[This is a review of American Horror Story: Freak Show episode 7. There will be SPOILERS.]
Now matter how it’s sliced, where it’s set, or what accent Jessica Lange is asked to put on, American Horror Story is more or less always about the same thing: the division between society and the marginalized members of a particular group.
Over the last three seasons, the groups in question have been integrated into various subsets denoted by their descriptive subtitles; that is, the characters populating Asylum, Coven, and Freak Show. In each “new” story, the specific circumstances are redefined, but the central plight remains unchanged. The ostracized few still find themselves at odds with the many, while the twist is often that those who conform to society’s standards only do so superficially, and are in fact hiding something much more abnormal and pernicious than those banished to the sidelines for their supposed differences.
While many aspects of the series have become too familiar, too recursive from season to season, the way the thematic elements are presented can often go a long way in whether or not it can still hold the interest of the audience. In the case of ‘Test of Strength’, Freak Show demonstrates how underlining the central conflict of the sideshow performers vs. the exploitive nature of society at large (i.e., the community of Jupiter, FL), suggests the show still has something to say; it’s just not that sure how it wants to say it.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that episode uses an hour to explore Jimmy’s relationship to his estranged father. After it seemed like Jimmy and Dell were destined to remain at odds in terms of what’s good for the sideshow and what’s good for its members, the thread finds another gear by taking both men outside their usual roles, and investigates elements ruled less by typical concepts of masculinity. With the more obstinate sides of their personalities muted through alcohol, the two manage to find common ground and a chance to reconnect as father and son. The fact that Dell intended to ply his son with liquor, to make bashing his brains in with a loose brick easier, oddly serves to strengthen the moment they embrace for what is almost certainly the first time.
That end result of Jimmy and Dell uniting and drunkenly announcing their intention of imposing a stronger male presence on the sideshow – undoubtedly to its detriment – gives the plot a welcome blend of inevitability and surprise. The episode telegraphed a major death from the moment Stanley announced his intentions to blackmail Dell, and to its credit, ‘Test of Strength’ convincingly reverses course on Jimmy meeting his end in a surprisingly plausible way. The additional upshot, then, is the emotional timbre that comes from Ma Petite’s death and the emphasis it places on the season’s overarching theme of exploitation.
But as much as the episode benefits from a more singular focus, as opposed to the scattershot plotting of last week’s offering, there are certain inconsistencies that dilute the efficacy of the Jimmy-Dell dynamic and leave you wondering how, when, and if the significance of Ma Petite’s demise will be addressed beyond that final shot.
For starters, the return of the Tattler twins and the “metamorphosis” of Bette into that of a blonde starlet-to-be is such a rapid reversal of Elsa’s betrayal and an unfortunate (and almost certainly temporary) sidelining of Dandy’s delusional relationship with them, it underscores the complaint that the show’s writing is often too disorganized, and that a coherent narrative is less important than producing “a moment,” no matter what has to be reversed in order for it to be achieved. Sure, the look on Dandy’s face when Bette choses her sister over the comfort of his affluence is about as ominous as things can get, but such hints do little to assuage the concern that too many plot threads wind up being shuffled around before they’ve had a chance to set or are otherwise discarded entirely.
That notion is no more pronounced than by the short, unnecessary (in the sense that it would have been better served by an episode that could have focused on it more) scene between Ethel and Desiree at the home of the kindly doctor who had been treating them. The short excursion is filled with so much exposition and questionable relevance that you can practically hear the writers saying, “Oh yeah, before we forget…” At least the forced tattooing of Penny by her father seems to indicate something more significant down the road, which is more than can be said for the dwindling substance of the Ethel and Desiree thread.
All of this brings things back around to Elsa’s meeting with Stanley, and what appears to be her tacit approval of his plan to murder the Tattlers. There’s some urgency in his suggestion, but it’s too familiar to be truly engaging. At this point, Elsa’s antagonism against those around her has become so reminiscent of Lange’s past characters – especially Fiona – that her story no longer feels like a significant part of what Freak Show is trying to achieve. On the other hand, the lingering question of whether or not Freak Show knows what it’s trying to achieve is probably the bigger issue.
American Horror Story: Freak Show continues with "Blood Bath" on Wednesday, December 3 @10pm on FX. You can watch a promo, below:
Photos: Michel K. Short
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