The mind tends to wander when it’s unengaged, and while watching this week’s episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show, titled “Tupperware Party Massacre,” you may be inclined to wonder throughout the typically atypical murder sequences and arbitrary character epiphanies how this series is written. Are a variety of outré buzzwords scribbled on flashcards, loaded into a canon, and then fired against the wall of an interior shooting range, with any cards that manage to land face up chosen as the center of any given week’s theoretical emphasis? Is each week’s episode the result of something planted in a time capsule that’s been purchased randomly by the show’s writers off of Craigslist? Readers have accused me of not getting the joke, of missing the gloriously queer anarchy of a series that subversively refuses to play by the three-act rules. But this is franchise anarchy, boutique “outrage,” with signifiers deliberately planted to appease those who’re resigned to love it regardless of the specifics. Freak Show plays to disenfranchised liberals in a manner as cynical as that in which those unwatchable Christian films court conservatives.
Dell’s (Michael Chiklis) big scene this week epitomizes this calculation. All of a sudden suicidal, presumably over his role in Ma Petite’s death, and because of his shame over his closeted sexuality, Dell fashions a noose while scribbling a drunken letter to Jimmy (Evan Peters). Stepping up into the noose, Dell envisions Ethel (Kathy Bates) sitting in the corner of his trailer, passing judgment on him. Ethel tells him that most of the freaks are forced to wear their shame on the outside, which allows them to deal with it, but that Dell’s is trapped internally, and festering. Chiklis and Bates inform the scene with more pathos than it deserves, but it’s a shameless Afterschool Special message for the gay public that explicitly verbalizes a subtext that’s been ground into the metaphorical pavement from episode one.
And, as always, this theme of tolerance only goes so far with Freak Show. No such pretense of civility is extended to Ima Wiggles (Chrissy Metz), for instance, the new fat lady, whose weight is fetishized with a shameless glee that presumably runs counter to the show’s pretentious and disingenuous humanist concerns. Jimmy, still on a bender following Ethel’s murder, has taken to screwing Ima out in the open of the campgrounds, which a secondary character likens to two pigs slopping. The revulsion that’s courted in these few scenes, tinged with a sort of forbidden turn-on element, epitomizes the very exploitation and marginalization that the freaks, as the show’s proxies, are constantly railing against.
It can be said that to dive even this far into the “meaning” of certain scenes is to take Freak Show too seriously, and this critic certainly agrees, which takes us back to where we started: to casually enjoy the series as a weekly pulp. But good pulp, contrary to its reputation, often makes some semblance of minute-to-minute sense. When did Dandy (Finn Wittrock) become convinced that he was a god again? And why has he, in the last few episodes, become preoccupied with the notion of bathing in his victims’ blood? Was “Báthory” a word found among the upturned cannon fodder?
Dandy is still Freak Show’s reliable highpoint, particularly as the series reaches its final inning, revealing any hope of the materialization of any secret governing coherence to be illusory. Dandy is the one truthful encapsulation of what this show is about: fleeting stimulation. Whitrock has a freedom that isn’t extended to most of the other actors, who must admirably and unenviably attempt to spin this nonsense into something recognizably human. No, the actor can pitch Dandy’s malevolence to the opera rafters, and he does so with a sense of abandon that remains amusing and occasionally chilling. Dandy’s bribing of a cop to kill Regina (Gabourey Sidibe) is particularly effective for Whitrock’s broadly fey contemptuousness, which suggests an unhinged peacock impersonating the big bad wolf.
The series remembers that Dandy and Jimmy have bad blood from their disputes over Twisty and Bette and Dot (Sarah Paulson), so the former has set upon framing the latter for a gruesome series of murders that are indicated by the episode’s title, which also paves the way for this week’s one memorable image of a pool colored Technicolor blood red by the half-dozen corpses that Dandy deposits in it. Bette and Dot are also revealed to be hiding out in a motel dive, which Elsa (Jessica Lange) and Stanley (Denis O’Hare) discover for reasons that don’t matter. The sisters’ ultimately mutual decision to remain bound together, rather than attempt a separation surgery that’s actually just another of Stanley’s ruses to begin with, might’ve been moving if it was actively prepared for, rather than dropped in the middle of two or three other escalating stories. (There’s nothing here that approaches the pathos of a heartbreaking moment in the similarly themed Stuck on You, in which a brother, missing his recently separated sibling, leans against a public park statue.) But poignancy, meaning, and resonance are daft, decidedly old-school qualities. Why settle for those when you can have nothing disguised as everything?
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