[This is a review of American Horror Story: Freak Show, Episode 9. There will be SPOILERS.]
It is hard to say whether or not the shift in focus will stick – this is American Horror Story: Freak Show we’re talking about here – but this week’s ‘Tupperware Party Massacre’ suggests that a good portion of the season’s seemingly erratic plot has begun to coalesce around a feud between Jimmy and Dandy. There’s still plenty of story left that will hopefully deliver the fates of Elsa, Dell, the Tattlers, and the rest of the sideshow performers – again, this is AHS we’re talking about – but the idea that the overarching narrative is starting to give at least one of its threads some semblance of danger and reward is promising.
Elsa was primarily sidelined this week, as she spent most of her time dreaming of a nonexistent future career as a Hollywood starlet, while helping Stanley get his paws on the Tattler twins. Right now, Stanley’s plot to secure as many of Elsa’s “curiosities” – or parts of them, anyway – has been something of a mixed bag. The demise of Ma Petite was a wrenching moment that had more to do with Dell’s mental wellbeing than whether or not Stanley received his payday.
Right now, Stanley’s been relegated to little more than a TV-MA version of a bumbling cartoon villain who is inadvertently thwarted at nearly every turn. It would all be for naught if it weren’t for Denis O’Hare’s incredible over the top performance, where he seems to be channeling just that sort of animated scoundrel. O’Hare is practically twirling his mustache and cackling with glee in every scene, and it’s a wonder his character’s upper lip wasn’t endowed with such a delightfully cheeky accessory (instead, he was afforded a different kind of attachment that requires a little imagination from the audience).
Although Stanley’s machinations are growing a tad stale and repetitive, he at least serves to underline certain fundamental aspects of Elsa and Dell’s characters, and helps give them some semblance of significance beyond their actions. In a sense, that’s what Jimmy and Dandy do for one another as well. With Dandy ascending to a self-appointed godlike status, and vowing to destroy Jimmy’s world (such as it is), the paths of the two characters suddenly have more meaning. What was once a petulant psychopath prone to erratic outbursts of bloody violence has now turned into a confident, calculating psychopath, capable of making plans and following through on them (e.g. Dandy’s purchase of a corrupt cop, resulting in Regina’s murder and Jimmy’s arrest).
Given this series’ love for randomness, it’s surprising how well Dandy’s transformation works, and how the promise of a nefarious (if not terribly ambitious) plan makes the character feel like less of an outlier or mere indulgence – even as Wittrock continues to devour the scenery like a one man plague of locusts unleashed upon a field of crops – and more like a major player in the narrative.
But Dandy also acts as a foil for Jimmy’s otherwise dulled luminosity. Since the death of his mother, Jimmy’s become a hollow shell of a man, perpetually at the bottom of a bottle of booze, and courting Ima Wiggles. Jimmy’s interest in Ima seems to be inspired by his need to seek comfort from his mother’s passing. This might be an interesting part of Jimmy’s arc, were it not for the pernicious tone to the depiction of Ima and Jimmy’s relationship as something odd or to be laughed at. The other members of the side show seem more perturbed by the idea of Jimmy being with Ima, than the idea that Jimmy’s using her for some sort of temporary selfish relief. The confrontation between her and Maggie, when the couple was caught in the act, is made worse by Jimmy’s inebriation and Maggie’s reference of it as an explanation for why the act would have even occurred in the first place.
Essentially, it seems like the show is obliquely shaming Ima by suggesting someone would have to be out of his mind on booze and overcome with grief to find her attractive. It works in the sense that this season is about the exploitation of people – especially those who wear their differences on the outside – but as is the series’ usual way of doing things, it stops at calling out the injustice, rather than make any sense or attempt to apply some sort of compelling significance to it. The same is essentially true of Dell’s suicide attempt, but that’s only in the moment. The way Dell is wrestling with his sexuality has been offset by the remorse he feels for killing Ma Petite, and it seems like AHS has stumbled into an interesting collision where guilt heaped on by a prejudiced society has collided with the moral guilt that comes from committing a crime as heinous as murder. Since Desiree saved Dell at the very last minute, there’s a chance for the narrative to explore this ethical pile-up and see what emerges from the wreckage.
The Tattlers arrive at a similar junction during the episode, as Dot finally comes to the conclusion that without her sister, she would not be whole. The scene is one of the most remarkably affecting moments of the series, and Paulson’s dual performance anchors what might have otherwise been an outlandish moment by delivering two distinct characters and making their unifying conclusion a major turning point for the character, which was underlined by the chance that was taken in telling Jimmy of Dot’s feelings for him.
The progress of the characters this week gives further structure to the remainder of the season. It still stands to reason that the structure could be tossed aside for more randomness, but if these storylines can play out to some kind of conclusion, Freak Show stands a chance of ending on a series high note.
American Horror Story: Freak Show continues next Wednesday with ‘Orphans’ @10pm on FX.
Photos: Sam Lothridge/FX