American Horror Story: Freak Show, Season 4, Episode 5: “Pink Cupcakes”
Written by Jessica Sharzer
Directed by Michael Uppendahl
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on FX
With Twisty now completely out of the picture, “Pink Cupcakes” continues to bring Freak Show away from the high-energy camp of the first two episodes, moving the season towards more sober-minded drama. Though it works in “Edward Mordrake (Part One),” the more that Murphy and co. pursue this more even-keeled storytelling style, the more its weaknesses begin to show.
This week’s installment firmly establishes what the “Edward Mordrake” episodes suggest—that this season’s primary antagonists will be Dandy and Stanley. The cold open features the latter characters at a fundraiser, admiring the corpse of the Illustrated Man with wealthy donors. As a woman introduces the specimen, there’s an abrupt shift to a conversation between Stanley and Esmerelda. Though she seems skeptical of his plan, both for ethical and practical reasons, he’s determined to succeed, and he convinces her to follow him without too much difficulty. It’s unclear at this point whether the opening scene is an actual flash-forward, or merely Stanley’s optimistic view of the future (Esmerelda’s opening line in the conversation suggests the latter), but either way, it allows the viewer to get a glimpse at Stanley’s distorted view of his own success.
This perspective is visited once more in the scene that gives the episode its title. Stanley feeds one of the twins the titular food, albeit laced with a nasty poison. Though the other sister rejects it out of suspicion, the deadly dessert is enough to turn both sisters into museum exhibitions, particularly with Stanley’s aid. Luckily for the twins, the closing scene of them rejecting the cupcakes reveals that the execution was merely a fantasy, rather than an actual view of the future.
Assuming that these sequences are figments of Stanley’s sordid imagination, rather than Esmereldian looks at the future, it’s unclear how exactly they aid the story or the characters. Stanley’s nefarious aims have never been in question, and his smug, unbothered self-satisfaction with his success is no different from what the viewer imagines the character would feel before we see it dramatized. American Horror Story, like all Ryan Murphy productions, has never been a show that trafficked in subtlety, but this feels like a bit much even by his standards. One-dimensional characterization can work in certain contexts (as it has in the beginning of the season), but there’s no need to emphasize it as strongly as writer Jessica Sharzer and director Michael Uppendahl do in “Pink Cupcakes.”
Granted, Sharzer and Uppendahl and use the one dimensionality to express a particular point—it’s just not a very interesting one. “Amazing how something so seemingly innocuous can cause such damage,” Stanley remarks, and his comment embodies one of the main themes of the season thus far, particularly over the last few episodes. Arguably the least innocuous seeming character, Twisty, gets rendered incapable of causing damage just a third of the way through the season. In his place, Murphy and co. offer up much more “normal” characters as the primary evil-doers—white men with emotional issues that supersede whatever physical flaws are found in the other characters. Thus, by replacing Twisty with Stanley and Dandy, Freak Show is expressing the idea that the true “freaks” are often those who society views in the opposite light.
While this works for simple moralizing, it doesn’t make for compelling drama. Many of the most captivating moments from the early episodes came from the campiest elements—Twisty’s horror movie-style murders and the anachronistic song performances. While the music stays (it’s quite a treat to see Elsa’s “Life on Mars” again, this time with an unfriendly audience), the over-the-top villain is replaced by plain old psychopathic men, neither of whom can offer the bloodthirsty thrills of their predecessor.
This is certainly not inherently a bad thing. Some of the most critically acclaimed dramas of the cable TV landscape have centered around deranged criminals who are also loving fathers and husbands. But a large part of the appeal of Freak Show, at least at first, came from its embrace of the opposite approach—a total lack of subtlety in the interest of giving viewers as much campy fun as possible. However, the abrupt shift to a more morally grey style of storytelling and characterization, while initially successful, is leading to an uneven season that can’t decide what it wants to be.