“Blood Bath” is another of American Horror Story: Freak Show’s housecleaning episodes, in which a bunch of characters are killed to remarkably little effect in the services of, well, that’s debatable. To reinvigorate viewer interests after a holiday hiatus? To thin out the ranks of the major players for a season climax that’s theoretically right around the narrative bend? Impossible to tell, because, as we’ve already established, the series has no rules; it’s adrift in a manner that recalls prior seasons of American Horror Story such as Murder House and, especially, Coven. Whenever a plot thread is threatening to cohere or gain momentum, along comes a killing to render any prior information moot. This sort of upsetting of the applecart can represent an exhilarating break from the rigors of TV or film conventions if timed right, but it can also signal desperate wallowing if overindulged. Imagine Psycho if Norman Bates was killed right after Marion’s mysterious murder, and we never returned to his story, and then Sam Loomis was unexpectedly killed, and then Marion’s sister soon after him. The initial shock of Marion’s second-act killing would devolve into tedious cacophony, and Freak Show has been in that state for the last few episodes.
The killing spree that ensued this week, claiming Ethel (Kathy Bates) and Gloria (Frances Conroy), among others, partially springs from Ma Petite’s murder at the end of the previous episode. Dell (Michael Chiklis) killed her to appease Stanley (Denis O’Hare), but Ethel understandably suspects Elsa (Jessica Lange), who’s been skulking around the grounds with Stanley for weeks plotting the disappearances/murders of Sarah Paulson’s once-again-forgotten-and-missing-in-action Dot and Bette. Ethel takes Elsa’s flamboyant crying over Ma Petite’s death, surmised by the discovery of a bloody dress, to be mere theatricality, which is ironic for two reasons: This crying is the most legitimate-feeling emotion that Lange’s conjured on Freak Show so far, and later on, because Elsa’s subsequent weeping over Ethel’s death is composed of crocodile tears that will go, so far, undetected.
Yes, Ethel’s dead, because she attempted to take a stand against Elsa over what she presumes to have happened to Ma Petite, and Elsa distracts her and throws a knife through her eye, a development that strikes this viewer as a disappointment. As ludicrous as her accent may be, Bates has been a reliable font of quasi-human sentiment over the course of the season, and Freak Show will be hard-pressed to replace her, unless Evan Peters is ever given something to do as Jimmy. As amusing as Conroy has reliably been as Gloria, she will be missed less for the fact that Gloria’s death might serve to finally, totally unleash Dandy (Finn Whitrock), a development that could produce a more operatic version of the camp grotesquerie that is this show’s entire stock and trade.
As always, the Gloria and Dandy scenes are the most diverting, because Conroy and Whitrock are allowed to entirely forgo the faux-pathos that often mars the stories explicitly set in and around the freak show. The refusal to show the face of the therapist examining Dandy is also an odd, creepy touch that allows the viewer to empathize with Dandy’s contempt for him, particularly when the therapist has Dandy Rorschach interpret a series of inkblots, which the fully blossomed sociopath unsurprisingly takes to represent dismembered corpses. There’s also one startling image that telegraphs Gloria’s demise: a Christmas tree’s lights briefly illuminate her face entirely in red, anticipating Dandy’s bathing in her blood.
But still, this is all rote busy-ness, the instances of “transgression” included this week to break up the monotony of the dull ongoing routines. Most prominently, Elsa wails on about the freak show’s lack of appreciation for her, and Jimmy takes every tragedy more personally than anyone else, his drinking and flailing reliably punctuated with a brief bit in which Esmerelda (Emma Roberts) lectures him about his need to keep straight so they can leave the camp (when did they ever decide to leave the camp anyway? Does anyone remember? Or care?). Penny (Grace Gummer), now hands down the least interesting character on Freak Show after a promising moment in “Test of Strength,” also returns to avenge her father’s mutilation of her face, and Desiree (Angela Bassett) helps her out, primarily so that viewers can be reminded that, yes, the phenomenally gifted Bassett is still on the show. But none of this even remotely matters. By this point, I’d rather read a stack of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards in quick looped succession than watch another episode of this cynical, programmatic ticker-tape of convoluted atrociousness.
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