Review: American Horror Story Freak Show “Pink Cupcakes”

After last week’s good-but-not-great Halloween episode, American Horror Story Freak Show came back with a bang this week. For the first time, we got what seemed to be flash-forwards, learned more about Dandy’s father, and Gabourey Sidibe re-joined the cast.

In the cold-open, Maggie and Stanley stand in a well-dressed crowd at the American Morbidity Museum–they’re clearly at an exhibit opening. I’ve got a sinking feeling, as there’s a huge space roped off behind our tour guide, and Maggie and Stanley look very pleased with themselves. And then–yes—the “Modern Mutations” exhibit title confirms what comes next: the unveiling of an exhibit, but this is Paul the Illustrated Seal. (Warning: The part with major spoilers comes next!)

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Maggie, Stanley, Dell, and Elsa

Maggie and Stanley are in a hotel room talking about their plans for the freak show. Stanley wants to kill them all and sell their bodies: he has long-term plans to kill and sell the freaks to the museum, transporting their bodies in tanks of formaldehyde, and so he must be able to maintain access to Elsa and the rest of the show through Maggie. She’s not overly-fond of the murder plans, but Maggie agrees to continue on in exchange for a 5% profit increase. And Stanley needs to get rid of his gay porn, too.

Or maybe he shouldn’t. Back in Jupiter, where the troupe is getting ready for the sold-out show, but Dell is nowhere to be found. That’s because he’s in a gay bar across town, talking with his lover (Matt Bomer). At least, Dell thinks this is his lover. But the lover quickly makes it clear that this is a job, and Dell isn’t his only customer. And Elsa is being wooed by Stanley. At least, he’s attempting to woo her. He promises her TV stardom, but that isn’t what she wants. In a fantastic Jessica-Lange-is-a-diva moment, Elsa Mars registers her extreme distaste for television, for the “little black box” that is killing the silver screen. Alas, Stanley, no dice on this one.

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Jimmy, Ethel, and Desiree

Jimmy is sent to search for Dell, but he’s not in his trailer. Desiree is there, though, and she’s not ready to perform. Instead, she’s taking shots and lamenting her deteriorating relationship with Dell. Jimmy sits down with her and begins to unload his thoughts about Meep’s death, his guilt overbearing (new drinking game—every time Jimmy says “Meep,” drink). Jimmy, reeling from Maggie’s rejection earlier (she’s clearly trying to save him, but he can’t know that) leans over to kiss Desiree. They are just about to have sexy-times when she starts bleeding profusely. Jimmy runs for help, and still no one can find Dell, but Ethel and Elsa whisk Desiree away.

The show must go on, though, and go on it does. Elsa starts to reprise her grand finale, “Life on Mars,” but the crowd isn’t receptive. They begin laughing and talking while she sings, and the panic starts to rise for Elsa—we see her looking around frantically as the crowd becomes more and more restless. The crowd begins throwing things at her, jeering at her, and she has to be whisked off-stage by Jimmy. She’s ready for Stanley’s help, now.

It’s Ethel who comes to Desiree’s rescue, and she takes Desiree to the kind doctor who helped her. In a phenomenal, moving moment, we see Desiree have her first exam since childhood, hear her story. It works all the better without the flashbacks that have marked the other backstories we’ve heard. We see Desiree, nervous and uncertain, her gorgeous-Angela-Basset-in-red-lipstick face, talk about being born and confirmed a boy, the pride of his mother until puberty, when he grew three breasts and started menstruating. But the doctor has news for Desiree. She was never a boy at all—she has an enlarged clitoris, not a “dingaling,” and her third breast was probably developed because of an overcompensation of estrogen. She can even have babies; the blood that sent her to the doctor was from a miscarriage.

But Ethel knows how dangerous it is to have a baby with Dell. And when Dell returns to the trailer, it’s clear that Ethel has told Desiree all about Dell’s past. She knows that Jimmy is his son. And she’s moving to Ethel’s trailer. This time, she’s done with Dell. The doctor is going to operate on her, make her look more normal, and she’ll be a freak no more. But Dell cannot allow this to stand. He goes to visit the good doctor, and he breaks the doctor’s hands for daring to touch his wife. Gosh, but Dell is horrible. His comeuppance is one that I’m rather excited to see.

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Dandy, Andy, and Gloria

Across town, Dandy is proving scarier than ever. He tries to pretend not to know how Dora died, but Gloria sees right through the facade and knows it’s his doing. She seems to have resigned herself to Dandy’s horrid proclivities, though. She sends him to his room while she decides what to do. And of course, What to Do is to plant exotic bulbs on top of a 12 foot grave while chatting about inbreeding and the violent tendencies of the upper class. It seems that Dandy’s father had his own such, and Dandy is headed down the same path. If he’d just been an actor, he says, all of this could’ve been avoided.

But since it couldn’t be avoided, Dandy begins to hone his skills. Locked away in his room, he meditates on what he’ll do. He’s not a clown. His “body is America. Strong, violent, and full of limitless potential.” He’s rich, and he’s white. And he’s Dangerous. He’s Patrick Bateman with a Ryan Murphy twist.

And he’s off to kill, off to hunt. It’s Andy (Matt Bomer) he meets up with, and in one of the most grueling slasher scenes that I’ve seen on TV, he takes Andy back to Twisty’s old trailer, ostensibly for a rendezvous, but actually to murder him. The mirrored characters–Andy and Dandy, whose costumes are inverse of one another, who look strikingly similar—make the moment that Dandy stabs Andy over and over with a small knife even more horrifying. Dandy is clearly a newbie killer, unaware of how much force it takes to kill someone, and Andy’s death is dragged out through multiple stabbings and the beginning of dismemberment to get rid of the body. Oh, Andy.

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Bette, Dot, and the Pink Cupcakes

And in one last twisty-bendy side-plot, we see a two-headed woman in the American Morbidity Museum exhibit—we see Bette and Dot, presumably in another flash forward. Then we move backwards to Elsa readying herself to go out with Stanley, only to be beaten to the punch by Bette and Dot.

Stanley takes Bette and Dot on a picnic, where he offers them a similar deal to that offered by Elsa. He offers them cupcakes laced with poison. Bette takes one, and of course it makes her terribly ill. Later, the two lie in bed, Bette having become so weak that Dot can no longer hear her, and Stanley is able to suffocate them. Only—just kidding. We’re back on the picnic, and Dot is watching her figure. No cupcakes.

But Elsa proves to be just as threatening to Bette and Dot as Stanley. She promises to take them to buy new clothes for their act. Across town, Gloria laments the loss of Dora and tries to hide her death from Dora’s daughter (Sidibe), who calls to check on her mother. She puts the phone down, and Elsa Mars shows up at her doorstep. She has something Gloria wants, and I think it’s Bette and Dot.

Next week, it seems we’ll see if I’m correct in that assumption.

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Episode grade: A-. There was a lot going on in this episode, but it was very solidly played out, and it feels like a breath of fresh air after last week’s episode.

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Thursday Thirteen: TV Shows I Wish I had Time to Blog

The Thursday Thirteen is a meme-type post invented by PartTimeMonster. It’s a freestyle feature. Just blog about 13 things and make them into a coherent list, is the game. I think of it as a Top Ten Tuesday and a weekend coffee post rolled into one, only published on Thursday. And why 13? Because Diana, iconoclast that she is, thinks of 13 as a lucky number. She even made us a graphic:

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Here are 13 TV shows I’d blog if I had the time to do it. I’m behind on some of them, but I love them all.

1. Hell on Wheels (AMC). A former Mississippi plantation owner goes west after the war on a quest for revenge and becomes an important player in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. It’s as gritty and violent as a basic cable tv show can be, but the violence is never gratuitous. The cast is stellar and the writers make the most of them. This is one of those shows I just don’t miss.

bwempire2. Boardwalk Empire (HBO). Prohibition-era gangsters. Steve Buscemi. That’s all I really need to say about it. I’ve followed this show from the beginning, and it’s my favorite HBO offering since Deadwood. I’m eager to see how this final season turns out, and trying to figure out where I’m going to get my gangster fix once it’s done.

3. Da Vinci’s Demons (STARZ). Follows the intrigues and adventures of Leonardo Da Vinci and Lorenzo di Medici. The production isn’t as good as most of the other shows on the list, but the acting is fantastic and the stories are interesting. I binged on the latest season a couple of weeks ago, and I want more already. If you have STARZ and you haven’t checked out their original programming, they’re definitely worth a look.

4. Justified (FX). Crime drama based on Elmore Leonard characters set in Harlan County, Kentucky. This is another one I’ve followed from the beginning. Its quality is uneven, but Timothy Olyphant and and Walton Goggins more than make up for that. I’m looking forward to the final season and hoping for an appropriate ending. It has the best theme music on television:

5. Sons of Anarchy (FX). All about the family and criminal drama of a gun-running outlaw motorcycle club from northern California. It’s set in the same continuity as The Shield, which makes it even more interesting. Its only weaknesses are that Charlie Hunnam has never really been convincing as Jax Teller, and it’s not the same show without Ron Perlman. The final season is shaping up to be a barn-burner. I’m hoping we get another show set in the same continuity once it’s done.

6. The Walking Dead (AMC). I missed the second half of the last season, so I’m behind. Sometimes TWD is my favorite show. Sometimes I wonder why I’m still watching. It’s definitely bloggable, though, and it’s been more good that bad so far. I’m looking forward to the new season and I am trying to find the time to get caught up.musketeers

7.  Musketeers (BBC). A standard action-adventure drama about Dumas’ Musketeers, with Peter Capaldi as Richelieu. It’s sometimes funny and sometimes tense, but there’s always a sword fight brewing. If you enjoy character-driven action/adventure, this one is for you. They also have cool pistols.

8. House of Cards (Netflix). Kevin Spacey is a Congressman. A ruthless and powerful Congressman. He doesn’t get on well with the President. He has an equally ruthless and powerful wife (Robin Wright). Based on a BBC miniseries with the same title. I’ve only seen the first season because I don’t have a subscription to Netflix. If you’re in the same boat as me with Internet subscription services, this is the best show you’ve never seen. I’m hoping to pay my sister a visit at some point and binge on the latest season.

9. Orphan Black (BBC). A sci-fi show about clones, all played by Tatiana Maslany, who does an awesome job with the character acting. I missed the second season, but I’m hoping to catch up before the third one airs next year.

10. Turn: Washington’s Spies (AMC). I’ve only seen a couple of episodes, but I was so impressed I put it near the top of my “to watch” list. AMC really does know drama. I’m interested to see how this one plays with the wider audience, and I hope it survives. I’m already thinking of it as a too-good-to miss program.

11. Penny Dreadful (Showtime). This is another one I missed entirely, but Diana reviewed every episode here and she sold me. This is another one I need to catch up on if I ever get the blogs far enough ahead to take a television weekend.

blacksails12. Black Sails (STARZ). I started the first season couple of weeks ago because, strangely, I was out of free things to watch. It’s a pirate drama featuring a few of Stevenson’s Treasure Island characters, some historic pirates, and a well-armed Spanish treasure galleon for them to hunt. Acting and production are superb. I’m hoping STARZ doesn’t cancel it.

13. Gotham (Fox). Crime drama focusing on the origins of well-known supervillains from the DC Universe. I watched the first episode out of curiosity. It’s too early to give an opinion for certain, but it looks like a show I could get hooked on and the early reviews are positive.

Honorable mentions: Ripper Street (BBC), The Americans (AMC), Masters of Sex (Showtime), Ray Donovan (Showtime), Vikings (The History Channel)

Doctor Who Series 8, Episode 2 Review: “Into the Dalek”

by William Hohmeister

The Doctor, Clara, and a group of soldiers in the future, try to repair a Dalek with a conscience in the second episode of series 8 Doctor Who, “Into the Dalek.”

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is not a nice man, and he’s not sympathetic. He rescues a ship pilot, Journey Blue (Zawe Ashton), from a pursuing Dalek warship just as her ship explodes with her dying brother inside. Journey, upset and confused, pulls a gun on the Doctor. He shows no concern, and mocks her. Journey screams that her brother just died, but the Doctor responds: “His sister [Journey] didn’t. You’re welcome.”

Journey is part of the Combined Galactic Resistance, on board a hidden hospital ship, the Aristotle. Her commander and uncle, Morgan Blue (Michael Smiley), shows the Doctor a captured, injured Dalek. The Doctor is disgusted by it, but becomes intrigued when the Dalek says “All Daleks must be destroyed!”

DannyPinkOn earth, Clara (Jenna Louise-Coleman) meets Daniel Pink (Samuel Anderson), a new teacher and former soldier. She makes plans with him, but leaves when the Doctor arrives to collect her. Gene’O has some interesting ideas about Mr. Pink over at Part Time Monster.

Clara and the Doctor discuss the possibility of a “good” Dalek. This is my first problem with the episode. The Dalek shows no morality. It wants to kill the Daleks, but that doesn’t make it “good.” The possibility of a moral Dalek is the only thing that interests the Doctor, however. The Doctor shows no empathy, and when he introduces Clara to the soldiers, we get this:

Clara: I’m his carer.

The Doctor: Yeah, my carer. She cares so I don’t have to.

The Doctor has no reason to help with the Dalek other than the false assumption that wanting to kill its own kind makes it “good.” It bogged the episode down for me until the midpoint.

The Doctor, Clara, and a group of soldiers led by Journey shrink themselves and physically enter the Dalek. The Doctor names it Rusty, and talks about the memory drive that keeps all Daleks pure hatred. Antibodies attack the group. The Doctor shows what a bastard he is.

The Doctor sacrifices one soldier to escape with the others into the people-slurry that feeds the Dalek. The Doctor jokes that the top layer of the slurry is probably the dead soldier. At this point, the Companion should confront the Doctor about his actions. This generates sympathy and interest for the Companion, allows the audience to understand the alien Doctor’s actions, and humanizes his character. For a great example, watch “Daleks in Manhattan” in series 3. Martha Jones acts as a foil to the Doctor’s decision to help the Daleks.

Instead, Clara makes excuses for the Doctor. At this point, the only character I like and empathize with is Journey, who I think takes up the Companion’s role. The Doctor is supposed to be unsympathetic, but this makes Clara seem heartless, which I think is a mistake. Clara and Journey probably should have been combined into a likeable Clara.

They find and repair the radiation leak that was poisoning Rusty. Unfortunately, the leak was also the source of Rusty’s change of heart. It breaks free, kills most of the soldiers not miniaturized, and contacts the Dalek warship, which boards the Aristotle.

Clara comes up with a solution after finally getting fed up with the Doctor and slapping him. This moment did make me like Clara briefly. She climbs up to Rusty’s memory drive and gives it access to all its memories, as the Doctor mind-melds with it. He expects the Dalek to be overcome with goodness; Rusty sees only hatred of the Daleks.

Rusty betrays the invading Daleks and saves the ship. It leaves, but as the Doctor prepares to go, Journey asks to go with him. The Doctor refuses because she is a soldier. Again, Clara does not object, although I think this is more selfish and cowardly than leaving the soldier to die in Rusty. Even the Doctor’s disgust in Rusty feels selfish; the Dalek begins and ends the episode by saying the Daleks must be destroyed. The only change is that, in between, it hurt the Doctor’s feelings.

Missy (Michelle Gomez) rescues one of the soldiers and introduces them to heaven as the episode ends. missyShe seems to be the plot arc, but I’m more interested in the Daleks. The Dalek duplicates (Daleks disguised as other species) are still around, and the Combined Galactic Resistance indicates the Daleks of the future are not a local problem. The argument against returning the Time Lords is the possibility of a new Time War. But Time Lords or no, the Daleks will eventually destroy the universe if they’re unopposed – and the Doctor seems uninterested.

Other things of interest: Journey Blue and Danny Pink share a soldier background and color surnames. The Daleks call the Resistance “rebels”, though we’re told the Daleks don’t leave wounded. I think these may be related (again, thanks to Gene’O for pointing it out).

Let me know what you think of the episode and speculate for the future in the comments, or on Twitter.

Doctor Who Series 8 Episode 1 Review

by William Hohmeister

Question: You take a broom. You replace the handle; and then later, you replace the brush. And you do that, over and over again. Is it still the same broom? Answer: No, of course it isn’t!

Doctor Who series 8 is here! Peter Capaldi plays the new Doctor*, and Jenna Louise-Coleman continues to travel with him as Clara Oswald. Clara is the first Companion since Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) to witness the Doctor’s regeneration. The first episode, “Deep Breath”, picks up directly after the end of series 7.

A dinosaur wanders in the Thames as Vastra (Neve McIntosh) and her wife Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart) investigate. Vastra offers sonic lamps to corral the t-rex, just as it spits out the Tardis. The Doctor, who at the end of series 7 asked Clara if she knew how to fly the Tardis, is still having some trouble with it.

The Doctor seems almost senile at first. He does not remember anyone’s name at first, simply describing Strax (Dan Starkey) as Grumpy, one of the seven dwarves, and Vastra as “the green one.” He passes out, and Vastra takes him to her estate. He fights against going to sleep, but Vastra tricks him into it. She, Jenny, and Clara talk about the nature of regeneration.

Vastra, Jenny, and Strax are my favorite characters of the series. Strax is an eternally-concussed Sontaran nurse, and Vastra is a Silurian married to the human Jenny. They’re fanservice, but they are used so sparingly it works. And Jenny and Vastra have the most realistic, healthiest relationship on the show.

A Clockwork Droid, similar to those seen in “The Girl in the Fireplace”, steals organs from people and dinosaurs to keep himself functional, then burns the bodies to cover up the theft. The Doctor and the others race to the burning dinosaur in time to spot the Droid, and the Doctor escapes by jumping into the Thames.

The Doctor continues to struggle through his confusion, as he terrorizes and nearly mugs a hobo. Peter Capaldi first appeared in “The Fires of Pompeii” as Caecilius, and the Doctor seems aware of this. He thinks his prior incarnation (Matt Smith) sent a message by choosing this face, but he doesn’t understand the message.

The Doctor and Clara both answer an ad for the “Impossible Girl” at a restaurant. Each believes the other wrote it. The Doctor quickly realizes the restaurant is a trap, but too late to escape. He and Clara descend into a spaceship beneath the restaurant. The Doctor realizes what the Droids are, but as they wake up he abandons Clara. He comes back after the capture Clara, but he is a bit of a coward; he had no way to know they wouldn’t kill her outright, or that she would be able to hide.

Jenny, Strax, Vastra, and Clara fight off the robot flunkies as the control Droid escapes in a balloon made of skin. It looks like a giant testicle. Earlier, the Doctor wore a flesh mask he stole off a Droid. Either someone didn’t think this macabre turn of events through, or everyone on the set had a good laugh with this episode.

The Doctor develops a lot in this episode, and gives some interesting insights into the regeneration process and the continuing character of the Doctor. A massive blast of time energy, such as the time vortex of the Tardis (“The Parting of the Ways”) or receiving a new set of regenerations (“The Time of the Doctor”), knocks him out and confuses him. Compare this to Matt Smith, who got right back up after regenerating, possibly because it was his last one.

The Doctor confronts the control Droid in the Scrotulloon (scrotum+balloon). He tries to convince the Droid that its life is hollow and meaningless. He claims the “promised land” the Droid searches for is a superstition, a result of “cramming so much humanity in there.” He also says the quote at the top of this article:

“Question: You take a broom. You replace the handle; and then later, you replace the brush. And you do that, over and over again. Is it still the same broom? Answer: No, of course it isn’t!”

If this applies to the Droid, does it not also apply to the Doctor? He changes faces, bodies, even personalities; he has the knowledge and history of his past incarnations, but when Matt Smith leaves him a message, the new Doctor can’t decipher it. When Clara decides to leave, however, the previous Doctor calls her and asks her to stay and help him. The new Doctor echoes Matt Smith’s lines, so he must remember something. How much of the Doctor is just the character’s history mingled with the new person, and how much is a continuing consciousness?

I like this ending. The Doctor is unusually vulnerable and open, and has to trust Clara rather than the reverse. While Matt Smith asks Clara to help, the new Doctor begs Clara to: “Just see me.” His faith is rewarded when she changes her mind, and they continue to travel together.

The final scene is a bizarre epilogue, featuring the control Droid in “heaven”, with a woman named Missy (Michelle Gomez), who claims to be the Doctor’s girlfriend.

*The Doctor’s numbering is off. Capaldi should be the Twelfth Doctor, but because John Hurt is also technically a Doctor, he’s actually the Thirteenth – making Eccleston the Tenth, Tennant the Eleventh, and Smith the Twelfth. I imagine this would be confusing, however, so unless it’s an issue in the story I’ll refer to the Doctor from now on by his actor’s name or just…