The season premiere of American Horror Story: Freakshow aired last week and I watched it, despite myself. Even though the first three to four episodes of a season are amazing and entertaining, with inventive treatments of basic horror tropes and characters, but then things start to fall apart in the middle of the season. I’ve been hurt before—AHS: Coven had an awesome concept, a solid cast, and there was a lot of potential, but the execution was bad and the storytelling was a train wreck. In vain, I watched the whole thing, hoping they’d pull it together with some transcendent plot twist and I would feel better about the thousands of abandoned storylines, the underutilized Angela Bassett, the inconsistent character treatment, and the most incompetent witch hunters ever. Also, Hank. Hank was the woooorrrrssst.
But there I was, ready for the fourth season.
Like its predecessors, the season premiere of AHS: Freakshow moved through a ton of provocative material at breakneck speed. So brace yourself, this is a long post.
By now you might know that this season is set in 1952 in the fictional town of Jupiter, Florida and centers on a traveling carnival that has recently set up camp outside of town. Of course, the town locals don’t take too kindly to the “freaks.”
Before I begin, I want to say that I really hate the word “Freak” used to describe a person who is differently-abled. I find it cruel and belittling and dismissive. That being said, I will endeavor to use a different word, but there may be instances where it’s impossible to avoid the word since the show uses it.
To recap the first episode, lets start by introducing the major characters, as they have been laid out (subject to change, this is American Horror Story after all):
First, Dot and Bette:
Played by Sarah Paulson, Dot and Bette are conjoined twins who share two legs, two arms, one set of reproductive organs, and one circulatory system. They share three kidneys. They each have their own bladder, vertebrae, hearts and set of lungs. They may be telepathic, as several scenes show that they have the ability to communicate with speaking.
The twins themselves have very different personalities. Bette is sweet and childlike, but she has a dark streak and is fiercely curious about the world. Dot, on the other hand, is skeptical towards everyone and everything. She is calculating and defensive, but one suspects this might be due to some internalized self-hatred and resentment.
Next, Miss Elsa Mars:
Played by the incomparable Jessica Lange, Elsa Mars is a smartly dressed, conniving, manipulative woman with a penchant for Lucky Strikes cigarettes and a real knack for getting what she wants. Elsa runs the carnival. She does her best to hide it under rude comments, bravado, and stunning outfits, but she’s really a very desperate woman. She’s desperate for attention—her obsession with critiquing movie stars and demanding free coffee at the local diner hides her own insecurities. She’s desperate to protect her “monsters,” even though she can be cold and manipulative towards them at times. And she’s desperate to keep her carnival afloat, not just for her monsters, but for herself.
Then there’s Jimmy Darling.
Played by Evan Peters, Jimmy is the carnival’s resident Lobster Boy, who has the congenital disorder known as Ectrodactyly, which causes a person’s hands and/or feet to take on a “Clawlike” appearance. Poor Jimmy just wants to find his place in the world, to have the same chance at a normal life that anyone else has. However, the increased hostility from the locals and his growing frustration with being ostracized threaten to push him over the edge. Hopefully this will be one of the better roles for Evan Peters on AHS, since by the end of this episode he had done more than in the entire season of AHS: Coven. (Seriously, I was really intrigued by his character on Coven and then his development. Went. Nowhere.)
The Carnival Performers:
Ethel Darling–The Bearded Lady, played by Kathy Bates
Paul the Illustrated Seal, played by Mat Fraser
Amazon Eve, played by Erika Ervin
Ma Petite, played by Jyoti Amge
and many others!
And then, there’s this guy, Twisty the Clown:
Where do I start? I don’t normally have a fear of clowns, but now I certainly have a fear of Twisty.
I’ll get to him in a minute.
The episode starts by introducing us to the twins after a curious milkman notices something wrong during his stop and discovers their mother’s brutalized body and the twins, stabbed but still alive. It seems to be the work of the same murderous assailant that has been terrorizing the town as of late. The twins are in bad shape and immediately rushed to the hospital.
With that, the twins are rushed off to the hospital, where the doctors and nurses are both horrified and curious about the twins. They’ve tried to keep the situation quiet, but rumors have gotten out. And it brings the twins to the attention of one Miss Elsa Mars.
Having heard the rumors about the twins’ unique physical characteristics, Elsa wants to put the twins in her show as the headlining performers. She knows the twins will draw paying crowds, which she hopes will keep her struggling carnival open. Elsa also wants them in her show for other, more personal reasons, but we’ll get to that later. She arrives at the hospital, dressed to the nines, and sashays through the hallways like she owns the place. Once she successfully bribes a young, bored nurse to come visit her “Cabinet of Curiousities” in exchange for looking the other way, Elsa sneaks into the twins’ room.
Once inside, Elsa tries to get the twins to talk. First she tries flattery, which works well on Bette, but not Dot, who is immediately suspicious of Elsa and her motives. But Elsa is very skilled at knowing what to people want to hear. After flattery doesn’t work, she tries trip them up by asking some very rude and invasive questions, going so far as to ask about their shared reproductive system. They look on Dot’s face says it all—she is insulted by the line of questioning. But Bette doesn’t mind. We learn that the twins have conflicting desires when it comes to sexuality, and that it is very often a source of contention.
It is the twins’ incompatible attitude towards their sexuality that most effectively communicates the ongoing turmoil the twins are forced to endure. Bette yearns to see the world while Dot just wants to be left alone. Bette longs to open herself up to new experiences and new people, but Dot doesn’t trust anyone and seems incredibly alone, even with her sister by her side.
Its not hard to see why they feel this way—the twins’ mother treated them horribly, locking them away from the outside world for as long as either can remember. While Bette must have coped by dreaming constantly of what life outside the house would be like, Dot shrank away. I got the feeling, while watching the twins interact, that Dot couldn’t help but internalize her mother’s disdain and resentment for her and her sister.
During Elsa’s second visit, she turns up the heat on the twins. She forces them to explain who murdered their mother and sneers in Bette’s face when she tries to pass off the plot of Gaslight as the real story. She sees right through the awful lie, warning the twins to get a better story before the cops figure out that the twins are hiding something.
Indeed, the twins are hiding a lot. In a flashback, we see exactly what happened on that fateful night. During dinner, Bette asks her mother repeatedly if she would take the twins to go see Dancing in the Rain. Bette loves movies and her pleas to see the movie are kind of heartbreaking. To minimize the risk of being seen, Bette suggests they go for an evening showing and sneak into the theatre so no one will see them. Their mother is not having it. She lectures them, beating them down with the reminder of some awful, unexplained past event that forced the family to flee Alabama in the middle of the night. When Bette protests, their mother screams at them and slaps Bette while Dot looks on speechless. Then Bette grabs her knife and stabs her mother to death in a fit of rage.
A little while later, overcome with guilt, Dot stabs Bette in the chest, but she does it more so to punish herself for not stopping Bette than for what Bette has done. It was really intense and scary and sad.
While the twins debate what to do, Elsa finds Jimmy Darling in a local diner, flirting up a storm with a waitress. To hide his “oddity”, Jimmy sports a pair of thick gloves to hide his hands and does his best Marlon-Brando-from-the-Wild-Ones impression.
Jimmy is like any young man. He loves girls and the attention he gets from them. He’s charming and engaging. Like Bette, he longs for a day when he could leave the Carnival and find a normal job and have a normal life. In fact, he says as much to Elsa, expressing his belief that the show won’t last much longer because no one is coming to see it.
This clearly strikes a nerve for Elsa. In a rare show of subtly, the show suggests, but does not confirm, that Elsa offered sexual favors to the man who rents the land on which the Carnival sits. But she plays it off, recovering quickly enough to attack Jimmy’s confidence by questioning whether or not the pretty waitress would still want him if she knew about his “deformities.” as she cruelly puts it. She goes on, detailing what would happen to him and his mother without the Carnival. But her efforts to scare him don’t work. He insists the show is done for.
It seems like maybe Jimmy slightly takes Elsa’s words to heart and finds a way to chase women but pursuant to his condition. This involves one of the most WTF scenes in the premiere, where he’s the secret attraction at the most depressing Tupperware party ever. Basically, all the housewives are feeling neglected by their husbands, biblically speaking. The host of the party has arranged a special surprise for the ladies. All they have to do is walk down a long hallway to a darkened bedroom, where Jimmy is waiting for them. Then he tells them to lie back, he removes his gloves, and then he…um…services them for money.
Meanwhile, Bette and Dot escape from the hospital and flee to their home, planning to run away for good. Elsa confronts them. You see, Elsa is one smart cookie and she’s figured out what really happened to the twins’ mother. She’s careful to give just enough details for Dot to jump in and confirm Elsa’s suspicions. But they needn’t worry, Elsa coos, because she can protect them from the police. She will protect them if they accept her and perform in her show.
With nowhere else to go, the twins accept. Bette is overjoyed and sees this as the beginning of her life. Dot sees another prison, one filled with strange people she doesn’t know who revel in the same kind of “oddities” that she has learned to despise. She doesn’t adjust well.
But Dot’s reservations are pushed to the side when a snooping cop finds the twins and arrests them for murder. Jimmy, already keyed up from enduring the hostilities of the locals, attempts to talk the cop out of it. But the cop makes a crucial mistake by suggesting all the recent murders were committed by Bette and Dot, since they are “monsters.” The cop also threatens to bring the entire police force to drive the “freaks” out of town. This is too much for Jimmy, who looses it completely and slits the officer’s throat. Dot and Bette are left speechless, as are Paul, Amazon Eve, and Legless Susan.
But there’s no time to react. A spoiled young man, aptly named Dandy, and his push-over mother Gloria arrive, unannounced, and quickly rent out the carnival for the night. Dandy is there purely to gawk at the “freaks” delighting in their strangeness. He’s instantly annoying, as is his mother.
The show begins as one would expect, with The Bearded Lady introducing all the performers. But then the show takes a hard left, and Elsa is featured as the main attraction, not Bette and Dot, not Lobster Boy, not the Paul the Illustrated Seal, not the Bearded Lady, not the Ma Petite, the smallest woman in the world. After the “freaks” are introduced and promptly relegated to the background, Elsa takes the stage after smoking God-knows how much opium. Amidst the “terrifying and the tragic,” Elsa hopes to be “the voice, the beauty” and sings one of the best David Bowie songs of all time: “Is There Life on Mars?”
As a huge Bowie fan, not going to lie, I squealed in delight, particularly because her costume is almost identical to the one Bowie wears in the music video for this song.
But I have to admit that the whole scene was super trippy, especially when the camera cut away from Elsa’s performance and focused on another Elsa in the audience, this one dressed up like sad clown.
The show was not what Dandy and his mother were expecting. They’re much more interested in the twins, even going so far as trying to buy them from Elsa after the show. Bette and Dot are rightfully appalled and chose to stay. Even though Elsa is somewhat hurt that the twins received more attention than her glittery blue number, she can’t hide her pride that the twins choose to be “one of them.” Gloria rubs salt in the wound when she insults Elsa, “By far the most freakish thing of all tonight was your pathetic attempt at singing.” Man, only Frances Conroy could make the line sting like it did.
Later, in her dressing room, Elsa lets her guard down and admits to Ethel her true motives in securing the twins as the headline performers. She didn’t do it for her “monsters.” She did it for herself, so that people would discover Elsa and she would at long last realize her dreams of stardom. Elsa begs Ethel to assure her that she isn’t a bad person. Ethel complies, but its all she can do to hide her disappointment.
But that’s not all! Once Ethel leaves, Elsa removes her prosthetic legs and reveals that her legs end just below her knees. I couldn’t see any visible scars, so I’m not sure if Elsa had to undergo a double amputation at some point or if she was born without legs below the knee, but it was a heartbreaking scene.
Elsa wants so badly to be a star, to move the audience, to win their love, but all along she believes that she’s never going to achieve it. Given the realities of 1952, the constant aspiration for “normalcy” and status quo that is the subject of so many films and plays and shows, its difficult to disagree with Elsa’s position. It’s quite amazing that Jessica Lange’s character shows such vulnerability in the first episode. In any other season of AHS, such revelations would have taken half a season at least.
While Elsa is spilling all of her secrets, the others carry the body of the cop into the marshlands. There, Jimmy tells them that they will have to fight for the lives they want and the respect they deserve. The police aren’t going to protect them and the townspeople won’t accept them. They can no longer follow the rules of a society that rejects them. “They want to call us monsters? Fine, we’ll act like monsters!” Jimmy cries, before they all hack apart the body of the officer.
Yikes. Looks like there’s going to be some conflict with the people of Jupiter in future episodes.
As for Twisty the Clown, he was largely separate from the main thrust of the episode, but he was, hands down, the most disturbing part. We do not know if he belongs to the Elsa’s group of performers. My guess is no, but this show has proved me wrong before. What we do know is that Twisty brutally murders people, seemingly at random. He’s a giant of a man, towering over everyone else. I am not sure if his face is really his face or if it’s a mask of some kind.
His first victims are a young married couple, Bonnie and Troy, who are having a picnic. They seem nice enough, flirting and making out, oblivious to the creepy clown watching them from behind the bushes. When Troy goes to get something out of the car, Twisty the Clown runs up to Bonnie, stops short, and bows grandly to offer her some flowers.
That’s the insidious part about Twisty. In this scene, he is scary and intimidating, but at first, he doesn’t do anything that could be taken as overtly threatening. Bonnie is clearly uncomfortable and confused, but is afraid of being rude or possibly escalating the situation. So she goes along with Twisty’s tricks, which includes a nail-biting juggling act.
And then he smashes both Troy and Bonnie with the clubs. When Bonnie wakes up, Twisty is stabbing Troy, repeatedly. (This was a really hard scene to watch. Once again, I was surprised they could show it on basic cable.) Bonnie runs away as fast as she can, but Twisty is too fast and captures her easily.
His next victims are a married couple, murdered in the middle of the night. After he’s done with the parents, Twisty kidnaps the couple’s son, Corey.
Bonnie and Corey end up in an abandoned school bus in the middle of the woods. There, Twisty locks them up dog cages and “entertains” them with rattles, toy balls, and balloon animals. Corey cries quietly while Bonnie tries to compliment the clown in an attempt to placate him.
Watching this scene, I felt that Twisty genuinely believed that he was being a good clown and trying to make Bonnie and Corey happy. But it amounts to nothing but pure torture, for Bonnie and Corey and the viewer, especially when Twisty pops his balloon animal and throws a fit, hurling toys and boxes at the cages, while Bonnie and Corey cry and scream.
In the last few scenes of the episode, we see that Twisty has discovered the carnival. He takes a ride on the carousel, no doubt pondering how to be creepy and horrifying in more messed up ways.
If there was a weak point in this episode, its what Elsa does to the candy striper she invites into her Cabinet of Curiousities. Her sadistic streak was hinted at in the exchange with Bette and DotShe’s , but we really see her capacity for manipulation and abuse in her interaction with the candy striper. As if enticing the bored candy striper to her Cabinet wasn’t good enough, we later see the same girl emerge from an opium-induced haze to confront Elsa about she was taken advantage of when drugged. Elsa replies by reciting a monologue about how her “monsters” are kind and loving and unique, utterly selfless in showing themselves to the world, while the people “outside of the tent” are the real monsters. The tape plays in the background, projected on a larger than life screen. The candy striper is the focus of the tent, and even though her face is slack and her eyes glazed over, she is caught up in the opium-fueled orgy.
All the scene remonstrates is that Elsa is willing to blackmail the girl with the video in order to keep her quiet. Whatever critical point was served by Elsa’s speech is completely undercut by the tape. She’s clearly drugged, and this lack of consent is not really addressed. It made me very uncomfortable to watch, and not in a good way. It went on a bit too long and felt exploitive and cheap. I shouldn’t really be surprised, since American Horror Story has always loved to throw in scenes for pure shock factor.
Awesome Quote: So many to chose from. This is AHS after all, so there will always be amazing one-liners. One I didn’t get to above has to be the one rule of Elsa’s carnival—“The bigger the star, the bigger the tent.” With the arrival of the three-breasted woman in next weeks episode, I’m sure there will be some fights over tents. Love it.
Deep thoughts: I felt like this show was very interested in movies, specifically the way the images in movies can take on significance of their own. There were several movie references throughout the film. Just to name a few:
- Marlene Dietrich—all over the place, along with some Veronica Lake thrown in. Elsa blasts her latest performance during the episode, yet she’s serving Marlene Dietrich Realness with this outfit:
2. Marlon Brando—Jimmy Darling’s whole wardrobe
3. Brian De Palma’s Split-screen technique—used to convey the twin’s perspectives at the same time
4. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiousities
5. Freaks, a 1932 film directed by Tod Browning—‘nuff said. (SPOILER ALERT) I’ll put money down on someone getting turned into a “human duck” by the end of the season
6. Gaslight—Bette’s version of how their mother died occurs in this movie
7. Singin’ in the Rain
and probably a million more that I missed
But this is all to say that it was very interesting to see how the characters attached themselves to movies. Bette did it for escapism. Elsa and Jimmy did it to borrow some of the swagger and star power from those they imitated.
It also speaks to the way in which movies and their iconic images can powerfully invoke ideas and feelings. Images on film can also control the narrative more than the words of the people depicted in the images, as seen with the candystriper. No matter what she says, it doesn’t matter that she was drugged, if that tape ever got out, she would be roundly shamed by her community. Today, when almost everyone has a camera phone and social media presence on the internet, those images can control our narratives more than we can ourselves. #ifIwasgunneddown was a powerful example of how a single picture could dictate how the rest of the nation thinks of you.
On Next Weeks Episode: Angela Bassett as the Three-Breasted Woman and Michael Chiklis as the Strong Man! Emma Roberts and Denis O’Hare as creepy scavengers of some kind who might resort to murder to get specimen of the carnival’s performers? Gloria brings home Twisty for Dandy to keep? EEEP!