American Horror Story: Freak Show, Season 4, Episode 12: “Show Stoppers”
Written by Jessica Sharzer
Directed by Loni Peristere
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on FX
As the messy season of television that has been Freak Show nears its conclusion, the show doesn’t present many signs of coming to a satisfying end. Although certain arcs have worked, Ryan Murphy and co. haven’t followed many of the stories extensively enough to bring them to a satisfying conclusion.
One primary problem is the writers’ inability to pick a character to focus on. While this kaleidoscope-like approach to storytelling can work when approached well (like in The Wire, to cite the best example that comes to mind), in the case of Freak Show, it mostly results in a mess of half-baked characters who fail to hold the viewer’s interests or sympathies. This approach is also what, one imagines, led the writers to decide to introduce a brand new character in the third-to-last episode, in the form of Chester.
Though his late introduction to the show handicapped his ability to make us care about him, Chester could’ve worked as a mild diversion in an increasingly uninteresting season, particularly due to the strength of Neil Patrick Harris’ performance. However, not content to have him be merely a one episode lark, writer Jessica Sharzer brings him back for this week’s episode, “Show Stoppers,” and makes him one of its emotional centerpieces yet again.
As with last week, it feels like Sharzer is fitting a square peg in a round hole. We haven’t been given enough time with Chester to care about his PTSD, and how it’s turned him into a misogynistic psychopath. Although the twins have been among the strongest characters this season, as has been mentioned in past reviews, even their relationship with him doesn’t bear much interest, due to how boring Chester is. It’s possible that the writers could have made him into an believable, three-dimensional character if they had introduced him early in the season, but as he appears, it feels as if the writers hoped to circumvent anything approaching character development without the audience noticing.
On a positive note, his murder of Maggie yields one of the season’s most brutal and entertainingly campy death sequences. Like the image of Dandy bathing in his mother’s blood at the end of “Blood Bath,” the scene has a grotesque beauty to it that’s just as repulsive as it is hypnotic. Freak Show has been at its best when it’s been at its campiest, and the magic-trick-cum-execution is among the better hyperbolic kill scenes from the season. The scene (beautifully directed by Loni Peristere) doesn’t have quite the impact it could’ve if it’d involved different characters, given Chester’s already-discussed flaws and Maggie’s inconsistent characterization over the course of the show, but it manages to be fittingly gory.
Another murder (or torture) scene provides an equally perverse thrill: the freaks’ turn against Stanley in the teaser. As with the finest of Twisty’s murders, the shots of them going after him provide some of the season’s most pulse-pounding moments. Even better, unlike Maggie’s execution, the victim here is a character whom the viewer has been conditioned to despise from the moment he appears on screen. Accordingly, we have quite a bit invested in seeing him meet the fate he deserves. Although none of the characters who attack Stanley have been particularly well sketched out individually, they cohere to represent the collective “freak” (whom we have come to identify with), and the stakes are high enough to give the scene dramatic weight.
The precise fate Stanley meets provides “Show Stoppers” with another enticingly horrifying moment. As Dandy discovers, Stanley has been turned into one of the freaks he abhors. The poetic justice here is too heavy handed to be particularly emotional or satisfying, but it’s an appropriately brutal image.
Unfortunately, in “Show Stoppers,” as has been true throughout the season, the writers haven’t been content to let the show glide on the strength of similarly campy shots. Too often, they’ve attempted to traffic in melodrama, but the characters they’ve presented haven’t been strong enough to evoke most of the emotions they appear to be aiming for. This is, in part, a simple matter of not spending enough time with characters, as in the case of Chester, but the show’s problems appear to be even deeper rooted. Perhaps Murphy and co. can use next week’s finale to focus on the show’s strengths, while avoiding its numerous weaknesses.