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American Horror Story: Cult Recap Episode 3, “Neighbors from Hell”

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American Horror Story: Cult Recap: Episode 3, “Neighbors from Hell”
American Horror Story: Cult Recap: Episode 3, “Neighbors from Hell”

As a society, we’ve come to rely on rules to protect us and rights to give us a sense of power. If there’s a disturbance coming from the home next to our own, we know that there are authorities who we can alert. And if our government takes an action that we find undesirable, we can petition against it. Perhaps the biggest psychic trauma, then, experienced by many people in this country after Trump’s election to the presidency—a trauma that’s the focus of American Horror Story: Cult—is the realization that those rules and rights don’t feel as sacrosanct as we thought they were.

American Horror Story: Cult Recap Episode 2, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”

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American Horror Story: Cult Recap: Episode 2, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”
American Horror Story: Cult Recap: Episode 2, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”

For better and worse, the horror on American Horror Story: Cult is all text and no subtext. Take the title of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” which isn’t some abstract nod to our needing to face the fears lurking in the darkness of our lives, but a reference to the blackout that leaves Ally (Sarah Paulson) in a panic. The show isn’t content to simply talk about the red-meat hate speech of the right; it literally hangs it out in the open after Roger (Zack Ward), a bigoted sous-chef, is found affixed to a hook in the Butchery’s kitchen freezer.

American Horror Story: Cult Recap Episode 1, “Election Night”

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American Horror Story: Cult Recap: Episode 1, “Election Night”

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American Horror Story: Cult Recap: Episode 1, “Election Night”

After years of trying to conjure up a universal boogeymen with which to tap into the primal fears of Americans, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have landed almost effortlessly on target. “Election Night,” the first episode of American Horror Story: Cult, knows exactly how to trigger us; in fact, that’s the modus operandi of the show’s central antagonist, Kai Anderson (Evan Peters). This anarchist’s most terrifying moment isn’t when he rubs blended orange Cheetos all over his face in a send-up of Glenn Beck’s mocking of Donald Trump, or the thought of him donning a three-faced clown mask to terrorize his fellow Americans, but when he calmly walks into a local city council meeting, clad in a suit, to suggest that government allow fear to reign. “Haven’t you been watching what’s been going on in the world?” he asks.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 13, "Curtain Call"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 13, “Curtain Call”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 13, “Curtain Call”

“Curtain Call” ends American Horror Story: Freak Show on an unsurprisingly dour and haphazard note, reveling in the show’s most annoying ongoing assertion: that the freaks are “just like everyone else.” No, they aren’t. A man with flippers for hands who’s lived in a circus all his life fantasizing about joining conventional American society isn’t like a man born into that society unquestioningly with the privilege to take it for granted. These are profoundly different emotional experiences, and, if this sounds like over-literal nitpicking, bear in mind that American Horror Story goes to great efforts to congratulate itself on its “other”-friendly symbolism. The freaks are clearly meant to represent a great variety of minorities, and their often boring “magical negro” cuddliness is meant to attest to the inherent unifying decency of the human species regardless of variation.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 12, "Show Stoppers"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 12, “Show Stoppers”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 12, “Show Stoppers”

Freak Show, which is now all but certain to go down in the record books as the weakest season of American Horror Story so far, helps to confirm an unofficial rule about the series at large: The more a season actively utilizes its chosen setting, the better it is. Asylum explicitly, cannily exploited the fears we have of a mental institution, positioning it as a convincing, disturbing barometer for social ills. Murder House played with most of the haunted-house-movie tropes, adding a dash of kink to a genre that, as of late, too often resists it. Coven, the first really uneven season, appeared to be driven by clichés that are more routinely associated with superheroes (particularly the X-Men) than witches. And Freak Show, apart from the occasional ghoulish flourish, really needn’t be set at the titular grounds at all, as much of its conflicts, such as they are, derive from isolated betrayals and killings that are often accompanied by the obligatory speech about freaks’ rights. A freak show is a potentially great setting for a horror series, but it’s hardly mattered here, as we’ve rarely seen a performance of the show, and backstage shenanigans are essentially nonexistent.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 11, "Magical Thinking"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 11, “Magical Thinking”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 11, “Magical Thinking”

After “Orphans,” a surprisingly confident and empathetic outing that will almost certainly go down as the best episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show, “Magical Thinking” finds the series resorting to its usual bag of boring, hyperbolically over-plotted tricks. As with a number of prior episodes, a lot of stuff happens in “Magical Thinking”—a major character is introduced out of nowhere, a series regular abruptly dies, a game-changing business deal is brokered—to weirdly little effect. There’s a fatuous rat-a-tat ticker-tape vibe to this series: bam, bam, bam, then nothing. One could be kind and call the plot progression “free associative,” but that freedom of association only leads us down an avenue of busy repetition. As “Orphans” memorably showed us that less is more, even on a historically “more, more, more” kind of series like Freak Show.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 8, "Blood Bath"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 8, “Blood Bath”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 8, “Blood Bath”

“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.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 7, "Test of Strength"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 7, “Test of Strength”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 7, “Test of Strength”

“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.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 6, "Bullseye"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 6, “Bullseye”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 6, “Bullseye”

“Bullseye” sports a tempo that’s decidedly slow, obsessive, and damn near ponderous for Freak Show. Rather than racing from one atrocity to the next, we’re allowed, refreshingly, to stew in the vivid carnival atmosphere a bit—to enjoy a sense of deliberation that’s signaled right from the episode’s memorable opening scene. Elsa (Jessica Lange) locates a large spinning bull’s-eye that’s designed for knife-throwing acts, and, while practicing on a dummy, she envisions the various freaks to be tied up to the board in its place. This sequence is revealed, retrospectively, to function as a succinct metaphor for the story’s governing and (presumably) escalating conflicts while foreshadowing a significant assault that could be revealed to be a murder. The episode vaguely recalls the chilling Tyrone Power film Nightmare Alley in how it shows the carny atmosphere to be unhinging its protagonist, though Elsa was certainly already unhinged; we’re just now beginning to get to know her.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 4, "Edward Mordrake (Part 2)"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 4, “Edward Mordrake (Part 2)”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 4, “Edward Mordrake (Part 2)”

“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.