seeing how their competitiveness plays out, especially with the introduction of fortune-teller Maggie Esmerelda (Emma Roberts), who will surely give us the love-triangle drama with Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters) we’ve all been waiting for. As for Jimmy, I am already a little tired of his heavy-handed (pun intended?) soapbox rants about freaks being people too. Dude, your freak quality gives women the best orgasms they’ve ever had, so I’m not sure you can really consider yourself on the same level of oppressed as say, the lady with three breasts, or the tiny and radiantly adorable Indian lady. Another brief complaint: Kathy Bates’ accent. Where in the world is this bearded woman supposed to be from–Scotland? Georgia? Minnesota?

Jyoti Amge and Ryan Murphy are tied for cuteness.

But the real fun of Freak Show comes from the menagerie of supporting characters that live in this tented world. Meep (played by Ben Woolf) is just one example of how Murphy can take a small character who literally only says one word and bites the heads off of baby birds, and make him a gentle, compassionate person the audience mourns for after only two episodes. The same can be said for the other members of the “freak” ensemble, who are highlighted as “Extra-Ordinary Artists” in FX interview segments online, which I highly suggest you check out.

Jessica Lange shines (as always) as fallen star Elsa Mars, the ringleader of the whole shebang who is trying desperately to make a comeback as a singer. Her performance of Lana del Rey’s “Gods and Monsters” in Episode 3 is perfectly suited to her character’s delirious need for the limelight and attention (“Fame, liquor, love, give it to me slowly”) and it will surely only escalate from here.

The indomitable Jessica Lange as cabaret singer Elsa Mars.

Other characters of note are Gloria and Dandy Mott’s maid (played by Patti LaBelle, which hopefully means she’ll somehow get a musical number this season) and Desiree (Angela Bassett), the most down to earth and no-nonsense characters of the whole show. Frances Conroy is hilarious as the delusional Gloria Mott, who has spoiled her son Dandy (played brilliantly by Finn Wittrock) psychotic through her suffocating mothering. I cannot wait to watch the progression of Dandy’s disturbing descent into murderous clown-hood with Twisty (John Carroll Lynch).

This last episode also gave us the first of a two-parter on the legend of Edward Mordrake, who supposedly haunts freak shows every Halloween and has a devilish second personality and face hidden in the back of his head (basically Quirrell and Voldemort without the turban). I don’t really care much for this digression in plot, but we’ll see how it plays out. All in all, I am ready to say, if tentatively, that Ryan Murphy has brought back the AHS swag that lost its way in Coven, and I am eager to see what he has in store for the rest of the season.

You can catch American Horror Story: Freakshow Wednesdays at 10 on FX. 

Kate Collison is a USC graduate doing psychology research by day and marathoning TV by night. Hobbies include reading, listening to music, and convincing people that her hometown of Prairie Village, KS is a real place. 

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