It’s easy to forget, at the start of a new installment of American Horror Story, just how far off the deep end the anthology series is capable of going. And then a moment arrives that serves as a reminder. In Freak Show, that moment comes near the tail end of the premiere episode, where, after we see an 8mm film of a drug-addicted contortionist engaging in wild, insane, opium-fueled sexplay with several of the other freaks that round out the cast, Jessica Lange’s delightfully serpentine Elsa belts out a Teutonic rendition of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” with her beloved monsters on backup.
Freak Show appears to be a prime excuse for creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk to let American Horror Story’s freak flag fly higher and prouder than ever before. Musical numbers, used in past seasons to signify characters spiraling toward insanity, will ostensibly be an episodic occurrence here, providing moments of anachronistic revelry to keep the series firmly in the realm of camp.
In the tradition of Tod Browning’s Freaks, an unavoidable reference (indeed, Murphy and Falchuk get their visual homage to the infamous “one of us” scene out of the way in the second episode), the real villains are very human in Freak Show. The townsfolk of Jupiter, Florida barely conceal their contempt for the carnival at its outskirts, and just like Browning’s film, it doesn’t take much to feel solidarity with Elsa’s monsters after their livelihoods are threatened and Elsa—for all her grandiose, self-serving ideas about how to rocket her freak show to P.T. Barnum levels of fortune and glory—is reduced to a faded, useless shadow of a diva.
Lange is once again playing a woman past her prime hoping for another shot, another route, another moment in the sun. It’s a role that she can play to perfection in her sleep by now, and yet every iteration of it, including this one, possesses a grandstanding ferocity, hiding deep-seated sadness and regret. By its end, Coven was almost singlehandedly held up by Lange and co-star Angela Bassett, with not nearly enough of Lily Rabe’s Stevie Nicks fangirl, but she yields much more of her scene stealing this time around to the show’s supporting players, for better or worse.
The balance of story potential is more evenly spread this time out. Early on, Evan Peters’s flipper-fingered voice of reason displays a barely contained rage as a ready defender of his tribe of misfits against both the outside world and Michael Chiklis’s strongman, who rides into town with his hermaphrodite wife, Desiree (Bassett), complicating already complicated matters for the freak menagerie. Sarah Paulson’s conjoined twins are at the center of the murder driving this season, but their development into fully formed characters will be dependent on whether or not they can break out from the machinations of Elsa’s self-serving ambitions.
A parallel subplot involving Frances Conroy playing Stepford mom to a spoiled brat cringingly named Dandy (Finn Wittrock) possesses a dreamy, abstract quality a la Dario Argento that sets it apart from the main story. At least until Dandy meets this season’s attempt at an iconic monster, Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch). The series switches gears into full-bore slasher fare whenever the ghoulie is on screen, and while a homicidal clown in a season about carnies is pretty low-hanging fruit, Twisty is the stuff of pure, distilled nightmares, every terrifying clown fantasy anyone has ever had all wrapped up into one hulking villain. Every second he’s on screen is frightening in a way the series hasn’t been since Murder House’s Rubber Man.
And yet, all of Twisty’s horrors are rather predictable compared to where Freak Show appears headed: The barely concealed revilement simmering to the surface in the residents of Jupiter, seeking a scapegoat for their fears, promises a brutal battle between society and its outcasts, exemplified by a shot at the end of the second episode of a gang of “normal” criminals closing in on one terrified freak. This social commentary paired with high camp and straight horror makes for a bundle of threads as twisted as the freak-show performers themselves. But, then, every great carnival has a tightrope act.