American Horror Story: Freak Show, Season 4, Episode 11: “Magical Thinking”
Written by Jennifer Salt
Directed by Michael Goi
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on FX
With just two weeks left in the season, American Horror Story: Freak Show appears to be covering for the weak development of its primary characters by introducing new figures and shedding light on previously ignored ones. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the wonderful Neil Patrick Harris (here, as in Gone Girl, playing a character who’s more Artie Ziff than Barney Stinson), the attempt to develop the milquetoast war veteran Chester in this week’s “Magical Thinking” is no more successful than the depictions of Imma Wiggles or Pepper in the preceding episodes.
In Chester, Freak Show presents the audience with yet another “normal” (i.e. white male) character who turns out to be far more disturbed than any of the “freaks.” After an appropriately gory look at the loss of Jimmy’s hands (as usual, the show doesn’t make the slightest pretense towards subtlety) in the teaser, the new character makes a charismatic first appearance that makes the most of Harris’ world-class charm. The twins, and the viewing audience, are smitten by him, and Chester appears to be a fun injection into what’s become an increasingly dour ensemble.
However, since this is a Ryan Murphy production, things are not what they seem. Before the end of the first act, writer Jennifer Salt reveals that Chester’s penchant for ventriloquism is far more than an innocent hobby. Though his skills seem to be impressive and charming in the audition scene, if a bit odd, the following sequence quickly destroys any appreciation which his talent may have fostered, as it shows him talking to his doll while alone. Then, in case the viewer wasn’t yet thoroughly creeped out by Chester’s obsession, Salt hammers home the point by having the character’s love scene with the twins trigger a flashback in which he watches his wife have sex with a woman. Though he’s invited to join in the fun, he can’t bring himself to do so, and he prefers to watch the couple, along with his doll.
As with Pepper (and too many characters over the course of the season), the writers of Freak Show appear to want the audience to care about someone without justifying why they should. In Pepper’s case, ham-handed close-ups and sappy string music were utilized in a futile attempt to circumvent more interesting forms of character development. While director Michael Goi doesn’t ignore such techniques in “Magical Thinking,” Salt also throws in a bizarre subplot about Chester’s PTSD that’s risible at best, and a trivialization of the condition at worst. While the viewer is seemingly supposed to sympathize with the character’s plight, it’s presented too comically and creepily for us to feel any shred of emotion towards him. The presentation clashes particularly poorly with Chester’s sad history, since the viewer is left feeling disgusted by a victim of PTSD who comes across as fairly innocent. It’s unclear what sort of feelings the third act scene of his doll going missing is supposed to conjure, but it comes across as a tonally disastrous concoction that leads directly to audience disinterest.
Unfortunately, the returning characters don’t do much to make “Magical Thinking” into a more compelling hour. (This has commonly been the case recently, with the exception of Bette and Dot, but more on the latter in a bit). Dell continues to be a stubbornly uninteresting character (a bit like Hank Schrader, minus 75% or so of the depth). He greatly brings down the interest of the hospital scene with Jimmy, who has been one of this season’s bright spots, by being its focal point and draining it of any possible pathos. When Elsa finally puts him (and the episode) out of his misery, the viewer is too relieved at his departure to feel any sort of emotion towards the character himself.
Luckily, the twins are able to provide “Magical Thinking” with at least a bit of human interest. Though it comes in a scene with the defiantly boring Chester, their blossoming sexual knowledge is touching, and it builds the development of the two characters beautifully. Unfortunately, Freak Show has been too concerned with sensationalism and excess to provide more moments such as these.