[This is a review of American Horror Story: Freak Show episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
'Pink Cupcakes' offers an interesting peek into the fantasy lives of the characters populating the kooky corners of American Horror Story: Freak Show. After last week realized the ascension of Dandy as the season's next source of horror – oddly supplanting the bowling-pin infused terror of Twisty the Clown – the episode offers a slight change of pace, delivering Elsa's freak show from the grip of the two-faced Edward Mordrake to a more sedate exploration of the personal desires driving its members. It is not necessarily the sort of thing one would necessarily describe as things settling back into place, but that's only because there's rarely any semblance of stasis on this show.
The idea of desire and fantasy mostly finds intersection in the devious mind of charlatan/deliverer-of-deadly-baked-goods Stanley (Denis O'Hare), who envisions a world in which he has delivered the bodies of Paul the Illustrated Seal and the Tattler twins to the "freak show" museum, and has been gifted with a certain amount of praise and cash. While the images of Paul and the Tattlers' remains behind aquarium glass is disturbing, it doesn't really hold a candle to how hilariously small Stanley's fantasy is.
In a dream where he could conceivably have anything he wanted, Stanley ponders the miniscule glory granted him by delivering "exquisite human anomalies" to the proprietor of a museum. It says a great deal about the character that his dream is to bathe in the warming glow of such a particular spotlight. And while the shallow depth of Stanley's fantasy may be conveniently in keeping with the episode's plot, it at least mirrors the increasingly desperate and self-serving desires fueling so many of the characters.
The only problem is that, unlike the deeper understanding of Stanley's perspective, the exploration of Elsa and the Tattler twins' yearning for fame is little more than a revisiting of what the season has already established. Sure, it's been two whole episodes since the Tattlers wowed the crowd with their anachronistic rendition of 'Criminal', but revisiting what drives them and Elsa doesn’t really accomplish anything outside of padding Stanley's various failed attempts at procuring his specimens. The recursive effect is made again when Elsa performs 'Life on Mars' for the second time. It may have been to a sell-out crowd, and it may have proven how fickle audiences are – considering the demise of Twisty seemed to bring about an accord between the people of Jupiter, FL and the denizens of Elsa's freak show – but the sense of repetition ultimately undermines the more nuanced and interesting notion of celebrity and its relationship with those who consume it.
But that doesn't stop Finn Wittrock from continuing to steal the show, as Dandy has now fully transitioned from petulant manchild to that of a seemingly fully formed Patrick Bateman. Dandy's narration over his workout and preening in front of the mirror is either homage to Mary Harron's adaptation of American Psycho or a complete rip-off of it. At this point it's hard to tell. And were it not for Wittrock's performance alleviating some of those concerns, the series' penchant for "borrowing" from other avenues of popular culture might incline one to think it's the latter.
Still, despite the overt similarities, the use of American Psycho's themes fits right in with most of the season's already established ideas. The exploration of obsession with physical appearance, celebrity, and how the endless search for praise and fame may be an attempt to fill a deep, persistent emptiness inside of someone actually resonates quite well. In this instance, it manifests in familiar, aforementioned ways, but also primarily in Dandy's homicidal encounter with Dell's favorite male prostitute, played by Matt Bomer.
Interestingly enough, the opposite is true for Desiree, who finds herself seeking normalcy after discovering her dual gender is the result of a hormonal imbalance that can be corrected. The dichotomy between those who have lived their life with a certain perception of themselves and those who seek an idealized version of that perception goes a long way in making the episode work, despite some of the narrative fumbling with regard to Elsa and the Tattler Twins.
But like the repetition of Elsa and the Tattler Twins' story, Freak Show spreads itself thin with unnecessary scenes between Jimmy and Maggie and, later, Jimmy and Desiree that want to explore his feelings of alienation and inadequacy, only to wind up getting short shrift with everything else that is going on. Jimmy may be AHS' version of an archetypal hero, but his arc is still interesting enough that it deserves proper attention. His exchange with Maggie may have been put to better use in an episode where it can be more fully explored, while his lamenting the death of Meep just feels like an incongruous reminder to the audience that a character barely anyone remembers died and Jimmy has feelings about it.
All of this demonstrates how 'Pink Cupcakes' might have been an even stronger episode had it been more focused on where its characters' wants were taking them, rather than underlining those wants in the first place.
American Horror Story: Freak Show continues next Wednesday with 'Bullseye' @10pm on FX. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Michele K. Short/FX