“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.
As the title indicates, this week’s episode concludes Freak Show‘s Halloween two-parter, ending with a dull thud in comparison to the inventive set pieces on display last week. There’s nothing here to rival Kathy Bates’s performance or Elsa’s (Jessica Lange) stirring cover of Lana Del Rey’s “Gods and Monsters.” This episode’s Elsa sequences were notably flat, belaboring to mix pronounced fetishizing with disingenuous pathos in a fashion that’s already de rigueur for the season. After questioning a few of the supporting freaks (including Paul the Illustrated Seal, played by Mat Fraser with authority and majesty) and discerning them to be undeserving of his ongoing pleasure cruise to hell, cursed boogeyman Edward Mordrake (Wes Bentley) corners Elsa in her tent. Chastising the woman for her ego, Edward demands her painful origin story, which includes working as a notorious dominatrix in a whorehouse in the Weimar Republic, circa 1932. Elsa’s inventiveness, we are to gather, was appreciated by her clientele as a release from Germany’s collective post-war identity crisis, though Freak Show evinces absolutely no concern for such matters, as these scenes exist to show us whips and bondage gear and, memorably, a toilet with nails sticking out of its seat.
We also learn Twisty the Clown’s (John Carroll Lynch) origin story, which is more interesting than Elsa’s because Lynch invests the material with a primal intimacy that it doesn’t really earn. A richly talented character actor, Lynch is a big man who’s capable of allowing the audience to feel his size when necessary, though he can also ineffably reduce his stature to poignant and surprising effect. There’s a great sense of frailty to Lynch’s best performances, even his terrifying work in Zodiac, and the actor is able to get that frailty across even through the heavy makeup and gimmickry that defines Twisty. We learn that Twisty used to be a genial, mentally impaired clown in the 1940s, working on the periphery of freak shows entertaining children, until a gang of vindictive dwarves elected to ruin his life, spreading a rumor that he was a pedophile in a sequence that imbues Freak Show with welcome bite. The series is so relentlessly, self-consciously, condescendingly politically correct in its assertion that freaks are just like the rest of us (even if they literally aren’t) that it’s weirdly refreshing to see menacing dwarf clichés so gleefully indulged, particularly in evocative close-ups that rate as the most chilling images in the episode.
Another nice touch that serves to temporarily deflate Freak Show‘s public-service-bulletin pomposity: Edward dismisses Twisty’s appeals to his sympathy as delusional, self-pitying rubbish, choosing the clown as the next member of his damned coterie. Unfortunately, that presumably means that Twisty is no longer with us, unless Freak Show pulls a Coven and resurrects people so often and so willy-nilly as to render the stakes even more meaningless than before. Regardless, the goodwill engendered by the Twisty interlude is soon compromised by another long, embarrassing scene in which freaks and squares stand in a group, gazing at one another, attempting to recognize the other party’s respective humanity. Jimmy (Evan Peters) is justifiably labeled a hero for his part in Twisty’s demise, and this brings the townspeople out to the carnival grounds to congratulate him, inevitably boosting that night’s ticket sales in the bargain, as the curfew has now been lifted.
Near the end of the episode, Dell (Michael Chiklis) and Dot and Bette (Sarah Paulson) are briefly seen, so as to remind the audience that they exist, and it occurred to me why Freak Show already seems so listless: There’s no consistency, even on a rudimentary level. Just a few weeks ago, these characters were accorded grand entrances and major screen time, and this week they’re swept under the rug, forgotten. There’s an alternating tag-team element to the show’s pace that’s reminiscent of prior seasons of American Horror Story, as Murphy and Falchuk are uninterested in spinning tapestries that appear to emphasize all of the major characters equally and simultaneously. At the end of this episode, it’s implied that a love quadrangle may be developing between Jimmy, Esmerelda (Emma Roberts), Dot, and Bette, and you may have to think back to recall that, ah, yes, the conjoined sisters have a thing for Jimmy. Freak Show often feels as if its channel-surfing for you, merging 15 shows into one setting at once, and that’s a very intentional effect, but its short attention span is proving wearying. It could stand to calm down, and allow us to enjoy the Bradbury-ian dread of its setting and let a few scares to sink in, gradually, hauntingly.
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