“Pink Cupcakes” is a marked improvement over last week’s episode of Freak Show, “Edward Mordrake (Part 2).” For starters, there’s something like an actual plot, though it inelegantly crisscrosses back and forth between each freak’s reliably grueling plight-of-the-week. More importantly, Stanley’s (Denis O’Hare) presence on the freak show’s campgrounds provides the series with a significant representation of the “straight” world that’s often discussed, but rarely seen, casting shades of actual contrast and conflict on the gruesome chicanery. With the series belaboring the freaks’ theoretically unexpected likability at every possible turn, it’s the villains who stand to walk away with Freak Show, as their unapologetically one-dimensional mugging comes to represent a sort of refreshing truth in advertising.
Stanley’s a plot device, a bad guy thrown into the pot to give the stew a little fat for flavor, and this lack of pretension arrives as a sweet relief from the usual self-pitying, audience-flattering navel gazing. This week, Dandy (Finn Wittrock), after being wasted in a few prior episodes, was also allowed to provide us the same kind of rude pleasure. Stanley and Dandy (their names even complement one another) presently stand to take over the series as the audience favorites, at least until they’re abandoned for an entirely new gimmick. Give it a week, tops.
It’s nice to see O’Hare play sleazy and self-concerned after longtime residence as one of American Horror Story’s subjugate victims. The actor has a curt, snappy sense of timing that often, probably intentionally, recalls the poetically terse line deliveries that can be heard in classic film noirs or even screwball comedies. O’Hare’s sense of play elevates other actors’ games. Jessica Lange, so far, has been disappointing this season: Her Elsa is an uninspired mixture of all the heroines the actress has already played on American Horror Story. But Lange has a cagey chemistry with O’Hare, perhaps because she actually has something to play in her scenes with him. It’s clear that Elsa doesn’t entirely believe Stanley’s claims that he’s a Hollywood agent, but she wants to believe him, just as we all want to believe potentially life-changing events that we secretly understand to be too good to be true. Lange plays this distrust, and laces it with resentment, hope, and even feigned attraction (she can’t tell whether or not it would behoove her to fuck Stanley).
Stanley also had a good little scene with Bette and Dot (Sarah Paulson), who are, hands down, the most egregiously wasted characters in the series. Attempting to feed them poisoned cupcakes, fantasizing of bringing their linked, disembodied heads to the American Morbidity Museum (that name is one of Freak Show’s most amusing touches) for a big payday, Stanley administers the rivalry between Bette and Dot and Elsa with a much-needed shot of comic energy.
“Pink Cupcakes” also benefits from Desiree’s (Angela Bassett) presence. Bassett, like Michael Chiklis, who plays her strongman husband, Dell, doesn’t court a conventional sense of audience pity; she informs her character with a remarkable, quiet internal force that’s traditional of the actress’s work throughout her career. Though the revelation that Desiree is a pregnant woman (until a miscarriage), rather than a hermaphrodite, appears to be an opportunity that will be wasted in traditional American Horror Story fashion: Instead of gradually building toward a confusion of domestic identity that’s brought forth by the dual revelations of Dell’s homosexuality and Desiree’s gender, the writers jump the gun and have him storm out of the couple’s trailer, while Desiree moves in with Ethel (Kathy Bates).
This is why Freak Show’s continual nods to the prejudices that mar “outsiders” feel so token and disingenuous: Whenever an opportunity to authentically grapple with the conflicts that exist between internal desires and external expectation is devised, it’s quickly elided to achieve a quick, easy dramatic catharsis. Desiree and Dell’s evolving relationship, like Stanley and Elsa’s escalating roleplay, could come to embody the show’s Sirk-ish theme of characters stuck in social models that compromise them, even, and perhaps especially, the models that allow us to pretend to be different. But there’s no patience exhibited that might allow these resonances to bloom.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Dell’s assault on the doctor, who could operate on Desiree to alter her pronounced, phallic clitoris so as to resemble a conventional woman’s anatomy, is authentically disturbing. It’s clearly understood that Dell’s violence is an expression of his stifled sexual identity, and Chiklis plays the scene with a raw, uncompromised force that’s weirdly moving. This moment also mirrors Dandy’s surprisingly brutal murder of Andy (Matt Bomer), the male prostitute Dell was seeing, as Dandy’s similarly turning toward violence, not only out of bug-fuck insanity and malice, but because he’s tormented by unexpressed energy that’s probably sexual in nature. Dandy mistakes this energy for disappointment in his failure to become an actor, which he blames on his mother, Gloria (Frances Conroy), who’s promisingly enlisted as coconspirator in his murder spree, but we clearly know better. (This week’s most memorable image, of the irrationally deep flower bed that’s dug to contain Dandy’s inevitably expanding body count, could’ve come straight out of the writing of Flannery O’Connor.)
Time and time again, “Pink Cupcakes” refreshingly finds Freak Show favoring action over canned elucidation, and that stems from the beefed-up emphasis on Stanley, Desiree, Dell, Dandy, and Gloria. Even Jimmy (Evan Peters), often the show’s most insufferable font of thematic intent, was given a few poignant scenes with Desiree that elaborate, through gesture, on the casual alienation that comes with distrusting one’s own body. Jimmy’s lobster claws were initially believed to have hurt Desiree while the two were fooling around, and, while that wasn’t the case, it goes to show the humiliation that’s reliable for Jimmy should he attempt to touch someone and experience pleasures that many people take as a given. This bleak, nasty, violent, and casually inventive episode shows that Freak Show isn’t down for the count yet, as long as it has the shrewdness to play to its basest, most telling, instincts.
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