After a three-year hiatus from watching American Horror Story, I finally really needed something to binge during the 2016 holidays so I picked up where I left off and began watching Freak Show, devoted to the lives, loves, and deaths of the performers in Elsa's Cabinet of Curiosities and set in Jupiter, Florida in 1952. I actually had no idea it had been so long since I finished Coven, but my hesitation about the fourth season's premise is what kept me from catching up much sooner. For me, it ended up not being a waste of time - the show's high production values, at least, were instantly familiar and comforting - but ultimately Freak Show suffers from a variety of ills that I will, of course, now detail. (As this is a season retrospective, there will be spoilers)
I'll start with what I liked. The biggest pleasant surprise for me was Sarah Paulson. I'll be honest and say normally I can't stand anything else she does on AHS but she acted her ass off as conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler, and when the writing didn't fail her the twins were the best part about Freak Show. She was truly believably conflicted and cautious as Dot, and simultaneously eager and naive as Bette. I thought the somewhat Hitchcockian angles used when presenting only one twin head or the other worked consistently, and co-producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk - the whole team, really - made genuine and sympathetic what could have been the most banally-conceived freaks in the camp.
Frances Conroy continues to be a national treasure; she was dry and knowing as the ghostly maid in Murder House, absolutely divine as fashion-loving Myrtle in Coven, and here as Gloria Mott she is perfectly polite, doting, and deeply conflicted as the mother of the season's most ambitious character. More about them later.
The best episodes of the season for me were "Edward Mordrake Pt. 2," in which we get the bleak backstory on Jupiter's resident psycho clown Twisty and watch a new, much sillier killer rise out of the ashes of his sojourn to the afterlife; the penultimate "Show Stoppers," the one episode that lives up to the promise of the darkness, horror, and very unpleasant but thrilling surprises which the series continues to struggle with delivering; and "Orphans," which deserves its own long-winded post on my blog for being the most beautiful and poignant episode of perhaps the entire anthology, during which Naomi Grossman as the ill-fated Pepper delivers award-winning scenes and makes me long for a much more expertly handled season on the whole.
For a show about a freak show, we (or at least I) never really understood how it worked. We should have been given a good segment of an early episode devoted to showing the acts that comprised the soul of Elsa's Cabinet (Lobster Boy, Ma Petit, Pepper and Salty, Dot and Bette, The Illustrated Man, The Bearded Lady) and then occasionally shown brief cuts to various acts being performed the rest of the season. To me it felt like they mostly sat around and drank and had their cafeteria-style meals. When Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock) and his mother Gloria attended in episode 2, I thought the chairs were all empty because that's how down on its luck the show was. Turns out they bought out the house. How would I know that? I'd never seen a show!
The season features other ridiculosities, for example - Jimmy's (Evan Peters) five-episode lingering anguish over the death of Meep, a character gone so fast from the show it made my head spin, and the continuing argument over the twins' eternally speculated surgery to split them up. Newsflash! If you literally cut them in half you leave each with one arm, one leg, and half a urinary tract (among other things). The fact that the show legitimately had multiple characters claiming a simple surgery would set both of them free leaves me agog. The only other option was sever a head and lose a twin, the consequences of which were contemplated with breathless infrequency.
There are also a host of vanished plot threads, a highly unfortunate result perhaps of the many different writers Freak Show had. To name a mere handful: Dot and Bette's alleged upcoming surgery starring the fake doctor - it never came to pass and neither Elsa (Jessica Lange) nor Stanley (Denis O'Hare), the co-conspirators, batted a single eyelash. Dandy's use of Twisty's now-abandoned, filthy old bus and his decision to just start randomly murdering call boys and grifters. The entire Desiree (Angela Bassett) and Angus (Malcolm Jamal-Warner) sub-subplot; Maggie (Emma Roberts) and Jimmy's running away to New York sub-subplot (Stanley nixed it and there wasn't even a scene with Maggie breaking the news to Jimmy in the background). Dandy literally taking over Twisty's mantle - maybe he eventually decided the never-washed mask of a man with giant open wounds was too much even for him. The singing, for chrissakes. IMA WIGGLES.
In fact, I'm wondering how it never occurred to anyone that there were too many characters for plots in a thirteen-episode season, or how this is consistently the problem with the entire series. Also, who was supervising scripts? Who was editing for continuity? Does anyone involved in a TV program actually sit down and watch the previous season, takes notes, and try to improve?
Okay. Let's take a breather...and talk about Dandy.
A lot of people loved the Dandy Mott character (the high praise over at the A.V. Club in particular is noted), but it was just too much for me - there wasn't close to enough nuance to be even remotely chilling or believable. It was too much from an otherwise good actor; his best scene was when he gave the file on Chester to the Tattler twins - he showed restraint from a real act of holding back, and even without tears it seemed a part of him was crying. It was wonderful acting, and the lone instance of what Dandy could have been.
In thinking about it, perhaps he should have been more in concept like The Great Child from the terrible movie Thirteen Ghosts - the bourbon in a baby bottle was a promise NEVER delivered on. He could have been doing shit like eating with a bib over his perfectly starched sport coats, and hiding the indelicate truth of still wearing diapers, which would have been so much more true to the spirit of an American Horror Story. Can you imagine if he was ramping up to one of his tantrums and then froze - and haltingly excused himself to go change? Come on! Overall it could have been great social commentary on the possible disastrous consequences of infantilizing a child, keeping them from the experiences and knowledge required to be a functioning adult. We don't know if Dandy was still a virgin, and in their first few episodes together he and his mother Gloria had a delightfully creepy incestuous vibe about them.
Ultimately I wish he'd shown more of a soul. I know that the conventional wisdom is sociopaths don't have one, figuratively speaking, but the nature of evil is such that we assume its origins aren't human. It's safer that way. If the people behind the creation of the Dandy Mott character, in collusion with Wittrock, had allowed brief (very brief) glimpses of at least depth of feeling (as in the scene I described above), then his actions, and his admittedly wonderful soliloquies, would have I believe generated the chilling, foreboding tone that a show with the word 'horror' in it is allegedly striving for. He didn't need to convey human frailty; he could have been the prince of his own private hell, tortured by visions beautiful to him and monstrous to all others. Oh well. Just my thoughts. I think sometimes it's assumed that terrible actions with no discernible motive are the most frightening, but then when you actually put it in play, it more often than not leaves the audience with little to feast on.
Regarding a few other characters in this cast of thousands, Neil Patrick Harris as the aforementioned Chester was great, and his story line had appeal - I feel he should have been introduced in the fourth or fifth episode in place of Dell (Michael Chiklis) and Desiree. They were useless and annoying; Bassett has never been this difficult to enjoy (her Marie Laveau in Coven was perfection!) and the Dell character existed solely as an agent of chaos. More episodes dedicated to Chester would have given time to show just how deeply he was connected to the Marjorie doll, and when he turns her in at the police station he could have gone for Emmy-winning grief and delusion and it would have been a revelation.
As I continue to pontificate from the peanut gallery, I'll mention that overall I wish the tone had been darker, with Floridian sunlight and flowers reserved for the times when the director wanted a marked shift in emotional impact. The Motts' house was too bright (although beautiful), the diner was too bright; the show would have benefited from more careful consideration to atmosphere.
For me the only true thrills befitting a horror show were Dell's murder in "Magical Thinking" (I gasped); Twisty's real blown-off face (how the fuck do SFX teams do this shit?); and "Show Stoppers" gave us the museum director's head in a jar (and for once we didn't see it coming), the audacious sawing in half of Maggie (the guts!!), and Stanley as the new Meep. (Please tell me somebody thought to cut off his dick and send it to the Museum of Morbidity)
I live my life spoiler-free so I have no idea who's in the following season's Hotel beyond Lady Gaga. I can only hope she's truly the star of the season, and that we're done putting the spotlight on Jessica Lange. Lange is fantastic, a living masterclass of acting, but she can't be the show's main focus every season. It's always the same thing: she's got her inner battle with the forces of good and evil on full display; she has a tragic backstory and she's seeking redemption; she's a badass but can still call forth those tears on command. We've officially seen all of it that we can take.
I'd love to see NPH come back, to see Danny Huston get a full role, and Lily Rabe is fascinating and wonderful enough to deserve a season devoted solely to whatever character they can dream up for her. Denis O'Hare has been awesome in each of his very different roles and I'd love to see him come back for more. New faces on the show that would be amazing to watch would be Anjelica Huston, Susan Sarandon, maybe Victor Garber, and to insert Malcolm Jamal-Warner full time would be EVERYTHING. At some point, new actors must be revolved in and the old guard retired; the writing and direction and character conception are not fresh enough to use the same ten people every time.
Freak Show has all the elements necessary to be great on its premise; it fails because of too many hands in the pot, visual aspects lacking in more careful consideration, half-baked characters, and a want of narrative coherence. It should be one of the top television shows in terms of overall quality but, as with anything creative, it's the bad choices and apparent lack of genuine oversight that keep it from reaching the heights of Murder House and Asylum. There are two more seasons of AHS for me to catch up on, though, so perhaps all my gnashing of teeth will prove to have been premature. Fingers (lobster claws?) crossed.
*For those paying attention...if Dot had for whatever reason married Dandy...her name would have been Dot Mott.