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 before the season’s halfway point. 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 finale, “Curtain Call.”
American Horror Story: Freak Show
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.
With just two weeks left in the season, American Horror Story: Freak Show appears to be covering for weak development of its primary characters by introducing new figures and shedding light on previously ignored ones. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the wonderful Neil Patrick Harris (here, as in Gone Girl, playing a character who’s more Artie Ziff than Barney Stinson), the attempt to develop the milquetoast war veteran Chester in this week’s “Magical Thinking” is no more successful than the depictions of Imma Wiggles or Pepper in the preceding episodes.
Over the past few weeks, Freak Show had been finally appearing to move somewhere. Dandy was establishing himself as the season’s definitive antagonist, Jimmy’s love triangle with Maggie and Imma was bizarre but intriguing, and Bette and Dot’s relationship was becoming a suitable emotional core. This week’s episode, “Orphans,” only briefly (and unsatisfactorily) addresses the latter two conflicts, and it entirely ignores the former.
Though American Horror Story: Freak Show has been deprived of its most horror-like element for over a month now, the violence has picked up considerably over the past two weeks, and the latest episode, “Tupperware Party Massacre,” showcases its most graphic bloodletting yet. Despite Dandy seeming like a less conventional horror villain than the psychotic clown, he’s made up for his less than terrifying appearance with a seemingly insatiable bloodlust.
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.
Freak Show’s storytelling has frequently revolved around balancing character development between stories. Similar to Game of Thrones, the season has featured a variety of small plot arcs based on different characters and they’ve coalesced to make the mosaic that is the show. This week’s episode, “Test of Strength,” features Dell to a greater extent than the season has previously, and particularly his relationship with Jimmy. Unfortunately, his character is not nearly as interesting as others that the show has explored.
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.
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, and 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.