TV Review – American Horror Story: Freakshow

AHS Freakshow

Author’s Note: After a turbulent week, it’s good to be back! Despite all the chaos that’s been happening, expect everything to be back on track.

Every season, the FX anthology series, “American Horror Story” delivers fresh takes on various tropes within horror mythology. Most of these are conveyed as deconstructions or sometimes even playing cliches and conventions straight, sometimes to fantastic effect!  In previous seasons, we explored haunted houses, corrupt asylums, and a survivalist witch’s coven.  This previous season took a look at that the classic notion of the freak show, with a wide assortment of classic carnival motifs thrown in for good measure too. Throughout the season, we followed the swan song of Elsa Mars’ Cabinet of Curiosities; a dying freak show that’s among one of the last of its kind. The public has pretty much moved on from that sort of act (as a line the finale helps to reinforce) as attention is brought to the freaks through all sorts of diabolic mayhem and murder! In some senses of the term, diabolic is oddly appropriate! Given AHS’ reputation with previous seasons, how much better did Freakshow fare? First, it’s time to raise the curtains and start the show!

Similar to the second season, this season focuses on mid-century America rather than a more modern setting.  To be more specific, the main location is the small town of Jupiter in Florida; the year being 1952.  We’re introduced to a fading side show called “Elsa Mars’ Cabinet of Curiosities”, one of the last freakshows in existence… or so the show says.  Following Twisty the Clown’s psychotic rampage, Elsa’s show is put under severe pressure from the community, as well as a spoiled lunatic manchild named “Dandy Mott.”  Meanwhile a con-man and his accomplice try to sell hokey merch to a Museum of Oddities before setting their sights on the freak show as well.  After Twisty’s rampage is put to an end, old trouble and new trouble alike surface and slowly tear everything apart.  Freaks begin to drop one by one as trust in Elsa begins to diminish before she’s ousted entirely!  However, the new owners don’t prove to be any better than the previous as everything goes to hell.

Building off of previous seasons, Freakshow had a lot to live up to.  While not as heavy on the supernatural twists (save for only really 2; Chester/Margery and Edward Mordrake’s Freak Hell), it was filled with tons of dramatic events and thick intrigue.  Characters’ flaws and insecurities unraveled until their arcs met an end (one way or another) as expectations were subverted in all sorts of ways.  From the moment that Meep was brought back in a body bag, a sinister trail of deception, backstabbing, and murder would follow.  That said, I felt a lot of the sudden dramatic shifts and twists weren’t given proper development.  Now, I was intrigued in the ambiguity between Chester & Margery.  Chester’s mania meshing with the possible supernatural force of Margery made for an interesting combination.  However, other introduced characters either added little to the story (Barbara/Ima Wiggles and Penny’s typical asshole father in particular) and some didn’t seem to do much after being described in flashback and exposition (like Toulouse).

The characters themselves provided a mixed bag for this season.  Some of the motivations behind the characters seemed murky and became inconsistent over the story’s progression.  I know the intent wasn’t to make Dell a prime antagonist, but he was more conflicted in the sense of writing, rather than his character.  His jump from trying to own the carnival, to spiting the broken remains of his family, to trying to raise his son didn’t work for me.  Now, Desiree being crank over everything (especially her unfaithful husband who doesn’t even love her anymore) I can understand, but various pitchfork and torch revenge plots… not so much. These sorts of developments really took away from the story for me, as those and others felt like they were written for shock value over progressing the characters. 

To be honest, I found Stanley to be one of the only consistent characters.  From the beginning, he was a douchebag.  And his ending homage to 1932’s freaks stayed true to his character.  Comparatively, Maggie’s character remained pretty much the same; she was tired of working with Stanley and wanted to get away.  Rather than really developing over what amounted to an otherwise stagnant arc, she decides toward the end of the season to try to save the day.  Then in her final episode tries to mingle with the other performers, only for (temporary owner) Chester to go mad and saw her in half; an anti-climatic end to a character with so much potential.  While Jimmy was also the “misguided youth” character (since it takes place in the ’50s, you gotta have your tropes), his overall storyline is decent enough.  In the end, he is a witness to most of the events. 

The twins were an interesting case, as Bette was a consistent character for the most part who was overcoming her innocent view of the world.  Dot on the other hand, was either dour and cynical or manipulative and controlling.  Until she had a quick development towards the end, she bounced between these two aspects.  The only things that I could argue directly hit him are Ethel’s death (or at least seeing through Mars’ lies) and Stanley butchering him.  Besides the ending episode, his arc was passable for me. 

As for the true ringleader, her ending wasn’t that much better.  After all the backstabbing diva nonsense she’s put everything through during the season, she’s called to Freak Heaven to continue the show.  This, along with Ethel paraphrasing Shakespeare for an explanation came across as really hokey and half-baked.  Granted, since Lange’s character went to hell in the last season, the producers didn’t want to repeat themselves.  Even then, something more satisfactory could have been made. 

The character that really held the season together (but probably shouldn’t have) was Dandy and his continuously evil antics. While his character was the boring “Always Chaotic Evil” type, you wondered what sort of sick scheme he had planned up next. Even if Dandy’s adult-child character verged on two-dimensional at times, Finn Wittrock’s solid performance really stuck out among the season’s best; creating a character you loved to hate.

Beyond the characters, there were tons of moments that to make and break this season. The question of “what is a freak” was juggling around with throughout the season. The back and forth banters and examinations of whose a freak and who isn’t drove itself into the ground after a while. While it started as an interesting modernization of Todd Browning’s Freaks, the lines slowly became muddied and the show seemed to stop caring until the end. This becomes all the more warped when it comes to Dandy Mott. From the beginning, he’s told that he doesn’t belong because he isn’t like them. Eventually, he “proves them wrong” by buying out the freak show. After the freaks revolt against his atrocious leadership, he snaps and kills most of them. The remaining gang up on him and show that in his brutality and madness, he became the “real freak”. So, he isn’t a freak and doesn’t belong, but he’s now the biggest freak of all. In an attempt to play with its message, the show loses it entirely. The end of his arc proved a lot less satisfactory than Elsa’s. At least everything in her arc came full circle (except for the ending scene, but more on that later). When she came to Hollywood looking for appreciation, all she got was minions who did what she wanted; leaving Elsa even more tarnished and flustered. In an attempt to gain power and fortune, she gave up all the love she ever had; her new family. Mordrake returned to become the payoff to the two-parter’s set-up, after stating that it wasn’t Elsa’s time during Halloween of ’52. That said, I felt the last bit would have had a greater impact if the crossover with Asylum hadn’t lightly spoiled what was yet to come.

Now, while quite a few characters got interesting arcs and conclusions, I felt most of the freaks were robbed of a proper arc; only for the bland final segments to force some kind of conclusion. While the deaths of Ma Petite and Ethel left an impact, Dandy’s rampage felt empty and hollow. There was no drama, just everyone’s most hated manchild ending the stories of the show’s beloved side characters. To be honest, the rampage felt hollow and lacking a certain dramatic build up, much like my problems with later seasons of the Walking Dead TV adaptation. (I know, shots fired.) We had plots were Paul fretted that while he had a nice face, the rest of him prevented him from getting anywhere. When Penny became more involved with the story, we were seeing him change; possibly lead to a satisfactory resolution. Eve was becoming more confident and less in the background, becoming the “Strongwoman” (in multiple ways) she wanted to be. These plots and more were subtle at times, but added depth to the show. When we see them hastily discarded in the tent, what’s the point? We throw out all of these stories, just for the remaining 4 to watch the Joffrey of the series get killed off in an over-the-top way. On the bright side, Pepper’s arc in Asylum is really fleshed out following her backstory and plot progression in Freakshow. On top of that, those remaining characters received endings that only brought up more questions without answers.

The atmosphere is what truly drew me to AHS Freakshow to begin with.  From the beginning, one of the greatest strengths of American Horror Story is creating a certain sinister ambiance that carries throughout the season.  While I’ve complained about the characters, the world is almost always very gripping to me.  The panning shots of the carnival grounds always conveyed an ethereal and menacing presence that was properly paid off with the green mists that cloaked Edward Mordrake.  The dingy old shed brought to mind gruesome grindhouse movies, which became the place of several murders and (ironically) Jimmy’s miraculous operation.  Twisty’s decrepit motor home was a joyous mix of mania, ruined dreams, and classic horror.  And compare the plastic life of the ’50s suburbia outside of the Freaks’ life.  All the homes are pristine, clean, and bland.  In particular, Dandy’s estate looks absolutely gorgeous, despite all the merciless bloodshed he taints the property with.  You could even say Dandy is the rotten core of the estate’s “freshness” of sorts. The best moments within the estate itself are the weirdest ones! Dandy’s stage holding the macabre puppet made from the corpses of his mother and a saleswoman as well as Dandy’s wedding hall filled with only his toys (because who else would attend?) truly embodies the show’s insane weirdness! 

On top of green fog and dim lights, the soundscapes helped to keep me on the edge of my seat.  From dissonant hits of the ’50s as well as tracks of yesteryear, dismal electronic tones helped to push ominous scenes.  My only except to this is the “leitmotif” (which is actually the introduction to the song Black Sabbath) was really pushed too much and became this cheesy expectation whenever something bad would happen.  While I was fine with this for a while, it became quite tiring.

The acting talent is one of the things that drags me to AHS. While we have quite a few holdovers from previous seasons, we have tons of new acting talent that truly shines here in Freak Show. For starters, Sarah Paulson plays not only one but two characters at once! Dot and Bett have two very distinct personalities that bounce off each other. Her performances alone are worthy of an award. And as I mentioned, Wittrock stole the show many times with the emotionally stunted rage of Dandy numerous times through the season. Now, while Lange always does a fantastic job and Elsa Mars is no exception, it’s probably for the best that she steps down from the show. Whether the intent of Ryan Murphy or the director, her hamming it up by poorly singing extremely out of place songs just really didn’t do it for me at all. It’s not so much that Mars is a bad performer with a big ego, so much as it felt like the writer was trying to capture his previous works here. (We’re here to watch American Horror Story, not GLEE! Take note, Ryan Murphy!) More known actors did a fine job portraying their characters, like Neil Patrick Harris as Chester. He showcased pent up frustration, mania, and a level of uncertainly revolving around his creepy doll. That said, his appearance really late in the season didn’t allow for him to be too interesting beyond what amounted to a one-shot shock.

Overall, Freak Show provided quite the thrill ride. While it was an uneven and choppy one, it was packed with entertainment, thrills, and chills. The characters were poorly handled at times, but were usually engaging and entertaining. The world of Freak Show truly took the show though; from the struggling freak show trying to survive to the phony town that surrounded it. While I question if I could watch the series again, I was still entertained by what I watch, even if I found myself disappointed throughout the season. While not unwatchable, my issues with the show greatly outweighed the aspects I enjoyed. In short, American Horror Story Freak Show gets 5.5 bulls eyes out of 10 throwing knives. That said, check out HBO’s Carnivàle. It did what AHS Freak Show tried to do a lot better.

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