Review: American Horror Story Freak Show, “Curtain Call”

American Horror Story damn near broke my heart last night. The final episode of the the fourth season was one of the least compelling hours of the show I’ve seen, lacking the panache of other episodes and negating much of what happened during the season. There were a few things I knew we’d see–Elsa Mars gets her TV show and the Tattler sisters find their man–but the finality of many of the other story lines was frustrating. (Warning, Spoilers Below.)

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Dandy bought the freak show. I wasn’t surprised that we started here. After all, we’ve watched Dandy’s progression from spoiled man-child to spoiled killing machine. And we’ve always known that he’s fascinated with the freaks–especially the Tattler sisters.

The cast members revolt, though. They don’t want to work for him–and so they won’t. The situation quickly deteriorates, and this is when Dandy dresses in a suit and goes on a shooting rampage, killing every character not played by a series regular. And I cringed. The 15 minutes of rampage seem like such a waste of story-telling and of screen-time. The action is out of character for Dandy. And it’s too clearly a move not to have to give so many characters their what-happened-after stories. It feels like lazy writing. It’s compounded by the fact that some of the most interesting and layered characters were there.

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So after this weird writing thing that happened, we have Desiree, the Tattler sisters, Jimmy, and Elsa Mars left alive. Elsa is gone, fled to Hollywood. Desiree and Jimmy are at the freak show. Dandy has kidnapped Dot and Bette. He married them and talks of having babies with them. They remind him that the can’t have kids with someone who massacred their friends. (Oh, yeah, there’s that.) And, oh, their new maid, who is actually Desiree, has drugged him, so night-night, Dandy.

Desiree, Jimmy, and the Tattler sisters have managed to tie up Dandy and get him into the water torture cell. He says something other about not being able to die just before he does. Bye, bye Dandy. (Also a sad writing decision. Dandy needed a better ending, probably actually to continue killing. He’s a fascinating bad guy.)

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Elsa arrives in Hollywood only to find that it’s a lot more difficult to get noticed than she thought. She has a difficult time getting into the office of ABCBSN network executives. But oh, she has a plan. She waits and waits. And she slaps the secretary when she’s compared to Marlene Dietrich. Dear dear. Anyway she falls in the confrontation, and it’s just then that an executive comes along. He picks her up and dries her tears, and the two hit it off.

Flash forward to 1960. Elsa is a major network TV star and has married that executive who picked her up and dried her tears. Elsa seems to be a show host, some incarnation of Ed Sullivan and/or Lucille Ball, wither husband Michael as her manager. She’s getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

And then we get a LOT of Elsa Mars. I think that, in some ways, what we were seeing was the show bidding farewell to Jessica Lange. Elsa is famous, but she argues with her husband a lot. Massimo comes to visit her once, tells her that he’s been rebuilding villages and that he couldn’t/can’t be with her because he’s ill–he has cancer. The two can’t run away together.

It’s Halloween again, too. Everyone wants her to host a Halloween special, but Elsa doesn’t want to do it. Her life starts to crumble–the 8mm film of Elsa’s legs being chopped off has been found and released; her husband wants a divorce; and always, always that Halloween show. Fine, she says.

Elsa goes on stage. Everyone goes wild as she sings “Heroes.” It’s wonderful. The remaining freaks see Elsa on television–Desiree and her husband (Malcolm Jamal-Warner) watch her on a TV in a storefront; Jimmy comes home to Dot and Bette, and they’re expecting their first child, and they’re watching Elsa on the TV.

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But uh-oh. There’s that whole thing about Halloween. So this of course is where Edward Mordrake returns, Twisty in tow. But Elsa’s soul doesn’t belong with them, even when Mordrake does kill her. Instead, she goes back to the freak show, where Ma Petite and Paul and Ethel and all the others are waiting.

And that’s the end. Freak Show is finished.

Episode Grade: C-. The rapid-fire deaths of so many characters in such an out-of-character way really mars this one for me. It was nice to see Elsa’s goodbye, and nice to watch the cyclical return to the freak show, however.

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That’s it for me on this one, but don’t worry–I’ll be back on Sourcerer with more reviews soon enough, including Season 2 of Penny Dreadful and Black Mirror.

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Review: American Horror Story Freak Show “Show Stoppers”

If this week’s penultimate episode of American Horror Story Freak Show is any indication, we’re going to see a lot of gore in the season finale next week. “Show Stoppers” is a pretty good name for this episode made me laugh while covering my eyes. Remember last week when I said that we were in a batshit crazy new plot with Jamie Brewer and Neil Patrick Harris? Indeed we are, and we got to see more of Chester and Marjorie this week. And Dandy—well, we’ll get there. (Careful: there are spoilers below!)

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At the beginning of the episode, the freaks are hosting a dinner and movie night for Richard Spencer. When it becomes clear that they know all, that no one believes his Richard Spencer story any longer, Stanley is afraid. Understandably so–they’ve got the head of our friend from the American Morbidity Museum in a jar, and they’re moving toward Stanley. They put him on the wheel of death just long enough to make him dizzy, then tell him to run.

They chase him with knives. Oh, Stanley, what have you wrought? Anyway just before they catch Stanley, he throws out a piece of information: Elsa killed Ethel. Perhaps it’s the utter plausibility of it, but it doesn’t take long for everyone to believe it. Either way, goodbye Stanley.

Across the way, Elsa sits with Jimmy. He’s morose, of course, mourning the loss of his hands. And he’s got no hands left to extend in friendship (sorry, couldn’t resist!) to Maggie, who desperately wants his forgiveness. Ah well.

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Also happening is another tryst between Chester and Marjorie and Bette and Dot. Only it seems that Bette and Dot are beginning to be a little put off by Marjorie. They ask Chester to put her on the floor rather than the nearby, and he does. But later, Marjorie berates Chester about the encounter. Chester is forced into admitting to himself that he killed his wife and Alice. Oh, Chester. Bette and Dot, who don’t have Marjorie’s voice to tell them about Chester’s past, are enlightened by Dandy, who shows up at the freak show and gives them a dossier on Chester.

The performers, meanwhile, are having a drink. They really understand, now, that nothing about Ethel’s death makes sense. Because…Well because people do not decide to commit suicide in such an elaborate fashion. Not people like Ethel, especially. Everyone becomes convinced of Elsa’s guilt. Molly, you in danger, girl.

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Elsa, meanwhile, has reunited with Massimo (Danny Huston). They’ve found one another, and oh, Massimo is going to make Jimmy some new hands. In a flashback, we get Massimo’s story after the war. He went looking for the men who hurt Elsa and was imprisoned for a long time by the leader of the group, whose name, I swear, was “Dr. Hans Gruber.” Anyway, by the time he got out, he felt as though he’d lost most of his humanity, his soul, so when Elsa didn’t answer a note he sent her in America, he didn’t come to find her. Well.

Back in the big tent, Chester has called a meeting. He’s the show’s new owner, so he wants to work on the acts. He’s acting more and more crazy, and when Bette and Dot don’t want to be his assistants any longer, he looks like he might explode right there on stage. Everyone seems a little put off, a little anxious around him.

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But for some reason, Maggie doesn’t get the hint of danger, or she doesn’t care, or something. She volunteers to get into the magician’s box. She knows this trick. Except Chester is having One of Those Moments. He sees Maggie not as herself but as Alice/his wife/Marjorie. He chains her feet together. Uh oh. Maggie’s screaming, but everyone seems to be too stunned to move. Chester saws the poor girl in half before anyone movies. When they’re trying to decide what to do afterward, Desiree has what’s the best ever line–“steal her jewelry and bury the bitch.”

So they do. Chester, meanwhile, runs back to his trailer. Marjorie berates him again for what he’s done, says they’ll have to run. Chester stabs Marjorie, and there’s a bloodbath. But when he takes her body to the police station to report the murder, there’s only a small wooden puppet in a blanket. Oh, Chester.

Eve, meanwhile, has to break the news to Jimmy. She finds Jimmy sitting on the bed. He’d been thinking about the first time he was onstage, and we see Ethel introducing her young son onto the stage in 1946. In the present, Eve tells Jimmy about Maggie.She also tells him that the group is going after Elsa for killing Ethel.

But Elsa has friends left. The twins go to her and inform her of the plot to kill her. Elsa doesn’t believe, at first, that her monsters would do such a thing. But Bette and Dot are coldly logical: “you killed their real mother” she tells her. Ethel. “Where will I go” says Elsa. “Anywhere but here” answers Bette. When the girls rally and Desiree leads them with a war cry of “ETHELLLL” and downs a bottle of liquor, they’re disappointed not to find Elsa, but the mob dies down.

Earlier in the evening, Elsa met with Dandy and then left the freak show for good. She sold the show. To. Dandy. Ooooh, my. Dandy walks into the ground of the show, looking for all the world like a kid in a candy store. He basks in the wonder of owning such a thing. And then he hears a scuttling backstage. What is that sound? Ooooh, shit. It’s Stanley. And he’s been……Changed. No arms, no legs. In one of Meep’s costumes.

Shudder.

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Episode Grade: A-. Lots of spooks and thrills, and a few utterly transfixing moments this week in the penultimate episode. Looking forward to the finale. You can catch me live-tweeting it during the episode next week @parttimemonster and reviewing the episode here.

Review: American Horror Story Freak Show, “Magical Thinking”

Freak Show upped the ante last night in its return from the holiday break. In a new and bat-shit crazy plot, the show introduced two new characters in “Magical Thinking,” magician/ventriloquist Chester (Neil Patrick Harris) and Marjorie, his alter-ego/possessed ventriloquist dummy (Jamie Brewer). (Warning, spoilers below!)

OhJimmy

In the cold-open, Jimmy is still in jail, and he’s talking to Stanley. Jimmy desperately wants to hire that lawyer, because he’s afraid that if he stays in jail he’ll be killed. And so he allows Stanley to convince him to sell his hand. Yes. Sell. His. Hand. Oh, Jimmy. Evidently, since Stanley only wants one of them, Jimmy is ok with this. And somehow, he’s ok with trusting a man who is willing to sell his hand to put him under, cut off his hand, and wake him back up. Oh, Jimmy.

Cue Stanley slipping Jimmy something to make him ill, a fake ambulance ride, and surgery. Jimmy wakes up in restraints on a hospital cot. Naturally, Stanley has taken both hands. Oh, Jimmy.

Back in the freak show, Bette and Dot are exploring their sensual side. After their brush with separation and death, the sisters are closer than ever. And, well…Yes. They’re looking for someone to deflower them. Their efforts with Toulouse don’t go so well, but when the travelling salesman and magician Chester wanders into the freak show, Bette and Dot feel like they’ve found The One. Never-mind that in a scene which echoes Dandy’s Frankenstein-ed version of the twins Chester looks at them and sees two women who are Not Bette and Dot.

Chester desperately wants to join the freak show. He’s an aspiring magician. Neil Patrick Harris’s performance is already one for the books–Chester is a WWII vet who ChesterandMarjoriewas on the beach at Normandy and now has a metal plate in his head. He’s also got a doll named Marjorie who is absolutely wicked. But Elsa doesn’t really need a magician. She doesn’t want parlor tricks. What she does want, though, is money, and Chester has money. He also knows how to manage it. So in what might be the worst business decision possibly ever, Elsa hires Chester as a book-keeper and allows him to warm up the crowds before shows.

Back in the hospital, Dell goes to visit Jimmy. He’s shocked to find Jimmy in such a state. Of course, I suppose that’s quite natural, all things considered. Anyway the two have a heart-to-heart, and they decide they’ll go into business together and buy the freak show. And they’ll get Jimmy some new hands.

When Dell returns to the show looking for Stanley, everyone seems terribly surprised about what has happened to Jimmy, but no one really seems all that horrified. It’s all very strange. Eve agrees to help Dell keep Jimmy from being transported back to jail, and people start looking for Stanley.

But not Bette and Dot. They’re in the midst of a discussion with Chester. He wants them to be his assistant for his magic act. He’s found a sawing box, and he wants the to help distract the audience–not because they’re freaks, but because they’re beautiful. But he still sees those other women when he looks at them. And we start to get flashes of his old life, in which he returned home from the war to find his wife Marjorieliving with her new lover, Alice, whose husband died in the war. Alice detests Chester. And Chester is, well…Odd. He wears his uniform 4 years after the war’s end. He insists on keeping his doll, Marjorie, nearby. He doesn’t want to join the sexy-times. Instead, he watches them from a chair beside the bed, Marjorie on his lap. Shudder.

And then we get what might be the weirdest of weird sex scenes. Dot and Bette go to Chester’s tent in their negligee. Chester is initially reluctant. His head starts hurting horribly, and he needs Marjorie to relax him. The twins tell him it’s ok. “Whatever you need,” Dot says. And suddenly, Neil Patrick Harris and two Sarah Paulsons are having sex. And there’s a ventriloquist dummy. It’s all so bizarre that my head still spins a bit.

But, oh dear. Marjorie is unhappy about Chester’s tryst with the twins. That’s when we first really see Majorie as a person rather than just the doll, in a flash back. And she’s terrifying. Jamie Brewer (whose voice I was thrilled to recognize, and I’m glad she’s getting screen-time) is back, and she’s bludgeoning people with hammers and giggling about it. No idea if she’s some kind of specter that inhabits the dummy or a Mrs.-Bates-style other personality manifested  through the doll, but either way, she’s fascinating. .

Chester, meanwhile, has bought the freak show from Elsa for the sum of $1,000. Elsa insists that the show remain intact and in its regular order. She gives Chester some serious side-eye when he says he’ll give the big tent to Marjorie, but she says nothing.

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Dell and Eve do manage to break Jimmy out, using the old throw-a-rock-through-the-window-then-beat-the-cops-to-death trick. It’s no surprise, then, when the police show up at the freak show looking for Jimmy and the bodies of the dead policemen, but they don’t find anything.

Dandy shows up at the freak show and meets Chester. He tells him that Marjorie is angry, that she’s waiting for Chester in the big tent. I cannot wait to see how Harris and Wittrock play Dandy and Chester off one another. And Marjorie is waiting. She delivers the news that Chester must do the dirty work this time, must saw the twins in half–for real this time, not in the magician sort of way. See, delightfully wicked.

Finally, Maggie returns to the big tent, and she has something to show Elsa. It’s Ma Petite in the preservation jar. And in their trailer, Desiree confronts Dell. At first he denies what he’s done, but eventually he admits to killing Ma Petite. And then he’s shot in the head–Elsa heard what she needed to hear.

Next week, it looks like we’ll see the return of Massimo, presumably to craft Jimmy some new hands, and we’ll certainly see more of Marjorie and Chester.

Episode grade: A. This was a freaky, horrific episode to begin the season’s downswing and closing arc. A solid episode.

Review: American Horror Story Freak Show “Orphans”

Oh, man. Oh, guys. American Horror Story, for the first time in its 4 year run, made me feel a bit weepy last night. “Orphans” marked the fall finale for the show, which will take a two week hiatus before returning with new episodes (some of which feature Neil Patrick Harris and Jamie Brewer!!) beginning on January 7th. As an episode it’s a bit saggy, trying to do too much with too many characters, but parts of it were so, so good. Maggie cried, Jimmy stayed locked away in prison, and now we know all about Pepper, including how she got to the asylum. And it’s heart-breaking. (Warning–spoilers below!!)

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Naomi Grossman as Pepper

And oh, Pepper. At the start of the episode, Pepper’s partner, Salty, has died. Pepper is distraught. She won’t leave his body, and Elsa has a difficult time convincing her to eat. Theoretically, at least, Salty’s death was a natural one, a stroke. Pepper is distraught. She won’t leave his body, and Elsa has a difficult time convincing her to eat. When she finally convinces Pepper that Salty’s gone, to give up the body, she has no idea what to do with Salty. Stanley does, though. Cut to Stanley hacking away at Salty’s neck, smoke encircling them both, then seeing Salty’s head in a jar, and I’m finding the idea of a stroke a little….Suspect.

Anyway, Desiree steps in to comfort Pepper. She assumes a very motherly position, Pepper curled in her lap while she reads The Velveteen Rabbit. But when she has to leave, Pepper is enraged. So she goes to talk with Elsa, of course, and through Elsa we find out about Pepper’s background.

Just after the war, Elsa moved to the States and started the carnival circuit as a singer/dancer. She found it difficult to get noticed, though, difficult to be a star in

New Orleans sideshow and burlesque performer Ri Dickulous in "Orphans"

New Orleans sideshow and burlesque performer Ri Dickulous in “Orphans”

someone else’s world. And she didn’t like working for anyone. She decided to create her own show, her own collection of oddities that would be both family and underlings. Cue Elsa’s profound ambivalence toward the freaks in the show.

Pepper’s parents died, and her sister couldn’t care for her, so she was dropped off at an orphanage. This is where Elsa found her, at the age of 18, after befriending Pepper, the simply walked out of the door together. Elsa and Pepper went to Jupiter together, and the crowd loved Pepper. It wasn’t long before a rich Indian gentleman came to the carnival, and with him he brought Ma Petite. She was his “pet,” but Elsa convinced him to part with her for 3 cases of Dr. Pepper. Hmm. Anyway Ma Petite became a sort of surrogate child for Pepper.

But still Pepper wanted more. She wanted companionship. Elsa sent a series of letters, ultimately resulting in the arrival of Salty. And it was love at first sight. And there was a lovely, bizarre wedding for the two of them, and it was beautiful.

Cut to the present, where Desiree and her beau are making a night of it. They’re in Maggie Esmeralda’s tent, and she’s using her Powers of Observation to tell their future. Only she’s a little drunk and a lot psychotic, given Jimmy’s predicament and their overall relationship, so she yells about how everything will be awful and end and blah-blah-blah. Later, Maggie sits on the merry-go-round, drinking, in the same spot we once saw Twisty. Desiree confronts her, and for some reason, Maggie decides to entirely spill the beans about Stanley, about being on the grift…But not about what they’re actually doing there. At least, not at first.

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