After a premiere that logically provided us a 101 on the characters and their blossoming resentments, the second episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show allows us to leisurely soak in the considerable atmospherics of Elsa’s (Jessica Lange) financially imperiled Cabinet of Curiosities. “Massacres and Matinees” opens with a gorgeous master shot of the sideshow that pans from the top of one of the tents to provide us with a full daytime survey of the grounds, which includes the nearby swamp and its accompanying water and wild grass, a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, a great variety of red and blue striped tents and the dusty trails connecting them, and even a pickup truck with the word “circus” painted across it. This image is lit by autumnal sunlight that’s equally suggestive of dawn and dusk, emphasizing both beauty and decay, particularly as embodied by the broken-down vehicles and the exhausted workers shuffling between tents. There’s no doubt that Ray Bradbury would kill for such an iconic and suggestive portrait of the comingling of Americana evil and innocence.
Another sequence soon after might even surpass this shot for dreadful evocation. Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch) is still on his murder spree, of course, and we catch up with him in Hanley’s Toys as a doomed clerk searches for his boss among the knowingly placed trinkets, which include a child’s drum and a wind-up metal robot that begins to amble along the store’s floor, trailing blood behind it. The robot leads the clerk on a hunt that ends with Hanley’s freshly butchered head placed on a shelf with a variety of Halloween goodies such as little pumpkins and old-fashioned pointy-hatted witches. The clerk fatally misses the almost laughably evil-looking Twisty among the gallery of more benign dummy clowns behind him, paying for that oversight with a fatal knife to the throat.
Freak Show abounds in such gorgeous, frightening imagery, often suggesting a Douglas Sirk adaptation of a special Halloween issue of the Saturday Evening Post. Every shot has something either subtly or not-so-subtly “off” in it, whether it’s a characteristic (and often unnecessary) canted angle, or an amusing-unsettling close-up of Dandy (Finn Wittrock) drinking his bourbon through a modified baby’s milk bottle complete with rubber nipple, which is about as succinct a summation of stagnant, pampered evil as any the series could’ve produced. When we last saw Dandy, he and his mother, Gloria (Frances Conroy), were attempting to buy Dot and Bette (Sarah Paulson) from Elsa. This week, Gloria presents Dandy with Twisty as compensation, whom she manages to lure off the street, without losing her life, for reasons that are either necessary to narrative bookkeeping or indicative of a governing shrewdness lurking behind the clown’s façade of mindless carnage-mongering. Twisty represents a peace offering of an ironic sort, an attempt on Gloria’s part to quell her suspicions that her son might be responsible for the murders that the clown has committed.
The character of Dandy, right down to his name, is an aggressively obvious gloss on rich, suggestively closeted mama’s boys who somehow manage to think of themselves as struggling artists. For all the hosannas that American Horror Story has received as a progressive series symbolically taken up with the fight of the ever-shifting ostracized, Dandy borders on homophobic caricature. But Wittrock makes it work, understanding that you have to go real, real big in this show, particularly opposite heavyweights like Lange and Conroy. The two best scenes in this episode tellingly revolve around Dandy. The first finds the character attempting to solicit Jimmy’s (Evan Peters) help in joining the freak show, an exchange that ends with the latter essentially telling the former to go screw himself. The second, a reprise of a famous scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, has Dandy retrieving one of Twisty’s prisoners for him after they briefly escape—and in a moment that also shows us the hideous, gummy mouth that’s underneath the clown’s toothy mask.
These scenes touch on American Horror Story’s usual concerns of classist estrangement with a verve and originality that’s lacking in the big stand-off in the local diner, when Jimmy takes Paul the Illustrated Seal (Mat Fraser) and Meep the Geek (Ben Woolf), among others, to eat in public, demanding to be treated like normal people. The diner scene is a deliberately thematic sop to audience congratulation in a fashion that marred the worst sections of Coven. Strip away a few of the obvious outré elements and you’ve got a sequence that would be right at home in The Secret Life of Bees or The Help, to name just two obvious examples of Oscar-courting movies in which enlightened white people take up for all minorities and say everything all white people know they’re supposed to say. The scene is easy, quasi-offensive, and, worst of all, boring, though it serves the bookkeeping purpose of foregrounding Jimmy’s rivalry with newly arrived strongman Dell (Michael Chiklis), whom we know to be his enraged, unstable father, which eventually leads to the also-easy, also-audience-pandering moment of Meep’s framing (for Jimmy’s murder of the detective last week) and subsequent revenge killing.
The Dandy scenes give us the internal business dealings of the marginalized, showing rather than telling us that they’re people too, which is to say people hung up on the same vices and resentments as the dwellers of the mainstream. Jimmy, for all his equality talk, rejects Dandy for (as far as he knows) superficial reasons: his rich entitlement, a rebuff that has a chain effect of sending Dandy into potential partnership with Twisty, which obviously can’t come to any potential good. (This bad-guy realignment reminded me of the best thing in John Singleton’s Shaft: the acknowledgement that Shaft’s abuse of power only exacerbated the reach and influence of the multi-cultural hoods he was battling.)
Less promisingly, Elsa’s blossoming rivalry with Dot for status of tent headliner feels phoned in, also leftover from Coven, which similarly had Lange playing a character attempting to hold on to her youth and glamour at the expense of the newly youthful and glamourous. Elsa’s more interesting as a quietly deranged, theatrical stage director, particularly in her potential showdown with Dell over control of the freak show (though one can reasonably assume that they will eventually team up to battle the squares that keep storming their grounds and imposing fiscally threatening curfews), which is highlighted in her memorable speech detailing how freaks are best seen at night, when the imagination is out to play.
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