2010's, American Horror Story, American Horror Story: Freak Show, Angela Bassett, Denis O'Hare, Emma Roberts, Evan Peters, Finn Wittrock, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, John Carroll Lynch, Kathy Bates, Michael Chiklis, Sarah Paulson, Wes Bentley
This fourth season of the hit horror anthology entitled Freak Show boasts even more weird content than before. Even though there were flaws in the previous installment Coven, I think Freak Show emerges as the weakest season so far, putting it well below the supreme greatness of Murder House and Asylum. Though that may be the case, the cast, style and blend of strange and extremely unusual horror makes it at least have some currency and effectiveness, albeit in something of a tired capacity. Be warned, there will be spoilers in my review.
The setting is Jupiter, Florida 1952. Elsa Mars(Jessica Lange) is a glamorous German expat who is running a struggling freak show and has delusional ideas set on stardom. The floundering freak show’s fortunes have dwindled due to the increase in popularity of television and immense stigma aimed towards the performers in the show. She comes across a rare find: conjoined twins named Bette and Dot(Sarah Paulson), who were found looked away in their sheltered house with their mother brutally murdered. Although they share a body, they are two distinct personalities; Bette is dreamy and romantic, whereas Dot is stern and unsmiling. Yet they are very conflicting and occasionally their personalities overlap, clearly shown when it is later revealed that the sweet Bette was the one who murdered their horrible mother for locking them away. Elsa sees the girls as saviors for her show and takes them under her wing and in time they prove a prize-winning draw. But this comes at a price as Elsa grows increasingly jealous of the attention lavished upon them. The other members of the sinking freak show are Jimmy Darling(Evan Peters), who has hands that are webbed giving him the nickname ‘Lobster Boy’, his loyal mother and bearded lady Ethel(Kathy Bates) and later Jimmy’s strongman father Dell(Michael Chiklis) and his hermaphrodite wife with three breasts Desiree(Angela Bassett). Ethel keeps the fact that she is dying and that Dell is Jimmy’s father to herself because of history. Yet as the show begins to take off, horror and deception soon invades in various forms. A menacing clown known as Twisty(John Carroll Lynch) , clad in a horrific mask, begins to terrorise and kill people in the surrounding areas. He later finds a helper in the form of spoiled man-child Dandy Mott(Finn Wittrock), who is bored with his rich life and obsessed with the freak show, in particular Bette and Dot. But after being turned away by the show and when Twisty is taken away by a Halloween spirit adding to his collection, Dandy soon evolves into something more sadistic than ever, much to the worry of his subservient mother Gloria(Frances Conroy). After a police officer insults Jimmy and the other members of the troupe, out of anger Jimmy kills him and has to cover up the murder. Two money hungry con artists, Stanley(Denis O’Hare) and fake fortune-teller Maggie Esmeralda(Emma Roberts) infiltrate the camp, but while Stanley is willing to murder one of the freaks to get his dirty hands on a profit, the observant Maggie gets cold feet despite her skewed moral compass as her conscience catches up with her. So who will survive as carnage creeps in and evil rears its head once again, predominately in the form of the psychotic Dandy?
As I have already mentioned, Freak Show is for my money the weakest season so far. So I think it’s best to get my thoughts on the stuff that didn’t work out the way first because there is still some good parts to it and it isn’t a complete failure. I sometimes found some of the characters this time where not written with the usual verve that the show is known. And the fact that important characters seem to appear and then disappear, either by being killed off or god knows what else is a bit jarring. I just felt that Freak Show didn’t have the grip that past entries have so successfully evoked. The pacing could have been kicked up a notch or two, as certain episodes did drag before finding a bit of a groove. Then again, I know every season of a show can’t be amazing, but I expected a bit more from American Horror Story.
Moving on to the positives of this season, of which there are a number of. The visual palette popped with bright colours of the carnival, that acted as irony to the disturbing events brewing beneath the surface. The addressing of themes of prejudice provides a modern resonance, because while steps have been taken in the world to eradicate discrimination, it is still there. Freak Show portrays the circus troupe as human beings who have done nothing wrong but look different to others. Through this, we feel a sense of kinship towards them in their struggle for acceptance in a cruel world. I loved the two-part episode set on Halloween that features Edward Mordrake(played splendidly by Wes Bentley), a man with another head that speaks to him who collects a freak every Halloween. There is such an eerie feeling when he’s on screen and though his brief appearance we get glimpses into both Elsa’s and Twisty’s past and unearth tragedy in both. Freak Show also ups the ante on bloodshed this time, with many scenes of murder emerging as extremely disquieting and very disturbing to watch. And not forgetting an excellent score that combines with the unusual nature of the show and sends a doom-laden pulse through each frame. While I’m discussing music, I have to speak of the musical numbers that are sprinkled throughout. Modern songs placed in an older setting can often be jarring, but here it is quite enjoyable. The title sequence follows with a stop motion evocation of the carnival, complete with nightmarish clowns, carousels and strange figures. Once more, the title sequence is a tone setter with the customary unusual tics that have become the show’s trademark.
And despite the negatives that somewhat spoil the potential that this season had, the talented cast makes up for some of these errors with good work, often rising above the limited material they’re given to work with. The amazing Jessica Lange signs off from the show in style portraying the manipulative Elsa, who’ll do just about anything to keep her star in the ascendance. Lange just brings a whole wealth of emotions and drama to the character that I think her presence will be missed in future seasons of American Horror Story. Sarah Paulson turns in captivating work as the Siamese twins Bette and Dot. The way she displays the opposite personalities of both and then sometimes wraps them together is quite marvellous to view. Evan Peters exudes a sense of pathos and dignity as Jimmy, whose beliefs that the troupe should be treated equally is to be admired but whose actions regarding this sometimes end badly as he challenges the norm. Kathy Bates exhibits her usual high calibre mark to the role as the strangely accented Ethel, dealing with the fact she is dying and staying loyal to those around her. Angela Bassett has a sassy ability that she incorporates into Desiree, while Michael Chiklis as strongman Dell, who is fearing that a secret will get out, imbued the part with strength and emotion. Both of the roles played by Bassett and Chiklis I felt were underwritten, but they both sidestepped this flaw and made the parts better.
Joining the cast and making a huge impact is Finn Wittrock in the evil role of Dandy. Essaying the part with bratty antics, a stunted, petulant manner, sinister smiles and arrogance, Wittrock makes Dandy a really frightening monster as his boredom with his rich life begins to manifest itself as murderous and heinous crimes. This season may be weaker, but one can’t fault the work of Wittrock here. John Carroll Lynch makes a mark despite his brief appearance as Twisty the clown. By turns immensely creepy and then when his back story is revealed quite sad, his presence can’t be forgotten. Frances Conroy has all the right nervous ticks and worry as Dandy’s mother Gloria. A delightfully slimy performance from Denis O’Hare as a remorseless con man is a highlight of the weirdness this show can conjure up, and Emma Roberts is convincing as his accomplice who has a change of heart after getting to know the troupe and feeling sympathy for them.
So while pushing the envelope once more with disturbing content and featuring a great cast once more, Freak Show lacks the killer punch of past seasons. Hopefully the next season can bring back some magic.