“Test of Strength” is a work of bookkeeping, an episode intended to remind audiences who Freak Show’s denizens precisely are before a break for the Thanksgiving holiday. Everyone’s accounted for this week, and the narrative, busy and lacking in urgency, serves as a representative reminder of why Freak Show has grown so interminable: The characters’ actions exist in respective vacuums, appearing to affect nothing. A flamboyant murder can be quickly swept away, leading to the next episode, which starts at a moment of relative peace, builds toward another murder or betrayal, only to reset yet again. Characters are constantly plotting against one another, but this often scans as weirdly harmless, because a “surprise” atrocity will reliably render the prospective conspiracies moot. American Horror Story grows tedious every season, excluding the high-water mark that’s Asylum, but no prior installment has flat-lined as quickly as Freak Show. It’s an impressive costume and set pageant, and little more.
The episode opens with an example of this restart syndrome. Jimmy (Evan Peters) storms into Dandy (Finn Wittrock) and Gloria’s (Frances Conroy) mansion and demands that Bette and Dot (Sarah Paulson) come back with him to the freak show. Bette is reliably hesitant, foolish, and naïve, but the revelation that Dandy has read Dot’s diary spurs the more practical of the sisters to insist that they leave. A cursory comment made by Dandy reveals to Jimmy that the former was the second killer clown the night that Twisty was killed—a bit of information that’s obviously being stored away for later, or not. The real takeaway is the show’s insistence on setting something up, in this case Bette and Dot’s weird roleplaying subservience to an increasingly unhinged Dandy, only to pull it down so as to retreat back to the subplot involving the twins’ ever-boring rivalry with Elsa (Jessica Lange). The sisters lie about Elsa’s role in their disappearance, so as to set the ringleader up for a blackmail that includes a makeover for Bette and 50 percent of the box office’s take for Dot.
This backstage rivalry has been emphasized so much and to so little avail that it’s worth acknowledging, even within this show’s logic, the absurdity of Elsa’s belief that she’s going to ride to Hollywood on the coattails of her freak show. This woman is supposed to be a veteran showbiz survivor who’s seen places on this Earth as dark as any that can be seen by human eyes, and she’s going to fall for Stanley’s (Denis O’Hare) contemptuously flimsy snake-oil-salesman routine? Insane clowns and recrimination-free killers can be believed in the universe that Freak Show has fashioned, but this contrivance reliably stops the series dead in its tracks every week, both in terms of Elsa’s dealings with Stanley as well as with the twins. Elsa’s various machinations might scan if we were to see more of the freak show’s day-to-day actions, so as to soak in the atmosphere and revel in the showbiz fantasy that Elsa’s constructed, but the series continues to bulldoze through one disposable climax after another.
Another reversal that’s characteristic of the show’s no-attention span: Dell (Michael Chiklis) and Jimmy are friends now, freely open about their relationship as father and son. Turns out Jimmy already knew that Dell was his dad, which struck this viewer as a handy way of moving the characters to the next required narrative peg without having to indulge in such cumbersome dramatic qualities as character motivation, foreshadowing, or any kind of emotional nuance. Jimmy got drunk with Dell, knocking back shots of cheap hooch at a remote watering hole (the best scene in the episode, as it at least allowed the actors to establish a rapport with one another), inadvertently saving the latter from a revenge killing that Ethel (Kathy Bates) was hatching up in response to Dell’s assault on Amazon Eve (Erika Ervin), which, itself, was spurred from a blackmail shakedown between Dell and Stanley. This last development represents another mini-reversal of sorts, as a potentially promising Ethel/Dell showdown is diverted in order to keep everyone humming perpetually around static, pointless status quo.
Well, one scene was legitimately creepy: the reveal of what Penny’s father (Lee Tergesen) had in store for his daughter (Grace Gummer) as revenge for her decision to leave him and live with Paul (Mat Fraser) at the freak show. The weirdness, the perversity, of Penny’s suffering has a dirty, juvenile sense of poetic cruelty that’s reminiscent of EC Comics. Penny is forcibly tattooed all over her face in a fashion that causes her to vaguely resemble a lizard—an association that’s completed with her tongue, which has been cut into a fork. The associations that a freak show is meant to evoke—of violation, of deformation, and of forbidden exoticism and exploitation—are channeled with a directness that far surpasses most of the show’s increasingly convoluted and tedious shenanigans. Penny, until now a throwaway character, which she will almost certainly become again in the coming episodes, is briefly accorded stature as a surprisingly potent embodiment of the collateral damage yielded by incestuous corruption and fanatical control. She’s briefly allowed to suggest what this series could’ve been all along, if it had bothered to plant roots, to develop a sense of stakes, and to tend to a long game.
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