This week we reached the halfway point in the fourth season of American Horror Story. And Freak Show, true to form, laid down (ahem!) a few new surprises this week in preparation for the rest of the season. Ultimately, though, we’re in some ways right where we started at the beginning of the episode—and that’s the genius of using the dangerous-but-cyclical wheel of death motif in the episode. Elsa determines to make it to TV, whatever the cost; Dandy falls in love; and Stanley urges Maggie to murder. (Spoilers below Pepper and Salty—beware!)
Elsa’s Birthday Shenanigans
Elsa Mars is determined to make it. Of course, we already know this—Elsa herself has shown us this capacity, and she’s also fairly similar to Coven‘s Fiona, the desire for fame and beauty driving forces for them both.
It’s her birthday week, and Elsa is just the sort who would demand a full week’s celebration—and demand she must, as no one feels like celebrating after she returns to the tents without Bette and Dot, who she claims ran off while she was buying them new clothing for their act. (We, of course, know that she dropped them off at the Mott home.)
Elsa is also sleeping with Paul (Mat Fraser), but it’s clear that the relationship between the two is going absolutely nowhere. Elsa is consistently reassuring Paul that they’re not in love and won’t be—and at times the disgust at having to touch Elsa is fairly apparent on his face. Elsa’s conception of the freaks as property is clearly a part of this dalliance, and that fact is underscored when, as Paul is leaving, Elsa asks for her “darling” and is handed Ma Petite, wrapped up in swaddling clothes as though she’s a baby. It’s a wonderfully bizarre scene, and Fraser in particular does a fantastic job of capturing the nuances of the scene–he’s really been a joy to watch this season.
And then Paul is with a woman in her bedroom–it’s Penny, the candy striper from the beginning of the season who was kidnapped by Elsa and drugged while at the tents. This was a confusing bit of cinema, primarily because it had been so long since we’d seen or heard about Penny that her dad was bursting into her room before I remembered who she was. And Penny’s dad is–well–scary. He’s loud and overly protective and very concerned about his daughter’s chastity. Oh, dear.
Paul escapes though. And he’s apparently feeling a bit sentimental because he goes to buy some Venetian Romance, Penny’s perfume of choice. But he runs into Dandy there—and Dandy is buying two headbands, hairbrushes, compact mirrors . . . Just the sort of things one would buy if two girls came to live with one. Uh-oh. When he’s back in the tents, Elsa smells the Venetian Romance. Double uh-oh. She’s furious, but Paul is more able than any others to see through her–and he makes the mistake of mentioning the rumors that she caused the disappearance of the Tattlers.
Cue Elsa’s rage. She makes Paul wake all of the performers and gather them, and she refuses to leave the tent until someone has strapped themselves onto the wheel of death and let her throw knives at them. And suddenly, I’m remembering her voice-over as she threw those knives at the beginning, that discussion of controlling her own fate. Elsa will strap anyone else to that wheel, will kill them all, if it means staying in control of her own fate and achieving fame.
It’s Paul who ends up strapped to the wheel of death. The first two daggers miss him, but the third–it hits him right in the gut. Well, hell. The smirk on Elsa’s face after everyone else files out of the tent tells us that it’s no accident, but she’s convincing enough at wailing and carrying on that most of them think it’s an accident. Not Paul, though. As he lies in her tent bleeding, he is all too aware that she never called an ambulance.
After an altercation with her father, Penny arrives at the tents, and a jealous Elsa looks on as she begins to try to take care of Paul.
Stanley and Maggie
Stanley is getting antsy for a sale. What he wants are Jimmy’s lobster hands, something small and easy to transport, but Maggie cannot bear the thought of losing Jimmy. She details a plan to escape with Ma Petite. We’re led to believe that Maggie drowns Ma Petite in formaldehyde in what is one of the creepiest scenes that the show offers up this week. But it loses some of its bite because, much like the Pink Cupcakes, this is just an imagining. And ultimately, Maggie cannot go through with the plan, returning Ma Petite to camp after “butterfly hunting” early one morning.
Stanley is angry at Maggie’s failure. And he probably would be angrier still if he knew that Maggie was on the verge of leaving with Jimmy. Stanley says they’ll go back to his original plan–luring Jimmy into the barn and cutting off his hands. Ultimately, though, Stanley and Maggie are still where they were last week, waiting on a pay-day.
Meanwhile, at the Mott Home
Dandy is trying to woo the Tattler sisters. And he’s having an easy enough time with Bette, who is entranced by his money, manners, and affection. Dot hates the “gilded cage” that they’re obviously in, and she’s still in love with Jimmy. But when Dandy mentions a successful surgery separating conjoined twins, though, Dot realizes that he could be the answer to her problems (of course, she’s been trying to kill her sister since episode one). He is rich, and his money would more than pay for the surgery that would separate her from Bette.
Dandy can’t stand to not see what’s being written in those diaries of the girls’, though, especially Dot’s. She’s the one who isn’t quite taken with him, and it’s obvious that she barely tolerates him because she has to. And so he reads the girls’ diaries, and he’s broken by what he finds. Bette, of course, is head-over-heels, but Dot calls him a man-boy, writes about using him to eventually separate herself from her sister.
It seems that next week Dandy will return to his cold killer persona. There’s a desert inside him, an emptiness. What we’re seeing is the evolution of a killer.
The Final Scene
Tensions rise between Ethel and Elsa–in this week’s final scene, Ethel is the sole celebrator of Elsa’s birthday evening. She cuts Elsa a slice of cake, and as she lights the candle for the birthday girl, she assures Elsa that if she orchestrated the disappearance of the Tattler sisters, she’ll kill her.
Episode Grade: B+. There’s some really interesting stuff going on in this episode, and the acting is phenomenal. The plot spins its wheels a bit, though that works with the metaphor of the wheel of death to create a mixed metaphor that mostly works.