“Curtain Call” ends American Horror Story: Freak Show on an unsurprisingly dour and haphazard note, reveling in the show’s most annoying ongoing assertion: that the freaks are “just like everyone else.” No, they aren’t. A man with flippers for hands who’s lived in a circus all his life fantasizing about joining conventional American society isn’t like a man born into that society unquestioningly with the privilege to take it for granted. These are profoundly different emotional experiences, and, if this sounds like over-literal nitpicking, bear in mind that American Horror Story goes to great efforts to congratulate itself on its “other”-friendly symbolism. The freaks are clearly meant to represent a great variety of minorities, and their often boring “magical negro” cuddliness is meant to attest to the inherent unifying decency of the human species regardless of variation.
Unless the series needs to emphasize the freaks’ freakiness for a gross-out effect. Then the Spielbergian sentimentality is put aside until it’s convenient again. There’s a real galling sense of callousness, for instance, in the fashion with which all the supporting freak characters are gunned down by Dandy (Finn Wittrock) early on in “Curtain Call.” The scenes, which are creepy and well-staged, exude a writer’s desperate resignation, which could be voiced as “Okay, how do we get all these meaningless cosmetic characters out of the way so we can proceed to Jimmy (Evan Peters), Elsa (Jessica Lange), Bette and Dot (Sarah Paulson), and Desiree (Angela Bassett)? You know, the folks that matter?”
Worse is the flimsy, indifferently considered happy ending that’s assigned to the principal characters. Elsa becomes famous in Hollywood, landing her own show after camping out at a studio for a week in the sort of bald contrivance that sustains many struggling actors’ fantasies during thin times. In an irritating flash-forward that relieves the series of having to actually dramatize any of this, we’re whisked from 1952 to 1960, where Elsa has become the bored A-lister she’s always dreamed of being. The curiosity, then, that “Orphans” stirred about Elsa’s miraculous achievement of fame is entirely unplumbed. Like everything else in this series, Elsa’s career rebirth happens because it needs to happen, with a contemptuous lack of effort exerted toward rendering it plausible or compelling.
Elsa must quickly become famous so Freak Show can make another of its cheesy, obvious points about home being where the heart is. Elsa’s own exploitations aren’t so much avoided as forgotten. When Edward Mordrake (Wes Bentley) sweeps in at the end, he tells Elsa that she doesn’t belong with him in hell, but in another dimension piddling around with her other dead friends. Why she’s extended this mercy is anyone’s guess. As disgusting as John Carroll Lynch’s Twisty the Clown was, he scanned pretty convincingly as insane. Of a sounder mind, Elsa has killed, and just last week abandoned her entire troupe, leaving them in the hands of not one, but two madmen who collectively proceeded to annihilate them while she tended to herself. What reprieve does this woman merit? People who will reliably forgive American Horror Story anything will chalk this up to subversion or moral ambiguity. But what’s being subverted? Forget morals, which are murky at best in this series; Elsa’s seemingly endless saintly benediction makes no sense.
More insidious are the implications of what happens to Jimmy, Bette and Dot, and Desiree. They’re all granted entryway into suburban American life. No details are provided, of course, as these dramatic transitions are also conveniently elided by the flash-forward. We have no idea what Jimmy does, but he somehow lives in a furnished rancher, and is expecting a child with Bette and Dot. The tone of the scene is warm, and intended to project a sense of closure, though one wonders how a man entirely unaccustomed to “civilized” life has learned to work a conventional job, to pay a rent or mortgage, and to tend to his wife, who, lest we forget, would stand out among the crowds at the bar or deli. The tension between freaks and conventional people—ostensibly the subject of the series—hasn’t been avoided, but actively put out in the garbage with other unnecessary luxuries such as character motivation and common sense.
This ending cheapens the freaks’ pain, and plays into a pervasive mass-media fantasy of conformism that particularly mars the contemporary romantic-comedy genre. In a roundabout fashion, this ending buys into the sort of conservative-minded hive-think that the series professes to be battling, as it implies that all the freaks had to do to survive was to get with the consumerist program, which is to say that their problems, regardless of the world they’re born into, are their fault, and easily remedied the moment they’re willing to take responsibility for themselves. Never mind the fact that they came from symbolic ghettos, born into slavery. Never mind the fact that uneducated handless men probably have a tough go of finding work, or that some might be a little put off by three-breasted women, because we’re all the same! How convenient. “Curtain Call” offers explicit clarification as to why that “we’re the same” doggerel, which Freak Show has been peddling from episode one, is so infuriating: It’s ultimately a message of intolerance wrapped in a banal platitude of acceptance. For a series that so smugly celebrated its liberal bona fides, Freak Show missed an obvious tenant of empathy: Sameness isn’t an indication of humanity. Quite the opposite, in fact.
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