After “Orphans,” a surprisingly confident and empathetic outing that will almost certainly go down as the best episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show, “Magical Thinking” finds the series resorting to its usual bag of boring, hyperbolically over-plotted tricks. As with a number of prior episodes, a lot of stuff happens in “Magical Thinking”—a major character is introduced out of nowhere, a series regular abruptly dies, a game-changing business deal is brokered—to weirdly little effect. There’s a fatuous rat-a-tat ticker-tape vibe to this series: bam, bam, bam, then nothing. One could be kind and call the plot progression “free associative,” but that freedom of association only leads us down an avenue of busy repetition. As “Orphans” memorably showed us that less is more, even on a historically “more, more, more” kind of series like Freak Show.
So where were we after the long holiday? Pepper (Naomi Grossman) is with her sister now, and we know through a series of flash-forwards that her placement there will meet a tragic end. Back at the freak show, a new weirdo has arrived to stir a pot that’s already simmering with tensions because Dandy (Finn Wittrock) framed Jimmy (Evan Peters) for the brutal murders of those Tupperware-hawking women who the latter used to sexually service. Jimmy’s in the clink, and a flashback reveals how Stanley (Denis O’Hare) talked him into selling his lobster claws for display at the Morbidity Museum. Like many of the flashbacks this season, which introduce information either unnecessarily or belatedly, this scene is frustratingly prolonged and insistent on story beats that we were already able to intuit from the eerie image we saw of those claws floating in a display tank at the conclusion of “Orphans.” These moments only underline how uninteresting and unconvincing Stanley has remained as a villain, despite O’Hare’s occasionally amusing clowning.
But back to the new weirdo: His name is Chester (Neil Patrick Harris), and Freak Show’s writers have gone to extra lengths to suit him up with as many meaningless eccentricities as possible. He’s a traveling chameleon salesman who hits up carnivals so as to sell lizards to the audience members (seriously), as well as a disturbed WWII veteran with a ventriloquist’s dummy named Marjorie (voiced by Jamie Brewer). We learn through another succession of flashbacks that Chester returned to the States from the war to find that his wife had taken up with another woman, leaving him out in the metaphorical cold with murderous thoughts, which his dummy was more than happy to encourage. This leads to the episode’s one creepy and recurring image: of Marjorie as Chester envisions her, played by Brewer as a human dressed up as his doll. It’s a striking effect, and it’s surprising that crazy ventriloquist movies haven’t used it more often.
After first attempting to join the freak show as a magician, Chester decides to buy it from Elsa (Jessica Lange) for a thousand dollars. Elsa’s about to head for California to stoke her claim on stardom (which we know will prove fruitful) and she wants to leave the place in the hands of someone who will respect its traditions. Bette and Dot (Sarah Paulson), now resolved to live together in one body and to remain at the freak show (their torments having been quashed at the seeming flipping of a psychological switch for the predictable sake of narrative expediency), have also settled on Chester as the man to relieve them of their virginity. All of this sounds fine on paper, but there’s no emotional or visceral stake in any of it; it’s all hyper-driven clutter.
The sex scene between Chester, Bette, and Dot is a particularly surprising letdown. Given Freak Show’s determinedly and misleadingly taboo reputation, one would reasonably expect such an unconventional three-way to yield more in the way of sensational boundary-pushing or even pathos. The coupling, as rendered, amazingly offers neither, as it’s visually unremarkable and emphasized more in terms of pushing forward yet more plotting. We’re cued to ask how this interlude will eventually provoke Dandy, rather than considering it in the context of two very lonely women attempting to physically and emotionally connect with another stunted outlier.
What else? (It’s grown maddening trying to catalogue all this nonsense.) Ah, yes: Dell’s (Michael Chiklis) dead, shot in the head by Elsa as a result of a little blowback on his involvement in Ma Petite’s murder. In a better series, one might be primed to ask how this death will affect Jimmy, who was beginning to reach out to Dell, especially as a now-handless victim of a massive frame-up, but odds dictate that Jimmy’s reaction to this news will never be examined, except as fodder for another twist or killing. One might also be inclined to anticipate what will happen once Elsa’s own murderous indiscretions are revealed, or to consider the irony of her avenging a fellow freak’s murder when she’s committed the same kind of atrocity, but those sorts of curiosities are rarely rewarded in this series. There are two episodes left, and nothing’s really evolved since Freak Show’s debut last October. The series is caught in a relentless spin cycle, and it promises to bluntly shut down, rather than shifting gracefully on to another stage.
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