[This is a review of American Horror Story: Freak Show episode 6. There will be SPOILERS.]
Although many of its thematic elements remain distinct and consistent, the question of whether or not American Horror Story: Freak Show has a compelling story to tell around those overt notions of celebrity and exploitation remains frustratingly uncertain. And now that the season is more or less half over, concerns over whether or not such a story will present itself become as pronounced as the ideas it revisits nearly every episode.
After the brief two-part detour Freak Show took with 'Edward Mordrake: Parts 1 & 2', the storyline recovered somewhat by shifting the focus toward Stanley's quest to procure one of Elsa's attractions, and, alternately, Dandy's self-appointed ascension to the title of "Bringer of Death." While both avenues suggest conflict somewhere down the line, neither brings that element directly to Elsa's freak show, leaving the three primary storylines too distant to have much in the way of an impact on one another. The effect, then, is the feeling that 'Bullseye' is spreading itself too, while, ironically, failing to hit its mark with regard to its many concurrent threads.
Additionally, there's an unmistakable sense of been-here-done-that with regard to Elsa and the Tattler's storylines. While the season flirts with making Elsa equal parts sympathetic and repulsive, it is essentially the same story Jessica Lange has been saddled with since Murder House. Elsa is really no different from any of the other characters Lange has previously played. She's the angry aggressive matriarch whose fears of being replaced or having her authority undermined drive her to unspeakable acts. But hidden underneath it all is a deeply damaged soul yearning for acceptance.
Sarah Paulson doesn't fare much better; the Tattler twins are merely a superficially altered iteration of the same character she's played since Asylum. To put it in terms befitting the season's favorite recurring routine: The songs are being sung in a different voice, but all the notes remain the same.
Perhaps that's part of the equation with an anthology such as this. Developing strong differences in terms of the objectives of the narrative and characterization isn't considered as high a priority as playing up the difference in setting and theme. And that would probably be enough if the setting and theme had more of a direct impact on the characters and their individual stories. But as it stands now, Freak Show feels more like a tangled mess of plot-threads that have been left to wither in the hot Florida sun, than it does a coherent piece on exploitation or society's preoccupation with fame.
There's still promise in each thread that's been established, however. Elsa's belief that Stanley will put her on television is a symbolic gutting just waiting to happen. Meanwhile, Stanley himself makes for a fine cautionary tale on how greed supplants one's ability to see other people as anything other than objects to use as they see fit. And there's something quite successful in how Denis O'Hare plays his character as a charlatan so desperate for a buck that he can nonchalantly reduce the members of the freak show down to a collection of jars their parts will fit in. But while his objective is convincing, the action he brings to fulfill it is not. Stanley's willingness to take any old freak (now that the Tattlers has been sold off to Dandy and his mother) significantly reduces the sense of tension that a more deliberate and decisive target might otherwise bring.
The same goes for Dandy. Although he comes to the conclusion that he was put on this Earth to bring death, he only does so after reading Dot's diary and discovering that the women he wants to marry are only half-willing to entertain the idea. Right now, Dandy and the Tattlers are a means to a mutual end, they serve the continued characterization of one another, but their converging stories don't necessarily give any sense that this will be anything more than a rehash of the Lana Winters-Dr. Oliver Thredson storyline from Asylum.
What is successful, however, is the way the twins' divergent desires fuel Dot's dream of one day undergoing a surgery to separate them – at the expense of her sister's life, of course. The idea of a schism between the two works for the most part, even if it really only deepens Dot's character, while reducing Bette to a doe-eyed pleasure seeker. But even then, there's something in that naïve desire to achieve stardom without fully understanding what it may one day cost her that makes Bette's seemingly simple characterization work in this particular setting.
At least 'Bullseye' offers the audience a chance to get to know one of the new cast members by offering Matt Fraser a chance to take center stage as Elsa's object of lust, and the object of what seems to be legitimate affection for Penny (Grace Gummer) – a.k.a. the woman who was drugged and seemingly assaulted during the premiere. And while her story of going from being abused by the members of the freak show to being infatuated with Paul doesn't make much sense and, subsequently, relies far too much on her character telling the audience that she loves him, at least it affords Fraser an opportunity to grow his character.
With any luck, Freak Show will develop these threads more so they don't feel so disjointed or reliant on telling the audience what is meaningful, instead of showing them.
American Horror Story: Freak Show continues next Wednesday with 'Test of Strength' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Michel K. Short/FX