American Horror Story: Freak Show, Season 4, Episode 6: “Bullseye”
Written by John J. Gray
Directed by Howard Deutch
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on FX
American Horror Story: Freak Show hasn’t had the slightest bit of subtlety when it’s come to conveying its themes and images, and this week’s episode, “Bullseye”, is no different. Though this heavy-handed dramatic approach has yielded uneven emotional results, “Bullseye” makes it work through its successful combination of shocking imagery and character development, as well as its clever connections between seemingly disparate elements.
First and foremost in “Bullseye” is Elsa, who is immediately framed as the episode’s center through her voiceover in the cold open. As she rants about the importance of fate and destiny, a wheel spins in the background, thus using a fairly obvious visual metaphor to illustrate her views. While the scene seems to be insulting the viewer’s intelligence a bit through the somewhat redundant symbol, it manages to be effective, thanks to its illustration of Elsa’s conception of herself. She sees herself as successful and fortunate, particularly in comparison to her performers, and she’s proud to thank fate for putting her where she is. The scene is given further weight by the irony of her handicap, her deficiency as a performer (as seen in the booing of her “Life on Mars” performance in “Pink Cupcakes”), and her inability to truly win the hearts of the freaks. She even ends the scene by vocalizing the desire for control that these problems have provoked in her: when Ethel tells Elsa that she is “the boss,” she responds by saying, “Yes, yes I am.”
The freaks are struggling to buy her story about the twins escaping, and they show much more devotion to their fellow performer(s). Again, Elsa’s control issues are emphasized when she responds to their accusations with anger and threats of violence. She clearly needs to feel in charge, and she can’t accept things any other way. The freaks are perfect for her, because they allow her to feel better about her own body issues, and she can usually manage to exercise her rule over them without having to put forth too much effort.
Her fetishization of the freaks gets incarnated (perhaps too obviously so) in her relationship with Paul. Not content to merely run a show with them and boss them around, “Bullseye” reveals that her need to control the freaks has also manifested itself sexually The scene of them in bed together is emotionally affecting, as writer John J. Gray and Director Howard Deutch reveal how deep-seated her obsession lies.
However, the viewer’s ability to sympathize with Elsa is starkly compromised as the episode progresses. The dazzling set piece at the end of the third act returns to the wheel of the teaser, only this time her lover is on it. She throws knives at him in an ostensible exaggeration of her belief in fate, and destiny is just as harsh to Paul as it is to her legs: he ends up with a knife in his stomach. Though Elsa appears at first to be horrified, the final shot of the sequence reveals the truth—she’s not exactly gleeful, but she’s not exactly traumatized, either. Thus, her interest in Paul is revealed to be solely a manifestation of her inadequacies, rather than something resembling genuine human love.
Still, the tag redeems her somewhat, even though she’s been depicted as cruel and sociopathic for most of the rest of the episode. She reveals the tragic fate of her sister, and emphasizes the extent of her loneliness by saying to Ethel, “You were the sister I never had.” The two clearly do not have a sororal relationship, and the obviousness of this foregrounds the sadness of her situation. By the end of the episode, the viewer doesn’t quite sympathize with her, but Deutch and Gray do provide a fuller portrait of her as a character.
Her development is matched by that of the character with whom she shares both the teaser and the tag—Dandy. Up until this episode, Dandy has been portrayed as sort of a younger Twisty (before his backstory is shown): an unexplainable psychopath with no ability to care about anyone other then himself. However, the teaser finds him approaching something resembling human emotion in his desire to marry the twins.
At this point, the narrative depicts a disturbing view of rape, as the twins are split between whether or not they want to acquiesce to his desires. Bette is totally on board with his plans to separate them and make them his, whereas Dot is more suspicious. While the polarization between their reactions makes sense dramatically in the context of their constant squabbles, Bette’s embrace of his aims feels suspiciously like a justification of Dandy’s possessiveness. Freak Show has had its share of troublesome treatment towards women, particularly in the severing of Elsa’s legs in “Edward Mordrake (Part Two),” but having a victim embrace her captor takes things a bit too far.
Nevertheless, like Elsa, Dandy’s character gets more fully revealed by the end of the episode. He’s been mistreated by his mother all his life, and she’s shown to have at least some culpability in him becoming the “freak” that he is. It remains to be seen whether or not this will actually make them into more compelling characters for the rest of the season, but “Bullseye” finds them heading in that direction.