The second episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show This week, the show ups the ante when Twisty gets a Dandy companion and two new members–three-breasted hermaphrodite Desiree Dupree (Angela Basset) and strongman Dell Toledo (Michael Chiklis)–join Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities.
The focus of “Massacres and Matinees” still seems very much on the comparison between the townspeople and the members of the freak show. The freak show is also a family, though, at least a makeshift one, and the show’s writers seem bent on testing the boundaries of that family as it is contrasted with the familial relationship between Gloria and Dandy Mott (who we got to see in terrifying Technicolor this week).
The cold-opening is a fantastic moment of tension—a short conversation, a tiny tin toy robot tracking blood, a 360 degree turn of a toy store full of vintage Halloween decor, and Twisty standing there, waiting. It’s a fantastic visual story, the kind that American Horror Story has thrived on over its past few seasons. The show is good at spectacle; it’s good at visual storytelling. And this week there were lots of stories to tell: (This is the part with spoilers!)
Twisty and Dandy:
Horror has a new odd couple.
In an engrossing scene between Frances Conroy and Finn Whittock, Dandy becomes increasingly agitated with his mother and life at home. And it’s an odd home. A surreal dream of 1950’s pastel cliches, the dining room serves as the perfect place for Dandy to break, and it’s difficult to look away from the mother and son duo.
When Dandy runs out and Gloria wants to cheer him up, she finds, of all people, Twisty the Clown. And somehow she not only survives speaking with him, but she actually hires him to come home and perform for her son. Cue all sorts of weirdness—Gloria hiring a clown for her adult son, Gloria not noticing how frightening Twisty is, etc.
But somehow Twisty was what Dandy needed. They play together, and there are a few really tense moments, times when I couldn’t decide if Twisty was really going to let Dandy live or not. But let him live he does–when Dandy finds the head hidden in Twisty’s clown bag, he doesn’t kill Dandy for finding out; instead, he clubs Dandy and runs away home. It’s as though he’s already recognized a kindred spirit in Dandy, and how right he is. We also see our first glimpse of Twisty underneath the mask here, and it fits perfectly into the moment that Dandy glimpses the head, seeing underneath another of Twisty’s masks and being equally fascinated by it.
Dandy follows Twisty, and when the kidnapped victims manage to stun Twisty and try to run, Dandy is there to pick them up and return the to their captor. The last we see of them this week, Dandy and Twisty carry the captives back into the bus where they were held prisoner. Dandy cheerfully suggests that the cages be improved, and the doors shut.
Bette and Dot
The sisters are out to prove that they’re headliners, though Bette would much rather be the headliner than Dot. But of course it’s Dot who has the talent, and Murphy’s musical interlude once again works as Sarah Paulson’s Dot croons “Criminal” while her Bette looks more and more confused, more and more upset by the crowd’s reaction to her sister and her own inability to perform. Later, Elsa (who also cannot abide the attention Dot receives) plants more seeds of doubt in Bette’s ear. Elsa thus furthers the budding rivalry between the two sisters who share the same body. And we get another dimension to inner and outer struggles. The plot this season seems to be structured very much like the three-ring circus, a kind of nested plot.
The Strongman and The Hermaphrodite
Desiree and Dell are a husband and wife on the run. Dell has a temper, and the two had to leave Chicago after he murdered another man in a jealous rage.
Dell is also, apparently, Jimmy’s father. In a scene where both Chiklis and Bates shine, we’re given flashbacks to a heart-in-throat moment when Dell almost murders his newborn son and is thrown out by Ethel. It’s clear that no one, least of all Jimmy, knows this connection, but it’s also clear that the show is drawing parallels between Jimmy and his father–they both have explosive tempers and rigid belief systems.
Dell and Desiree seem poised as internal dangers to the freak show. They represent, in many ways, the secrets and self-hatred of the freaks. Dell also has all the markings of classic misogynist: He commences yelling that no woman will tell him what to do when Elsa refuses to go along with his idea of holding matinees until the town’s curfew is lifted. And his comments to both Ethel and Desiree suggests his contempt for them, even while displaying a fascination with their androgyny.
In a pivotal moment from the show, the freaks go into a diner in town. Jimmy frequents the diner, but then again, Jimmy’s side-job is pleasuring rich, bored ladies. The townspeople react poorly to the other members of the show, and the scene functions as an example of both how/what pushed the freaks out of the boundaries of society and what would be required to get them back into it. Dell shows his contempt for Jimmy and his attempts at assimilating, then anger at Jimmy’s defiance. He beats Jimmy to a pulp while the other freaks watch, then leaves him for them to haul home.
The Missing Policeman.
Clearly, someone noticed that the policeman that Jimmy oh-so-helpfully dispensed with is missing. The police are convinced that the members of the freak show had something to do with the disappearance, and we get several visits from them during the episode.
When they show up with a search warrant, Jimmy is convinced that he’s going to be able to get rid of Dell—he planted the dead policeman’s badge in Dell’s trailer. But Dell was paying attention, and we get an utter reminder of how dark this show can be, and what to expect from Dell this season, when instead of planting the badge back in Jimmy’s trailer, it’s planted on Meep, one of the smallest and oddest of the troupe, and he is arrested for the crime.
At episode’s end, we see a truck pull into the field, a bundle thrown out of it, and then it drives away. I just knew what it was, the size and the thud and the way poor Meep had been focused on all episode (at episode’s beginning, there are several close-ups of the character, foreshadowing his importance). Jimmy, too, seems to know before he gets to the corpse what he will find, and his howl of agony, as he kneels beside Meep, calls the others, who gather around.
Episode Grade: A-. It’s pretty solid, and I love so much of the visual work here. We’re moving a little slow, but I think that’s an excellent thing so far.
Next week, I hope we’ll see Emma Roberts and that we’ll see more of Twandy, the most frightening duo to hit network television in…Well, in as long as I remember.