American Horror Story: Freak Show, Episode 8: “Blood Bath”
Written by Ryan Murphy
Directed by Bradley Buecker
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on FX
After the somewhat languid pacing of American Horror Story: Freak Show in the season’s first half, this week’s aptly titled episode “Blood Bath” kicks things into another gear. Though Twisty’s death felt unexpected and climactic (despite occurring only five episodes into the season), the clown’s untimely departure now appears relatively inconsequential compared to this week’s events.
The cold open hints at the episode’s overall trajectory. As Gloria sits on a couch recounting Dandy’s troubled childhood, the viewer gets a stronger sense of just how twisted her son is. While the show always made it clear that he was far from a normal child, the images of him preparing to cut a young girl’s hair off and the discussion of him murdering a cat leave no doubt about his problems. As I’ve talked about extensively in earlier reviews, subtlety has never been Freak Show’s aesthetic goal, but Murphy goes out of his way in the scene to emphasize Dandy’s depravity. Though it feels a bit over the top, it does jibe with the episode’s bloody conclusion.
There’s quite a bit more emotional and physical violence to get through before “Blood Bath” arrives at its ending. The first act consists primarily of a compelling verbal spar between Elsa and Ethel. Ethel doesn’t buy Elsa’s grief over Ma Petit’s death for a second, and the bearded lady isn’t shy about letting her troupe leader know about it. Besides being a compelling moment for both characters and their relationship to one another, the lengthy scene is an excellent showcase for arguably the two best actors on the show. Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates, to play off one another perfectly, creating a well-paced tension that fits well with both character arcs. As with Gloria’s statements about Dandy, Ethel’s declarations about Elsa’s need for attention feel a bit obvious and unnecessary, but they’re appropriate to the show’s lack of fear of redundant character observations.
After Elsa gets the upper-hand, she also needs to find a way to absolve herself of guilt in the eyes of her troupe. In a clever bit of cross-cutting, her faux grief is contrasted with her framing of Ethel’s death as a suicide (with the help of Stanley). As with last week’s “Test of Strength,” the spliced together shots of performers being murdered no longer indicates the sordid fantasies of Freak Show’s villains (as they did in “Pink Cupcakes”)—people are really dying. Though everything shown in the flashback is more or less implicit from the sight of Ethel in the car crash, the scene emphasizes her callousness (as the show tends to do when presenting character traits).
Her lack of caring is made even more obvious by her recruitment of Ima Wiggles (Chrissy Metz) to be the troupe’s Fat Lady during Ethel’s funeral. Wiggles doesn’t have much screen time in this episode, but her character presents a number of possible scenarios that will be interesting to see play out over the season’s final five episodes. For “Blood Bath,” her main role is to tip off Jimmy as to how little Elsa cares about Ethel’s death.
Elsa is far from the only one who has a murder to conceal. The episode sees the return of Regina (Gabourey Sidibe of Precious fame) trying to figure out what happened to her mother. Gloria does her best to divert the daughter’s focus, but she doesn’t seem to be buying into the attempts at distraction. The attention her son requires doesn’t help matters—unsurprisingly, he’s not too happy about being forced to visit a therapist under the guise of receiving an IQ test.
His realization of his mother’s true intentions leads to one of the most shocking images in the season so far. After pointing a gun at himself, he changes his mind at the last minute and commits matricide. While the act itself certainly comes as a surprise, the tag ups the ante by the showing the gruesome act which gives the episode its title. The scene is gorgeously shot, which only adds to the brutality of Dandy’s actions.
“Blood Bath” features the end of both Ethel and Gloria’s time on Freak Show. As with the other post-Twisty episodes, it will be intriguing to see how the show proceeds without either character. The introduction of Ima certainly helps, as does Jimmy’s increasing realization of Elsa’s nefariousness. The next few episodes should reveal where the show will head next.