Last night’s American Horror Story marked the beginning of the fourth season and of the Freak Show plot. It’s 1952, and we’re in Jupiter, Florida. W’re introduced to most of the major characters of the season–circus freaks, a killer clown, and Jessica Lange’s fantastically over-the-top Elsa, a German ex-pat who runs one of the last freak shows. (Friendly Warning: While I’ve tried not to spoil too much, this review does contain some spoilers. Proceed with caution.)
“Monsters Among Us” is an apt title for the installment, as the dynamics between the townspeople of small, sleepy Jupiter and the members of the freak show. As is sometimes hammered in a little too thickly, there is a real question as to who the monsters are, whether its those who stand on display in the freak show or those who live in Jupiter. But then again, there are times when the monster is perfectly clear. In one of the strangest, most uncomfortable scenes in the show, a candy striper who Elsa has brought to the show is made to watch a film of herself “enjoying” being drugged and molested while Elsa declares that her monsters are “the beautiful, heroic ones.” We’re literally watching them commit rape, though, and we see them mutilate a corpse later. One wonders how Elsa defines heroism.
Twisty (John Carroll Lynch) is undoubtedly the show’s most horrifying monster at the moment, though. Twisty is the scariest clown I’ve seen since Pennywise. From the odd patches and stitches on the back of his head to his strange, large mouth and dingy outfit, Twisty’s appearance is calculated to unnerve. He interrupts a canoodling couple when we first see him, and we watch him club and stab the boyfriend before abducting the girlfriend; later, we see him kill again and abduct a young boy. He stashes his victims in his trailer, where he seems bent on psychological torture before fulfilling whatever purpose he has for them. We haven’t yet seen how Twisty’s story connects to the freak show, but we have seen him riding the carousel there alone and watching the freak show members in the woods.
Bette and Dot (Sarah Paulson in dual roles) are blamed for some of the crimes Twisty has committed, though. They are conjoined twins, hidden by their mother until the more impetuous Bette murders the mother and a stricken Dot attempts to kill her sister by stabbing her in the heart. It’s clear that the girls killed their mother, so the supposition is that she was the beginning of a killing spree. But Elsa saves Bette and Dot from the hospital where they are treated for the stab wound, bringing them to the freak show in hopes that they’ll be her new headliner. The two have very different personalities, and Dot is forlorn about their move to the freak show, while Bette is happy to be there.
Jimmy (Evan Peters), the Lobster Boy, is tasked with trying to keep Bette and Dot there, to convince them to be headliners. Peters finally gets to do more than grunt, an unfortunate part of his playing Kyle in the Coven story-line, and it’s worth it. He’s a smooth-talking greaser who pleasures bored housewives to earn money on the side, and his discontent with the show and with Elsa shows. He’s particularly compelling when talking to his mother, Ethel, the Bearded Lady (Kathy Bates, whose accent is inexplicable) about her fascination with Elsa and the show and his desire to get out.
In perhaps the most pivotal moment of this week’s episode, a policeman visits the freak show and attempts to arrest Bette and Dot. Rather than let them be arrested and taken away, Jimmy whistles and is suddenly accompanied by many of the other show members. When the officer calls them “freaks,” Jimmy murders him. Uh-Oh. There’s that whole “who is the monster” thing again, especially as we later see the group collectively mutilate and get rid of the body—all while Twisty looks on.
And somewhere in all of that chaos there is a performance for two lone audience members, mother Gloria (Frances Conroy) and son Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock). They’re wealthy, clearly, and there’s obviously a strange mother-son dynamic going on there. The show must go on, though, even with only 2 audience members, and in an oddly fitting but incredibly anachronistic moment, Jessica Lange belts out “Life On Mars,” David Bowie’s 1973 ballad, while the performers move around her. At episode’s end, we uncover Elsa’s not-so-hidden agenda for bringing Bette and Dot to the show—so that she can get noticed and become a star. We also get the slightly-more-novel revelation that she has no legs.
Grade: A. It’s a good beginning, and though it was a longer than normal episode that had a lot of exposition and introduction, the episode was well-paced.
Next week, it looks like we’ll see Angela Basset’s three-breasted lady and Emma Roberts’s fortune teller characters.