[This is a review of American Horror Story: Freak Show episode 2. There will be SPOILERS.]

For its part, the season premiere of American Horror Story: Freak Show managed to set up all of the various characters in and around Elsa Mars’ failing freak show. It also provided a glimpse into their world, establishing the level of insularity – both wanted and unwanted – that positioned the storyline to be told from the inside looking out.

It’s a familiar stance for the AHS franchise to take, as each season since Murder House has ostensibly reflected the troubles of marginalized members of society and the hierarchies they build within their own semi-closed society.

So far, Freak Show has launched two separate storylines, the main Elsa Mars thread and the one featuring Twisty the Clown. Both have their own subplots helping to develop the needs and wants of the various players, and they have crossed over with one another in mostly superficial ways – Twisty was witness to Jimmy and the others dismembering the policeman who’d come to arrest the Tattler twins – but that was about it. Whatever the two storylines are doing in terms of plot isn’t necessarily clear – especially since, in the early going anyway, Freak Show is more concerned with serving up a series of indelible moments than connecting them via a strong, compelling narrative.

And that’s okay for now. The monstrous creepiness of Twisty in the first episode gives way to a considerable amount of morbid humor, when Gloria, in search of the missing and equally creepy Dandy, comes upon the clown walking down a stretch of road and, instead of squealing in abject horror, hires him to entertain her petulant son. The subsequent playdate, then, doesn’t result in the upper-class bloodbath one might have expected, but rather a frightening meeting of the minds, wherein Dandy inserts himself into Twisty’s Kidz Corner, becoming the mouthpiece for the clown with no mouth.

Jessica Lange in AHS Freak Show episode 2 American Horror Story: Freak Show: Let em Know Us

Of course, all of this comes after a brilliantly directed opening, wherein a hapless toy store clerk follows a mysterious (to him) trail of blood while being stalked by the clown responsible for the mess. It marks the return of director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, whose stylized work has been impressing viewers of AHS since Asylum. Gomez-Rejon balances tension with humor in such a way that the gaudiness of the series becomes a virtue, rather than a point of contention.

Even though the scary-thing-hiding-in-plain-sight gag has been used a million times over, it works here, in part because the director makes no attempt to obscure what it is he’s getting at. It’s all part of the appeal of American Horror Story: it’s all been done before, but the show will cheekily present anything and everything as though it just discovered it (i.e., the score that’s straight out of Jonathan Glazer’s brilliant Under the Skin.)

While Twisty’s actions have had an oblique impact on Elsa’s Freak Show as the Jupiter P.D. have issued a city-wide curfew that effectively kills any hope of a nighttime audience, an even more damaging presence arrives in the form of strongman Dell Toledo and his amply endowed, hermaphroditic wife Desiree Dupree. All of this is upsetting to Ethel, who shares an unpleasant history with Toledo that seems to have produced Jimmy.

It’s a bold move to reveal Jimmy’s father this early in the season (if the show is in fact being upfront about the matter), since it was not a pressing concern and it reads like information that might have been reserved for a more conventionally dramatic reveal. To its credit, though, Freak Show doesn’t seem interested in traveling down that particular well-trodden path; it would rather link the arrival of Toledo, his hulking physical presence, and immediate authoritarian stance – which has to do with matinee performances, of all things – to a thematic structure that is at least partially built around the patriarchy and how its presence (or lack thereof, in Dandy’s case) can be damaging in different ways.

Kathy Bates as Ethel in AHS Freak Show episode 2 American Horror Story: Freak Show: Let em Know Us

If anything, Toledo’s old school, tough love (or no love, as it were) behavior and imposing quality are indicative of the concept of masculinity most commonly associated with the era in which Freak Show is set. If anything, Jimmy is walking a more modern path, but it’s one that has him conflicted, doing what he feels is expected of him as a prototypical strong man (i.e., to kill those who would seek to harm his family) and doing what comes naturally.

In other words, that means Jimmy is nurturing and present, as he was taking his family out to the diner in a failed attempt to ingratiate them with the community, or when he openly mourns the Meep the Geek during the episode’s final moments.

There’s so much going on in ‘Massacres & Matinees’ that the unseating of Elsa by Bette’s anachronistic performance of Fiona Apples’ ‘Criminal’ almost becomes a footnote – an entertaining one, but a footnote nonetheless. The conspiracy between Dot and Elsa after Bette turns diva isn’t especially original – in fact, it smacks entirely of last season’s Coven storyline – but at least there’s some sense of structure in it.

American Horror Story: Freak Show continues next Wednesday with ‘Edward Mordrake: Part 1’ @10pm on FX.

Photos: Michele K. Short/FX

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