[This is a review of American Horror Story: Freak Show episode 13. There will be SPOILERS.]
Although it has the same episode count as the three previous seasons, American Horror Story: Freak Show somehow managed to feel twice as long. With its discordant threads and languorous pacing, the season’s only surprise was that it just kept going, week after week. For whatever reason, despite being set in and around a freak show and boasting some incredible talent, the fourth season of Ryan Murphy’s “horror” anthology series served up a dull, lifeless, and far too repetitive smattering of half-baked ideas about our culture’s obsession with celebrity (and the often invasive sense of ownership those sitting in the audience have when it comes to their favorite stars).
The dearth of creative energy throughout the run of Freak Show suggests the proverbial well has run dry. American Horror Story has become lethargic and monotonous. The repetitious nature of its storylines and structure, along with its uninspired reliance on explicit violence that neither scares nor shocks, reads less like an attempt at provocation and more like a cry for help. Thankfully, with so many cast members already signed up to work on other (Ryan Murphy) shows, it seems like the next season may have a chance to get the help it needs.
As far as ‘Curtain Call’ goes, the title feels oddly appropriate given the state of the series as a whole. But it also works in terms of bringing the story of Elsa Mars to a close. After the events of last week’s episode, the storyline was divided in two, with Mars on the run after her freaks turned on her and Dandy taking ownership of the show. This being the final episode (albeit a slightly longer one), there was only so much time that could be spent on either storyline. As such, things begin to fall apart in a predictable and stagy manner when Finn Wittrock revives the petulant version of Dandy just in time for him to be spat on by Paul the Illustrated Seal, as the freaks quit en masse. Dandy’s response, of course, is to go on a shooting spree.
The scene’s exorbitant length is its only remarkable feature. Otherwise it merely smacks of laziness, as characters are gunned down one after the other in an unrelenting display of violence that transforms spectacle into banality and challenges nothing about the show or its surface level commentary.
Finn Wittrock has been praised throughout the season for his exuberant performance as Dandy, who he’s consistently played big and loud. And to his credit, he manages to turn up the volume even more as Dandy’s death scene in Houdini’s escape tank approaches, but it underlines how the show and the performances that people tend to laud, gravitate too often to a sense of grandiosity. Sure, American Horror Story is inherently unsubtle – it wouldn’t be a Ryan Murphy show if it had any sort of grasp on subtlety and nuance – but over time that obviousness wears thin. For all the blaring intensity of his performance, it’s when Dandy looks up from what will be his watery tomb and tells Jimmy, “I’m a song and dance man,” that stands out the most. Unlike nearly everything else, it’s funny and it points to an awareness of the tonal incongruity at the heart of the show that should be revealed more often.
The rest of ‘Curtain Call’ focuses on Lange, and if this is truly to be her final season on the show, it’s a bit of a let down. After a time jump, it’s revealed that Elsa has achieved her goal of stardom, having become the star of The Elsa Mars Hour and a recording artist. She has it all, fame, power, money, and even a husband. But she’s unhappy. What she really wants is to be loved. That familiar trope of the miserable rich sends the second half of the finale into as rapid a tailspin as Dandy’s shooting spree. The trouble is: almost none of it matters or carries any weight because it was introduced only minutes before it falls apart.
There’s a slight sense of tragedy as it’s revealed that Elsa’s past and the unsuccessful snuff film she was the victim of leads to her undoing. But the potential sting of misfortune is undercut by Elsa’s desire to throw it all away and run off to Rome with Massimo. Alas, her beloved has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and will be gone in a month. So, with nothing left to live for, Elsa courts Edward Mordrake who recognizes her attempt as suicide and opts to send her soul back where she can be reunited with her freaks and continue to sing David Bowie tunes for eternity. There is no punishment for Elsa, as Ethel reminds her, “stars don’t pay.” And while the comment is another pointed barb at the way celebrity is viewed and regarded in this country, the sting comes too late, and feels too tacked on to carry any real value.
One of the biggest problems with Freak Show is the way even the extreme specificity of its setting and characters failed to set the season apart from Murder House, Asylum, or Coven. Take away the character names and the depiction of an aging matriarch played by Jessica Lange, whose loosening grip on power is challenged by a younger upstart (Sarah Paulson), while a well-meaning but ultimately foolhardy young man (Evan Peters) searches for his place in the world, could be an account of any season. Sure, you can add some flavor by throwing Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, Emma Roberts, and Michael Chiklis – among a throng of guest stars like Wes Bentley and Neil Patrick Harris – into the pot, but no amount of spice is going to overcome the blandness of the stock. It’s time to rinse the pot out and start from scratch.
American Horror Storywill return to FX in the fall of 2015.
Photos: Sam Lothridge/FX