American Horror Story: Freak Show opens on a strikingly cockeyed image of a woman’s head sticking out of the bottom corner of the right side of the frame in such a fashion as to suggest an ambulatory human mushroom. Even if you haven’t seen any of Freak Show’s publicity photos, you instinctively know something’s off. The woman appears to be profoundly uncomfortable, contorted, the remainder of her unseen body walking toward the camera with dreamy slowness, a title telling us that we’re in Jupiter, Florida in 1952. In this one image, the majesty and dread that leaked out of Coven by the end of its season is restored to American Horror Story. It’s clear that creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have returned ready to play.
That woman, or, rather, women, is revealed to be Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson), conjoined twins fleeing their mother’s house after murdering her in an explosion of long-suppressed rage. Dot, the deceptively more playful, gregarious, and “innocent” one, is obsessed with the movies and wants to see one in “glorious Technicolor”—a desire her ashamed mother disastrously refutes. Dot, the bitter and more pragmatic one, sets about cleaning up the mess, which includes attempting to kill Bette, despite the self-wounding impracticalities of such vengeance. While at the hospital treating their subsequent stab wound, we learn that Bette and Dot have separate kidneys, lungs, and hearts, though they share one reproductive system, which inevitably sets the stage for the sort of comedy of stymied sexual desire that’s become American Horror Story‘s stock-in-trade.
Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange), the German proprietor of Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities, doesn’t waste much time finding Bette and Dot in the hospital. Disguised in a candy-striped nurse’s outfit (one of this episode’s many fetish objects), Elsa makes her way past security and proceeds to interview the women in a manner that allows for Lange’s now trademark camp-queen pathos. Elsa, another vulnerable Lange humanitarian (probably) disguised as a tyrant, immediately homes in on Bette and Dot’s mounting resentment with one another, including the murder, and their sexual frustration, memorably represented by Bette’s description of masturbation, which she says causes Dot to claim to attempt a mind-out-of–body experience. This scene is so funny and moving that it might be easy to overlook how purely aesthetically inventive it is, as a striking manner of shifting split-screen is devised to telegraph when Elsa’s speaking to Dot (the schoolmarm defined by brown headband) and Bette (the mischievous chatterbox in blue headband). In the past, American Horror Story has proven itself to be proudly above nothing in terms of achieving an ostentatious effect, but this trickery has a poignant undertow as well, as this formality is a way of according two suffocated sisters a bit of their own respective space.
Bette and Dot are the highlight of the season premiere, appropriately and ironically titled “Monsters Among Us.” It’s gratifying to see Paulson, one of the most talented actors of American Horror Story‘s stock company, given such a potentially meaty, tricky role, which knowingly suggests a fusion of one of Joseph Mankiewicz’s heroines (Bette is not an arbitrarily assigned name) with one of Douglas Sirk’s unmoored domestic iconoclasts. The Sirk references abound, in fact: Freak Show has a stately, obsessive sense of color, décor, and set design that immediately distinguishes it from the hyperkinetic showboating of Coven. Murphy and Falchuk exhibit unusual patience here: Taking a cue from the 1950s timeline and from some of the films of that era (not just Mankiewicz and Sirk’s, but also clearly Nicholas Ray’s, particularly Bigger Than Life), they allow the characters’ often hidden emotions to assert themselves visually, implicatively, through their surroundings.
A scene in which a bunch of bored housewives have what appears to be a tea party, for instance, is summed up, briefly, with a telling series of shots: of deviled eggs, followed by Dad’s bottle of bourbon, followed by the women themselves, who’re clad in explosions of fluorescent Easter colors that, in this context, signal a desperate cry from the deranged, bored damned. Satirically this scene is obvious (filmmakers have been lampooning the 1950s in this fashion since, well, the 1950s), but as pure eye-tickling sensation it’s impressive, and it helps us to understand the mounting bitterness of Elsa and the other members of her freak show, who we begin to meet through the eyes of Bette and Dot when the pair agrees to join up with the former as a means of evading the law for their mother’s murder.
Unsurprisingly, the freak show is used to initiate what appears to be a revenge-of-the-repressed scenario: The freaks are the sympathetic unknown, while the conventional squares represent mindlessly abiding conformity and oppression. Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters) is a good-looking freak in a Brando jacket, who services women with his repellent but ideally contoured flipper hands, and who resents his status as a hired john who’s pimped out by his mother, the bearded lady Ethel (Kathy Bates). Jimmy’s hands, and their sexual agency, are a great, succinct metaphor for stuff that repels us yet strangely gets us off (reminiscent of both Edward’s scissorhands and of the Penguin’s slimy flippers), and it’s later echoed by the episode’s best scene.
Near the end of “Monsters Among Us,” Penny (Grace Gummer), the candy striper whose outfit Elsa swiped, storms into her tent, drug-addled, accusing her and her freaks of sexual exploitation, which prompts the headmaster to show her an 8mm movie, projected against the back of the tent. In it, the young woman engages in a surprisingly explicit orgy with Jimmy and a variety of Elsa’s midgets, pinheads, and assorted other random characters on the periphery, while in an opium-fueled daze that’s communicated by close-ups of Penny’s face, which conveys a chilling mixture of passivity and pleasure. This scene is so unnerving because Murphy and Falchuk don’t allow their progressive politics to get in the way, as it explicitly courts our arousal, disgust, and empathy in roughly equal measure, soliciting the conflicting, unruly responses with which a freak show itself is designed to solicit. Elsa isn’t sentimentalized; the contortionist probably was hoodwinked so as to satiate the lonely freaks, which only serves to heighten her stature as the next potentially great, broken American Horror Story anti-heroine.
Elsa’s determinedly strange, even for this series. Clad in Marlene Dietrich regalia and characterized by a slippery German accent, she suggests a weird sort of humane fascism that’s reminiscent of Asylum‘s Sister Jude, and that’s embodied by her touching performance of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” which is complete with fairy dust and midgets playing accompaniment on the sidelines. Belting out a tribute to herself, thusly encapsulating the show’s blossoming themes of free expression and self-loathing, you can’t help but notice all the hypocritical subservience that’s necessary to achieving Elsa’s showstopper. That might not bode well for her, particularly if Jimmy continues along his path of blossoming, decidedly Magneto-esque rebellion. It tells you something about this show’s density of inspiration and ambition that a killer clown called Twisty (John Carroll Lynch), casually one of the scariest clowns of all time, is but a footnote, but one of many dissonances, or monsters, on a gorgeous crumpling landscape that awaits a probable eve of destruction.
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