[This is a review of American Horror Story: Freak Show episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
'Blood Bath' is an appropriate title for the eighth installment of American Horror Story: Freak Show, and not just because of the final image of Dandy bathing in what is presumably a tub filled with his mother's blood. The episode is chockablock with violence and death, as it brings Ethel's story to a gruesome end when Elsa again demonstrates her various dark talents by throwing a knife into her once-trusted companion's eye, and then making her death look like a horrific suicide. Meanwhile, Penny enacts a little revenge on her father, by getting the girls together to tar and feather the man who permanently disfigured his own daughter because he disapproved of her romantic interest.
If that sounds like a lot for a single episode to take in, it is. But, if nothing else, that is American Horror Story for you, so while the narrative feels jumbled and half-finished – one moment Jimmy is giving his mother a tearful eulogy, and the next, Elsa's literally window shopping for a new sideshow attraction – it is, essentially, the nature of the beast. And with Ryan Murphy taking the writing reins on the episode, it's easy to see why it would indulge in so many different threads at once.
Still, to its credit, amidst all the goings-on, 'Blood Bath' attempts to bring about some sense of a through-line by using the deaths of Ethel, Gloria, and Ma Petite to help underline the idea made manifest by Jimmy that the proverbial party is over: the life of the sideshow performer is unsustainable and will, in fact, soon come to an end. In that sense, the addition of Ima Wiggles (Chrissy Metz) – despite her abrupt and ungainly introduction – also fits into that line of thinking, representing Elsa's desperate gluttony and consumptive ferocity that is spiraling out of control and hastening the demise of her livelihood. In essence, Elsa is slowly killing herself with her willingness to feed her rapaciousness. It is completely on the nose, but again, it's part and parcel of what comes with the AHS territory.
The sense that the world, as the characters know it is coming apart at the seams, and that they are facilitating its end, is mirrored in the Elsa and Dandy storylines. Both characters face an increasingly untenable situation, and they both seek release through violence. That response, of course, is merely delaying the inevitable. The notion is made more complete by the sense that both characters are being disassembled, or are lacking the thing that would make them complete.
While Dandy's is ostensibly picked apart in psychoanalysis, Elsa reveals to Ethel how she was once disassembled, but eventually made whole by the Gepetto-like Massimo (Danny Huston), who brought her back from the brink of death and lovingly crafted her wooden legs. But the appendages, like Dandy's handsome smile and attire, are just a front, hiding the truth that these characters are a lot more like the titular "freaks" than either has ever truly admitted.
The parallels of the characterss threads extend to the promise of what happens next. Both seem bound and determined to strike out and have the world bask in their own unique radiance. Of course, Elsa and Dandy are completely delusional. While Elsa has Stanley's forked tongue in her ear, it's not hard to imagine that voices echoing in Dandy's head are spurring him on as well. The only question, then, is: how will Gabourey Sidibe's Regina factor into the story now that Gloria and her squash-filled lies are no longer there to keep her sleuthing at bay?
All in all, 'Blood Bath' does what it can to bring the various storylines together under one roof (or tent, as it were), and for the most part it succeeds. After several episodes where the narrative has felt more drawn out than necessary, this episode pushes it forward and that forced momentum gives it new life, at least temporarily. There's still plenty of time for the season to develop a more coherent storyline, but there's also the chance that it will be derailed even further. At this point, though, perhaps the semblance of the season walking down a more distinct path matters more than the question of how or if that path will become meaningful.
American Horror Story: Freak Show continues next Wednesday with 'Tupperware Party Massacre' @10 pm on FX.
Photos: Michele K. Short and Sam Luthridge/FX