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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 9, "Tupperware Party Massacre"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 9, “Tupperware Party Massacre”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 9, “Tupperware Party Massacre”

The mind tends to wander when it’s unengaged, and while watching this week’s episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show, titled “Tupperware Party Massacre,” you may be inclined to wonder throughout the typically atypical murder sequences and arbitrary character epiphanies how this series is written. Are a variety of outré buzzwords scribbled on flashcards, loaded into a canon, and then fired against the wall of an interior shooting range, with any cards that manage to land face up chosen as the center of any given week’s theoretical emphasis? Is each week’s episode the result of something planted in a time capsule that’s been purchased randomly by the show’s writers off of Craigslist? Readers have accused me of not getting the joke, of missing the gloriously queer anarchy of a series that subversively refuses to play by the three-act rules. But this is franchise anarchy, boutique “outrage,” with signifiers deliberately planted to appease those who’re resigned to love it regardless of the specifics. Freak Show plays to disenfranchised liberals in a manner as cynical as that in which those unwatchable Christian films court conservatives.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 8, "Blood Bath"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 8, “Blood Bath”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 8, “Blood Bath”

“Blood Bath” is another of American Horror Story: Freak Show’s housecleaning episodes, in which a bunch of characters are killed to remarkably little effect in the services of, well, that’s debatable. To reinvigorate viewer interests after a holiday hiatus? To thin out the ranks of the major players for a season climax that’s theoretically right around the narrative bend? Impossible to tell, because, as we’ve already established, the series has no rules; it’s adrift in a manner that recalls prior seasons of American Horror Story such as Murder House and, especially, Coven. Whenever a plot thread is threatening to cohere or gain momentum, along comes a killing to render any prior information moot. This sort of upsetting of the applecart can represent an exhilarating break from the rigors of TV or film conventions if timed right, but it can also signal desperate wallowing if overindulged. Imagine Psycho if Norman Bates was killed right after Marion’s mysterious murder, and we never returned to his story, and then Sam Loomis was unexpectedly killed, and then Marion’s sister soon after him. The initial shock of Marion’s second-act killing would devolve into tedious cacophony, and Freak Show has been in that state for the last few episodes.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 7, "Test of Strength"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 7, “Test of Strength”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 7, “Test of Strength”

“Test of Strength” is a work of bookkeeping, an episode intended to remind audiences who Freak Show’s denizens precisely are before a break for the Thanksgiving holiday. Everyone’s accounted for this week, and the narrative, busy and lacking in urgency, serves as a representative reminder of why Freak Show has grown so interminable: The characters’ actions exist in respective vacuums, appearing to affect nothing. A flamboyant murder can be quickly swept away, leading to the next episode, which starts at a moment of relative peace, builds toward another murder or betrayal, only to reset yet again. Characters are constantly plotting against one another, but this often scans as weirdly harmless, because a “surprise” atrocity will reliably render the prospective conspiracies moot. American Horror Story grows tedious every season, excluding the high-water mark that’s Asylum, but no prior installment has flat-lined as quickly as Freak Show. It’s an impressive costume and set pageant, and little more.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 6, "Bullseye"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 6, “Bullseye”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 6, “Bullseye”

“Bullseye” sports a tempo that’s decidedly slow, obsessive, and damn near ponderous for Freak Show. Rather than racing from one atrocity to the next, we’re allowed, refreshingly, to stew in the vivid carnival atmosphere a bit—to enjoy a sense of deliberation that’s signaled right from the episode’s memorable opening scene. Elsa (Jessica Lange) locates a large spinning bull’s-eye that’s designed for knife-throwing acts, and, while practicing on a dummy, she envisions the various freaks to be tied up to the board in its place. This sequence is revealed, retrospectively, to function as a succinct metaphor for the story’s governing and (presumably) escalating conflicts while foreshadowing a significant assault that could be revealed to be a murder. The episode vaguely recalls the chilling Tyrone Power film Nightmare Alley in how it shows the carny atmosphere to be unhinging its protagonist, though Elsa was certainly already unhinged; we’re just now beginning to get to know her.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 5, "Pink Cupcakes"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 5, “Pink Cupcakes”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 5, “Pink Cupcakes”

“Pink Cupcakes” is a marked improvement over last week’s episode of Freak Show, “Edward Mordrake (Part 2).” For starters, there’s something like an actual plot, though it inelegantly crisscrosses back and forth between each freak’s reliably grueling plight-of-the-week. More importantly, Stanley’s (Denis O’Hare) presence on the freak show’s campgrounds provides the series with a significant representation of the “straight” world that’s often discussed, but rarely seen, casting shades of actual contrast and conflict on the gruesome chicanery. With the series belaboring the freaks’ theoretically unexpected likability at every possible turn, it’s the villains who stand to walk away with Freak Show, as their unapologetically one-dimensional mugging comes to represent a sort of refreshing truth in advertising.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 4, "Edward Mordrake (Part 2)"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 4, “Edward Mordrake (Part 2)”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 4, “Edward Mordrake (Part 2)”

“Edward Mordrake (Part 2)” finds Freak Show wallowing in the sort of dull, meaningless outlandishness that usually sets in right around the halfway mark of any given season of American Horror Story. Creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk seem to forget that if everything is “shocking” and “subversive,” then nothing is, as there’s no contrast between conventionality and deviation to produce the sort of dramatic friction that’s necessary to sustain something like 95 percent of all fiction. The problem with American Horror Story writ large is that there’s never any patience exhibited, never any sense of shocks being actively prepared for. For a few episodes, this speed-freakiness doesn’t necessarily matter, as TV shows are obviously playing the long game and need to instill in the viewer a notion of the stakes from the outset. But it’s becoming clear that there aren’t any stakes in Freak Show, and that the characters, who are barely characters, are going to say and do things whenever it’s convenient, because Murphy and Falchuk can’t ever be bothered to construct a coherent scenario with which to govern their admittedly impressive sense of atmosphere.

American Horror Story: Coven Recap Episode 12, "Go to Hell"

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 12, “Go to Hell”

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 12, “Go to Hell”

The penultimate episode of American Horror Story: Coven, “Go to Hell” finds the series still desperately scrambling to introduce busy conceits. Theoretically, we should be eagerly anticipating the revelation of Fiona’s (Jessica Lange) successor as the next Supreme, but how can we? As an audience, we never know if any event “counts,” or if it will be reversed to satisfy a new creative whimsy. The first two or three hundred character resurrections were a cheeky way of illustrating Coven’s ’s willingness to screw with viewer expectation, but that device, along with the witches’ highly varying procession of week-to-week powers, has long ago devolved into tedium. And somewhere down the line, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk also lost a valuable sense of pace: Major events seem to rush by now in a barely coherent tizzy, while negligible vignettes eat up a significant portion of running time.

American Horror Story: Coven Recap Episode 11, "Protect the Coven"

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 11, “Protect the Coven”

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 11, “Protect the Coven”

With only two episodes remaining, it’s probably fair to say that American Horror Story: Coven has evolved in a fashion opposite to that of the prior American Horror Story: Asylum. Where the latter gradually discarded its various narrative convolutions to arrive at a conclusion of surprising emotional purity, the former opened with a confident sense of parody that’s been gradually cluttered up with a variety of desperately WTF tonal switcheroos. It’s difficult at this point to evade the suspicion that creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk prize the moment, the here and the now, above any particular thematic coherence—a development that won’t come as much of a surprise to those who watched Murphy’s initially addictive, eventually monotonously “outrageous” series Nip/Tuck. Which is to say that this week’s episode of Coven, “Protect the Coven,” is eventful without being especially involving, as Murphy and Falchuk’s game of “anything goes” appears to be very close to stalling out. If anything can happen, then nothing’s really at stake, as the writers have proven themselves perfectly willing to reverse or outright ignore any past development that has the potential to impede a moment of quick theoretical shock value or novelty.

American Horror Story: Coven Recap Episode 9, "Head"

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 9, “Head”

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 9, “Head”

This week’s episode of American Horror Story: Coven steers the series into unexpected and retrospectively logical narrative and thematic directions. So far, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck have been primarily concerned with offering viewers an often frank and disconcerting parody of a race war as waged in that uneasy cultural melting pot known as New Orleans. But if “Head” is a proper indication, Coven is moving toward introducing a grander villain who’s amusingly of the times as well as indicative of the sentiment that class and money cut deeper than skin color. That’s right: Turns out that witches are as vulnerable to massive corporate gentrification as the rest of us.

American Horror Story: Coven Recap Episode 8, "The Sacred Taking"

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 8, “The Sacred Taking”

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 8, “The Sacred Taking”

If the last few episodes of American Horror Story: Coven were marked by a palpable sense of creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck’s concern with lining up certain narrative pawns in the proper positions so as to satisfy a larger game plan, then “The Sacred Taking” finds the show’s variables nearly, but not quite, cohering into a grand narrative arc. There are pros and cons to this evolution. The pro, obviously, is that there’s pleasure in finally seeing certain hints begin to pay off, but the con is that Coven sometimes threatens to favor a certain heaviness of plot at the expense of the weirder moments with which American Horror Story typically thrives.