American Horror Story | Freak Show, Episode 1 RHAP-up

Hello all! And welcome to my season-long recaps of American Horror Story: Freak Show. You should have read that like I’m some sort of circus ringleader.

I’ve been watching AHS since the beginning and I’ve come to realize that this is the most convoluted, confusing show that I watch. And I love that. This is a show that gives you everything and the kitchen sink and somehow found a way to make Connie Britton eat brains on television.

My quick thoughts on each season:

Season 1: The best so far. The reveal that (SPOILER ALERT) Violet is dead is one of the most surprising TV moments that I can recall in the last few years. Jessica Lange was a sensation here – and I was genuinely creeped out in almost every single episode (in particular any time Denis O’Hare was onscreen).

Season 2: My least favourite. This season gives you everything you can think of and more. Nazis, aliens, coat hanger abortions! Satan, the Angel of Death, Adam Levine! Talk about sensory overload. On the plus side, I loved all of the Sarah Paulson and Zachary Quinto stuff and I think Lily Rabe’s work in this season is some of the best of the series. But overall, this season just never hooked me the same way that the first season did. The asinine Anne Frank thing, the blasé church stuff, the didactic drunk driving subplot (alliteration, yo!) – I get hives just thinking about these missteps. But still: worth watching all thirteen episodes just to get that “Name Game” scene, right?

Season 3: The strongest start, the weakest finish. An intriguing premise and definitely the most light-hearted, fun season. Again, lots of great acting – another knockout performance from Jessica Lange and the glorious additions of both Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett made this season feel like must-see television. But it didn’t all work. The endings for various characters (Queenie, Kyle, Misty, Marie Leveaux, LaLaurie) felt scattered and rushed. And the race relations subplot felt too cliché to actually mean anything; though I will admit that Kathy Bates’ disembodied head being forced to watch Roots was everything.

Overall, the show does an excellent job at working with generic horror tropes (see: Rubber Man) and adding some additional nuance or complexity that makes them actually fulfilling and intriguing to watch. That makes AHS successful as popcorn entertainment, but also a show that can be meaningful and thought provoking.  The centerpiece of the show has always been its acting. Master class performances from Lily Rabe, Frances Conroy, Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange have been peppered (mostly unintentional reference, I promise) throughout the first three seasons. And it’ll be fun to see where the show goes from here.

Freak Show is conceptually the scariest to me of all of the AHS seasons so far. Carnivals, and clowns more specifically, are fucking creepy. So I’m not sure I’ll be the most objective when it comes to judging this season, because I’ll probably be covering my eyes for like 90% of it.

Okay, I’ll stop rambling about the Horror Story of past and start talking about the Horror Story of present (which is technically still the Horror Story of past, since our story is set in 1952).

Got Milk? – Our story begins with a milkman making a delivery to a home in Jupiter, Florida. He notices that yesterday’s milk is still sitting outside on the porch, which is upsetting to him… because everyone deserves to have their milk.

Worried, he goes inside to check on dear ol’ Miss. Tadler. He tiptoes throughout the house… but he’s utterly distraught when he finds her dead at the dinner table.  Ignoring every natural instinct he probably has, our milkman walks upstairs with a rolling pin as his weapon of choice. He opens the door to the closet, where he can hear little murmurs. And he’s utterly disgusted by what he sees.

And suddenly, we’re in the hospital. A body (presumably of whatever he found in the closet) is being dragged to the operating room. The sight is so horrible that one nurse comes outside to throw up. Oh, for god’s sake – you’re a nurse! Unless this thing looks like Sarah Jessica Parker, I don’t feel like nurses should be throwing up at the sight of their prospective patients.

A doctor is naming off the various organs associated with our mystery monster – four eyes, three kidneys, two hearts, and a partridge in a pear tree. And the nurses waiting outside are discussing just how horrible this thing looks. Of course, one nurse goes for her rounds, leaving the other (who we’ll call Slutty Lipstick Nurse) to… umm… stand guard or something.

Meanwhile, Jessica Lange shows up. And she bribes Slutty Lipstick Nurse with a cigarette! And she’s got a German accent! And she looks like she’s dressed up like Cruella Deville for Halloween! I love this season already.

Wasting no time, German Lange takes advantage of the opportunity and sneaks into the hospital, dressed in Slutty Lipstuck Nurse’s outfit. She carefully removes the curtain in the room to view the supposed monster – and she finds Siamese Sarah Paulson. “I don’t know you,” says one of the two heads. “What pretty, pretty girls you are,” German Lange (who I’ll now refer to properly as Elsa) responds.

On the scary scale, this cold opening is kind of meh. But I’m definitely intrigued. On the plus side, one Sarah Paulson is great. But two is even better.

We resume after the credits with Elsa trying to butter up our Siamese Paulson. The two heads – who we get some prospective from via split screen – can communicate telepathically. But they’re both skeptical about what Elsa wants from them. We get a cool moment when she feeds the blue headband one a cigarette and the other exhales. Now I want a Siamese twin!

Elsa reveals that though the girls have two hearts, they only have set of reproductive organs. “Has anyone ever tasted your cherry pie?” Elsa asks. Only on American Horror Story does an Emmy and Oscar winning actress like Lange get to ask such questions. Blue headband (later revealed to be Bette) reveals perhaps a bit too much information about her own private fun times. Red headband (Dot) is disturbed.

Elsa wants to take the twins – who will likely be investigated for their mother’s murder – with her, so she sneaks them out of the hospital. Dot is skeptical, but Bette is up for the adventure.

Fears of a Clown– Of course, every creepy horror movie needs to have a bunch of kids making out and getting ready to have sex by an old quarry before they meet a gruesome death. While the boyfriend goes to get a condom from the car, a figure approaches from the fields. I know where this is going.

Oh, it’s just a clown; a very murderous sweet clown. He gives the girlfriend some flowers, smiles wide at her, and looks like he’s just there for some amusement… until the boyfriend returns.

I don’t know how to type this eloquently, so I’ll just put it bluntly. AHHH, IT’S A MURDEROUS CLOWN. That thing is going to haunt my dreams forever. And I’m sure it will find me and it will cut me into a thousand pieces.

Before either of them can turn to run, they’re both clubbed over the head and knocked unconscious. When the girlfriend comes to, her boyfriend is being stabbed repeatedly. This brings new meaning to the word overkill. When the girl tries to escape, the evil clown sprints after her. How can he run so fast in his clown get-up? Suspect #1: Emil Zátopek. Google says that he was an Olympic runner in the 1950s. I’m onto you, Ryan Murphy!

John Carroll Lynch, aka: that creepy guy from Zodiac, does a good job here of scaring me half to death. I’m looking forward to seeing him in this role. I think it’s a step up from the weird Minotaur from last season. And it also seems to have a more central role in the story, as we’re treated to a montage of the Clown murdering a bunch of people and kidnapping a kid. And I mean treated in the most liberal sense possible; this is just completely disturbing.

We later get to catch-up with the stolen kid and the girlfriend, who are both being held in captivity. When Creepy the Clown (no relation to Krusty) tries to entertain them with a doll, the girlfriend transparently pleads to be released so that she can go and tell the world of the clown’s greatness. Of course, her idiocy just angers Creepy, as he starts throwing things around and freaking out his prisoners guests.

Stars Never Pay– At a local diner, Elsa is complaining about the movie business, when she notices Evan Peters. She’s pissed that she has envisioned so much for her freak show, but that Mr. Peters, named Jimmy, isn’t working towards it. A flashback shows that Elsa has had trouble keeping the freak show going in the past – and that she’s resorted to sleeping with her landlord to keep them afloat.

“It’s over,” Jimmy tells her defiantly as he exits, despite her protests.

The waitress returns and asks Elsa to pay her bill. She smiles. “Stars never pay,” she coos and exits in her Cousin It chic fur.

At a dinner party, a bunch of ladies eat deviled eggs and discuss their pathetic sex lives. One girl walks nervously towards a dark room, where she finds Jimmy… where we find out his deformity: massive Groot-like fingers. Although I suppose I should use the word deformity lightly, as this lonely housewife seems to think of them as a gift.

Joining the Club– The Siamese sisters recap for Elsa exactly what happened to their mother. Bette starts lying, but her sister Dot looks like she just wants Elsa to go away. Elsa reminds them that they should get their stories straight before the police talk to them.

Because I have a feeling that we’ll be talking about the twins a lot, I’ll forever refer to them as Bette & Dot, like they’re a team on The Amazing Race. And every time I write about them, I’ll say their names in Phil Keoghan’s kiwi accent.

Anyway, Bette & Dot are next seen packing up a suitcase, where they’re arguing about whether a shirt looks good or trashy. As Elsa reminds them that, if found guilty, they could both be imprisoned forever or put in the electric chair, the girls finally come clean about what happened with their mother. As she tried to stop the twins from going to a movie, Bette got violent with their mother and stabbed her repeatedly with a knife. Later, Dot tried to punish herself for failing to save their mother by stabbing her own conjoined sister. I can understand that the girls aren’t mentally all there, but stabbing your mother for keeping you locked in the house is rather much. These days, if you told me I had to stay indoors all day and watch Netflix on the couch with some Cheetos, I’d stab anybody that tried to stop me.

And just like that, Bette & Dot are added to Elsa’s freak show. Bette’s ecstatic, while Dot seems to be petrified of what the future holds for them. And despite being two separate people, I don’t think the twins can really have distinct career paths. Has that been turned into a sitcom? In light of the American Crime Story news, don’t be surprised if Ryan Murphy tries a spin-off with Bette and Dot. I can see it now. Conjoined at the Hip: a coming-of-age story about Siamese twins that are total opposites – one is messy, the other is clean; one wants to work, the other wants to play; one is played by Christian Slater, the other is also played by Christian Slater. Genius.

Dear Diary – Bette and Dot have contrasting diary entries about their feelings about joining Elsa’s freak show. I don’t understand the idea of a diary when you have a twin sister that can literally read your mind and knows whatever you’re writing about, but I’ll go with it.

Paulson has created two distinctive characters here and her work is reminiscent of another critically praised performance: Tatiana Maslany on Orphan Black (coming soon to Post Show Recaps, maybe?). Paulson always impresses me, but her performance here in particular is absolutely spellbinding. I’m more than a little bit obsessed. It’s also nice that we’re introduced to the carnival through their eyes – literally – as their outlooks are so vastly different.

We’re introduced to the circus’ other main freaks. We meet The Freak, who legitimately bites the heads off of chickens. We again meet Jimmy, who Dot is instantly attracted to. And we met Ethel, Elsa’s bearded henchwoman and Jimmy’s mother, played by Emmy and Oscar winner Kathy Bates.

While some of the freaks are worried about the twins raising the profile of the circus, Elsa (getting a manicure from Pepper from Asylum!!) is confident that they can help salvage the carnival and turn their misfortune around. Her manicure is interrupted by the return of Slutty Lipstick Nurse, who was apparently drugged, and protests being kept against her will. But Elsa has some videotape of our nurse misbehaving, which gives her no evidence against the freak show.

The nurse still isn’t convinced; she’s angry that Elsa let her freaks have their way with her. But Elsa launches into a speech about how her people aren’t freaks: she thinks the real freaks are outside, the ones judging them and making them feel like outcasts.

Meanwhile, Ethel and Jimmy argue over their future. Jimmy wants out of the carnival and to live a normal life, but Ethel doesn’t think normal is possible. More to the point, she likes living in the freak show. Jimmy goes out for a walk, where he sees that a cop has traced the signs of the Siamese twins back to the carnival. He places Bette & Dot under arrest and accurately predicts that they murdered their mother. But Jimmy won’t let him take them, calling on the other members of the troupe: Legless Suzi, Paul the Illustrated Seal, Ma Petite, and Amazon Eve.

When the cop calls them all freaks, Jimmy is enraged, going as far as to slice into his neck, instantly killing him. And now he’s in – he agrees that the twins are there to save the circus. Moral of the story: if you tease people and call them names, you will die. This looks like amazing revenge porn for Ryan Murphy, who apparently had a very terrible, traumatizing high-school experience.

Life on Mars – Dandy and his overprotective mother, Gloria, are the only two people at the freak show. And Dandy is instantly enthralled by what he sees as Ethel introduces the various acts. But none of them are as mesmerizing as Elsa herself, launching into an excellent rendition of Life on Mars. Lange is so effing good here – hand her another Emmy already. After the show, Dandy and Gloria try to buy the twins, but to no avail. Gloria leaves in a huff, insulting Elsa’s singing (NOT SMART!).

That night, Jimmy leads the rest of the carnival troupe to deal with the police officer he murdered. He rallies the group to protect themselves from people that want to hurt or abuse them… so they proceed to stab the dead body repeatedly. Just like Creepy the Clown, who happens to be watching. Hide me. What is it with everybody stabbing their victims like hundreds of times? Was it not known in 1952 that usually one stab is enough? Or was that, like, a modern innovation in the field of murder?

Meanwhile, Elsa confides in Ethel that she selfishly brought the twins to the show so that she could become famous. Ethel stagecoaches her, promising her that she will one day be a household name, a true celebrity.

But when Ethel retires for the night, Elsa reveals her own handicap: she has no legs. Oh snap.

Episode Rating: B+

This premiere was another solid opening for Horror Story. I really love the set-up of the season. The carnival is creepy, but it’s also a really intriguing place to tell this kind of story. And holy crap, Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson were amazing here. This was really a showcase for both of them – and I think we may see yet another Emmy for Lange’s devastating performance.

But I did miss having the ensemble. We spent a lot of our time with Bette & Dot and Elsa. We barely met Jimmy or Ethel, and didn’t see anything from over half of the others featured in the opening credits. Where are Angela Bassett and Michael Chiklis? Emma Roberts and Denis O’Hare? It felt like what we got was a good introduction to the season, but none of it really blew me away. Just solid stuff. A standard B with a + for the truly sensational acting.

Oh, also: can we just talk for a second about Pepper? If she went to Briarcliff Asylum in the 60s, doesn’t this mean that we are feasibly looking at two seasons that are taking place in the same universe? Does that mean that Twisty the Clown could actually be Bloody Face? Kudos to the writing staff if they pull that off.

Tell me what you guys thought in the comments! And join me next week, when I perform Ziggy Stardust and Space Oddity.  Same time, same place.

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