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American Horror Story, Ep. 4.13: “Curtain Call” is flawed fun, like the season

American Horror Story, Ep. 4.13: “Curtain Call” is flawed fun, like the season


American Horror Story: Freak Show, Season 4, Episode 13: “Curtain Call”
Written by John J. Gray
Directed by Bradley Buecker
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on FX

Of course Freak Show would end this way. It makes perfect sense that a season that’s never been totally willing to invest in a particular character as a hero or a villain figure would be brought to its conclusion by someone who the audience had known previously through just a two episode mini-arc in the season’s first half. Freak Show has flirted with protagonists (Jimmy, Bette and Dot, etc.) and antagonists (Twisty, Stanley, Dandy, etc.), some better and some worse, but none of them have fit particularly well in the roles they appeared to be slotted for. Accordingly, the death of an entertaining but emotionally inconsequential character (Elsa) at the hands of an even less important character (Edward Mordrake) seems to be a fittingly anti-climactic conclusion for the season finale “Curtain Call.”

It’s not like there hasn’t been anything fun about this season, and the episode did contain elements of what’s worked well. As has been noted in previous reviews, Freak Show has been at its best when it’s been at its campiest, and “Curtain Call” nods towards the gory excess that’s been particularly effective. The episode’s highlight is Dandy’s lengthy killing spree: it’s a scene that takes up most of the first act, without feeling even the slightest bit too long. The handheld closeups do an efficient, if slightly heavy-handed, job of conveying the freaks’ terror and placing the viewer in their shoes. Though Dandy’s effectiveness as a villain has been mixed (in part due to the show’s aforementioned wariness to commit to him as such), the set piece is compelling, even if it has to rely on well-worn cinematic heartstring-tugging techniques to engage the viewer’s emotions. The same is true of Jimmy’s reaction in the following scene: the echo of his voice and the sad piano music feel slightly excessive for conveying his misery, but the sequence fits within the total lack of subtlety that has characterized the season as a whole.

Bradley Buecker’s allergy to directorial restraint becomes even more pronounced after the commercial break, in which Dandy’s arc reaches its vicious conclusion. The freaks appear to have similar aesthetic values to the writers who invented them: rather than simply kill Dandy off, they precede their execution with an elaborate fake marriage to Bette, which concludes with the twins, Desiree, and Jimmy watching Dandy drown miserably. The scene doesn’t have the gory spectacle of his killing spree, but it’s hard not to derive at least some barbaric satisfaction from seeing the miserable character suffer. The shot of the freaks munching popcorn as he dies appears to be nodding in the direction of a Tarantino-esque commentary on the entertainment value of violence; unfortunately, the show that surrounds it isn’t nearly smart enough to function on that sort of level.


But again, what American Horror Story does do well is provide exhilarating moments of pure camp, and Freak Show fittingly comes to an end on such a note. Elsa’s anachronistic cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” makes for an entertaining entry in the season’s collection of bizarre renditions of pop songs, and it connects nicely (if superficially) with her cover of Bowie’s “Life on Mars” in the premiere. Jimmy ending up with the twins also brings the season to an appropriate conclusion, since they’ve been far and away its most interesting characters. That this title doesn’t mean much, given Freak Show’s general lack of character development, doesn’t take away from the viewer’s satisfaction that the two most sympathetic figures are able to eventually make each other happy.

To think about the season more broadly, the final scene perfectly encapsulates what has and hasn’t worked: campy moments that are absurd but fun (Elsa’s cover), emotional moments that achieve mixed results (Jimmy and the twins), and emotional moments that fail to resonate at all (Elsa’s death: the viewer feels absolutely nothing for her). You can’t help but feel that the show could have succeeded better if it’d been content to focus on the camp and not worried about any of the mushy stuff. Still, Murphy and co. had the ambition to try for something more, and the result was a deeply flawed but occasionally charming season of TV.