Review: American Horror Story Freak Show: Bullseye

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!)

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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 ahs5between 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 ahs1face 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. ahs2But 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.

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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.

Review: American Horror Story Freak Show “Monsters Among Us”

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 casttoo 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.

That clownTwisty (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 betteanddotheart. 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 ethelElsa 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 life on marsobviously 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.

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite TV Shows

The good folks at The Broke and the Bookish have a weekly meme post called Top Ten Tuesday. This week’s topic is favorite movies or TV shows. So here are ten TV series I’ve seen every episode of. These may be the only ten shows I’ve seen the entire run of. I go through phases where I watch very little television, and it was tough to come up with ten of these.

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1. The X Files (1993-2002). Possibly my favorite television show ever, and notable for its long run. I watched it religiously back in the day, but it makes this list because my wife and I watched every episode in syndication the first few years we were married. My favorite episode is the one where we see that the Smoking Man had a hand in the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are awesome, of course. Mitch Pileggi is just as good, and this is the first show I remember seeing him in.

2. The Shield (2002-2008). This one is a close second for “best ever” in my mind. I can’t think of a better police drama. The cast is stellar, the writing is good, and the camera work was exceptional for a basic-cable original series at the time. The best part about it: it put Walton Goggins on the map. It’s one of those rare shows that manages to pull off an anti-climactic, unsatisfying ending but still gives the characters exactly what they deserve.

3. Copper (2012-). A BBC show about New York policemen in the Five Points during the decade after the Civil War. New York’s never looked so much like London on the screen. This is one of my favorite currently-running shows. I’ve never regretted following it for one minute, and I am eager to see how it ends.

4. Justified (2010 – ). Another gem, this one an Elmore Leonard story translated into 5 seasons of awesome television. Set in Harlan County, Kentucky, it’s all about the relationship between U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens and his childhood frenemy Boyd Crowder, a cunning and thoroughly ruthless professional criminal. Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins are phenomenal together. The acting and the dialogue are so good, it’s easy to forgive the uneven quality of the long story arcs from season to season. And it has a theme by Gangstagrass:

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Penny Dreadful: “Grand Guignol” Review

This week marks the season 1 finale of Penny Dreadful, and we get lots of answers. We still didn’t see Dorian’s portrait, but we know what Ethan is, Caliban has a bride, and we found Mina. I’ve mixed feelings about the episode; it felt like a series of “and now for the moment(s) you’ve all been waiting for” spliced together, the stories not as neatly tied together as they’ve been most of the season.

We start out at Sir Malcolm’s mansion, where he and Vanessa are discussing the rescue of Mina. They agree on going to the Guignol that night, and Murray leaves.

Dorian Grey knocks at the door, and Vanessa’s ambivalence is clear. She rejects him, soundly PD8.6and coldly, and Dorian is shocked. Later, when she meets him in the greenhouse, she rejects him again. She cannot be with Dorian, as he unleashes whatever is within her. She says as much, but Dorian, who only knows that she was ill during her possession, clearly doesn’t understand. As she walks away, we see him wipe away a tear. Carney does a nice job of looking bemused at his own sadness here, and Dorian’s complete inexperience with rejection is obvious.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen Ethan sitting at Brona’s bedside. She’s obviously not going to make it, and we’ve all known that for a while. When Ethan leaves to fetch the doctor, though, we get a few new folks. Surprise, Ethan is being hunted! Two Americans wait outside of the inn.

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Sir Malcolm, during this time, is buying a gun. Murray buys a large, semiautomatic weapon with powerful bullets. While there, he meets Madame Kali in the shop. She asks after Vanessa, naturally, given that the last time she saw Vanessa, she was upstaged during the seance. Malcolm lies, claiming that he doesn’t see much of her. It’s clear from his past exploits and the way he carries himself around her that his admonition of wanting to “see more” of Madame Kali is a double entendre. Wonder if this means that we’ll see Madame Kali next season? The scene seems superfluous otherwise.

Meanwhile, Caliban is working in the theater, and nothing is going well. He’s trying to hoist  an actor using a system of pulleys, but they get stuck. Simon, who we know has been seeing Maud, screams at Caliban, calling him monstrous and refusing to work with him any longer. Maud and Vincent stand by while Simon screams, and though Vincent makes a disparaging remark about Simon, it is only after he’s walked off. Rory Kinnear once again manages to get under my skin, his absolute sadness and awkwardness reading as raw emotion when Caliban turns to stare into the empty theater.

A bit later, Maud comes to Caliban’s room, where he is reading. She gives him an orange as an apology and mentions the copy of Paradise Lost that he gave her (I was right!). She quotes from book 10, and included in the quotes is the famous: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mold me man? Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?” This is also the download (16)epigraph from Frankenstein, so my nerd-happy-level skyrocketed right about the time this happened. Anyway, then Maud switches to talking about Simon, attempting the “he didn’t mean it” apology tactic but moving on in the face of Caliban’s “yes he does” retort. She asks if Caliban loves anyone, but responds “love is for others.” She’s saddened by his answer, clearly, and she kisses him on the forehead before returning to her dressing room. Caliban is overcome by this show of affection. (Side note: this is how, in the novel version of Phantom of the Opera, Christine manages to liberate herself and the others trapped by the Phantom.)

Caliban, like most of us, wants more, though, and it’s clear that he hopes he can be beautiful enough for Maud to accept him. He wouldn’t need Victor to make him a bride if he found his own. He puts on stage makeup, brushes his hair, and goes to see Maud, orange in hand to repay her favor. He sneaks up on her, though, and she only becomes aware of his presence by seeing his reflection. Bad start. She giggles at his appearance, and he’s taken aback by her response, especially when she says “you shouldn’t be in here.” Caliban replies that Simon comes back there often, but this frightens Maud, who now knows that he’s been spying on her. He keeps on, asking her to share the orange, but she asks him to leave. He covers her mouth when she moves to scream, pushing her against a wall. I think my fingernails left impressions in my palms during this scene. He comes to his senses though, rushing out of the room and leaving Maud, gasping and terrified, in her room. Vincent, of course, must fire him, and the two share a bittersweet farewell.

Back at the Murray mansion, Vanessa confronts Sir Malcolm about the shipyard. Murray responds harshly to Vanessa, admitting that he only kept her alive as a way of connecting with Mina when Vanessa questions him about why she wasn’t allowed to be part of the excursion to the shipyard.

Caliban has returned to Frankenstein. He has nowhere else to go, no one else to turn to—but Victor is still understandably upset about the murder of Van Helsing. Caliban sits in front of PD8Frankenstein, broken. He begins to talk about what he did in the theater and how unfit he is to be anyone’s mate. Victor raises a gun, quietly moving into position to kill his creation. I wondered if he was really learning how to kill Caliban in that basement shootout with Ethan. Caliban continues to talk, finally coming to “why did you allow me to feel” and, aware of the pistol behind his head, begging for death. Victor can’t do it, though, and there’s a knock at the door just then.

Ethan has come to fetch Victor Frankenstein for help with Brona. Victor leaves Caliban and goes with Ethan, but he finds that he cannot save Brona. We’ve known that almost from her first appearance, though. Victor asks Ethan to fetch a pail of water, and while he is gone, Victor smothers Brona. When Ethan returns, he is heartbroken. Victor allows him to say his goodbyes
but promises that he’ll take care of the body. Uh-huh. Ethan goes to drown his sorrows in drink, where he is confronted by the two men hunting him but manages to best them.

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By this time, it’s evening, and Ethan goes to meet Vanessa, Murray, Sembene, and Victor at the theater. They enter quietly, and after a bit of searching, their light falls on the vampire we’ve been seeing most of the season. A trap door on the stage opens, landing Ethan in a pit of female vampires. While the vampire leaps around, avoiding Vanessa and Malcolm, Ethan, Vincent, and Sembene fight the other vampires. There are too many though. Just in time, however, Vanessa manages to do that stopping-vampires-in-their-tracks thing and Murray has stabbed the vampire, killing him and vanquishing his progeny.

And then Mina appears. She gasps “Vanessa” as she runs from behind a curtain, and everyone is smiling. For a moment. Then Mina’s eyes change to black as she says, in a cold voice “father.” She uses Vanessa as a shield, hand around her throat, but it becomes clear pretty PD8.7quickly that her end-game is getting out of the theater with Vanessa. So we haven’t met the illustrious Master after all. Good. Malcolm pleads with Mina, but only briefly. It’s clear that she doesn’t want to be saved. And so he shoots her. Finally, Sir Malcolm Murray gets something right. I can’t help feeling, though, that this is a anticlimactic way to end the arc of an entire season. It took maybe 15 minutes or so, and Mina’s appearance was brief.

And now story-lines really start closing for the season. We see a shot of Vanessa and Murray at home. They’ve claimed one another as family now, and they are acting it. Murray admits that he’s not going to Africa. Caliban and Victor are in the basement laboratory. Victor draws back the cover from Brona’s body, and Caliban is awash in emotion. We also see Ethan in a bar. The men hunting him have caught up to him, and though he presses to leave him be, they continue trying to take him home (yes, home. To his father, evidently.) But then Ethan turns into a werewolf, like we’ve been waiting for all season, and eats them up. Damn, damn, and double damn. Oh well, at least it looked cool. And then Vanessa walks into a church, listening to hymns, looking for a priest. She finds him and the two talk, mainly about Vanessa wanting an exorcism. The priest assures her that it will be difficult, if it is even possible. He asks “do you really want to be normal.” We see Vanessa, hear her intake of breath, and then there’s a sadly predictable cut. We’ll have to wait for next season, folks.

I’m hoping that we see not only that, but a lot more of Sembene, the most underused character on the show, and of Dorian, the second most underused character on the show. And maybe that we’ll see the Master, and that we’ll see Dorian’s portrait.

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