[This is a review of American Horror Story: Freak Show. There will be SPOILERS.]
Another season of American Horror Story is almost in the can. The easiest way for the average viewer to tell the end is near is by the amount of bloodshed delivered in rapid succession, so that the many, many story threads and character relationships that have been introduced can be discarded as quickly as possible. While this has generated more than a few garish surprises in the past, after nearly four seasons of the same thing, it's become something of a emotionless routine – something the show does to wind down before putting itself to bed.
In the case of Freak Show's penultimate episode, 'Show Stoppers', the usual smattering of characters engaged in familiar behavior is augmented only the overwhelming sense of finality. Unsurprisingly, since this series borrows from so many sources (including its own past seasons) even the level of familiarity is taken up a notch. In this case, Elsa and her troupe offer to put on a special kind show for the conman/murderer in their midst. And unsurprisingly, that show turns out to be an homage to Tod Browning's 1932 film Freaks.
Who knows if this is before or after the people of Jupiter, Florida have gathered to watch Elsa sing David Bowie hits that have yet to happen, or if they've simply postponed the performances until the "Under New Management" sign can be hung? Either way, the situation is rather bleak for Stanley, who, once presented with the head of Lillian Hemmings (Celia Weston) as a charming thank you gift, is transformed from a smooth-talking criminal to a yellow-bellied coward. It's an ignominious end for Stanley, as he's chased through the camp while the camerawork makes allusions to Browning's film, (seemingly) ending Stanley's story with a cut to black that would require the audience to use their imagination.
The sequence is played knowingly, since Elsa and the others directly reference Freaks before allowing Stanley's demise to play itself out. Paul and Eve and Suzi regale their unwitting victim with a rundown of the film he's about to experience firsthand. The effect is intended to be a winking nod at one of the show's forefathers, but it only succeeds in underlining one of the most frequent infractions committed by American Horror Story: the way the series so willingly undercuts its own sense of suspense for a cheap reference to another story as a misguided means of legitimizing itself.
Stanley's tepid response – to spit out a hasty accusation against Elsa, not as a means to save his own hide, but to damn her along with him – speaks to the mechanical nature of what could otherwise have been a pointed tribute. It's another example of characters being written and altered from one episode to the next, solely in service of the plot. The usually sharp-minded flimflam man is unsurprisingly holding an ace up his sleeve; but instead of playing it, Stanley bears all, letting the card fall limply to the ground. Sure, he plants the seed of distrust in the freaks and ultimately dooms Elsa, but it robs both scenarios of their potential dramatic impact.
The rest of the episode unfolds in a similar fashion. The hour hits as many beats as it can, eliminating threads instead of ending or resolving them. Maggie, for example, has become repentant, determined to atone for her mistakes, hoping for a "clean start." Her final scene with Jimmy is meant to establish the new leaf she'd turned over, but rules are rules – you hurt a freak, you have to pay. Or so Desiree's callous sentiment suggests when she and the other's discover Chester's short-lived ownership of the show has ended with him sawing Maggie in half and then "murdering" Margery in a fit of rage. His blood soaked confession to the police – that he murdered a ventriloquist dummy – opens up a plot hole big enough to drive Elsa's ego through, but to Freak Show this doesn't spell complication; it spells conclusion.
And in way, that's fine. Outside of the faces Sarah Paulson got to make at the Margery doll, Chester's presence didn't bring much to the table. For the show to broom him with the same kind of listless energy reserved for Twisty, Gloria, or Maggie feels less like an offence and more like par for the course. Who needs insight into a character when you can have scenery chewing?
At least 'Show Stoppers' finds its way to a thread it still cares about. With Elsa on the lam and the now sophisticated (and boring) Dandy as the new proprietor of the freak show, the season's only remaining character of note is made whole by Massimo (Danny Huston), who shows up to craft Jimmy a new pair of hands. But first he must regale Elsa with his tale of woe, which concerns his efforts to seek revenge against the men who maimed her. In another halfhearted attempt to connect the AHS universe, Asylum is referenced again with the appearance of a young Hans Gruper (John Cromwell), who tortures Massimo to the point where he can no longer love.
With Jimmy's soul restored as the door is shut on the potential of so many threads, Freak Show is ready to bring another season to a close. Whether or not it has done so in a way that will leave an impact (beyond the perfunctory manner in which it marched through another overly familiar storyline), remains to be seen. With just one episode left to go, it seems unlikely.
American Horror Story: Freak Show will conclude next Wednesday with 'Curtain Call' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Michele K. Short