Tweetable Takeaway: With “Freak Show,” Ryan Murphy invites us to become one of them.
Airtime: Wed., at 10pm on FX
By: Emily Schmitt, Contributor
A two-headed woman. A man with lobster claws for hands. The world’s smallest woman. These are just a few of the “freaks” who live under the big top in the latest chapter of Ryan Murphy’s mad, mad world. AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW is the fourth installment of Murphy’s anthology series on FX. We’ve been to a serially haunted house, an asylum, and a witch’s coven. Now it’s time for the circus.
Freak Show is set in the small town of Jupiter, Florida in 1952, and as the multitude of promos have indicated, the show revolves around one of the last remaining freak shows in the country. See, back in the day, people paid a nickel to gather around and gawk at people who were born with physical abnormalities. The spectacle was not unlike today’s reality TV and celebrity culture craze – though without the lobster claws and bearded women. But beyond the world of the freak show, the story itself seems to want to hone in on one woman: Elsa Mars. Played by Jessica Lange, who has appeared in all four chapters of AHS, Elsa is a German stage performer who is missing her legs below the knees. (It’s currently unclear if she was born like this or something happened to her.) She delights in extravagance and comfort, seeing herself as the grand dame of the stage, and wants to keep that feeling alive, whatever the cost.
But beyond that, the driving point of Freak Show is a woman’s desperation to put a family together – a family of freak, true geeks, and outcasts who can be brought together by their otherness, their weirdness, their inherent apartness. Elsa believes she is rescuing the wretched from the outside world and bringing them into something beautiful, somewhere they belong. She has leased a plot of farmland to set up her camp and gather her family together under one big top.
Ryan Murphy, who created AHS and directed this episode, seems to have a fascination with things that could be described as abnormal, beyond-normal, or just plain grotesque and bizarre. A celebration of otherness is thematic throughout his work. Glee began as tribute to the high school outsider. The New Normal, however short-lived it was, tried to, well, normalize what is still considered by many to be an abnormal family unit. And American Horror Story has always been about highlighting the worst of people. If it’s weird, strange, startling, offensive, or unthinkable, Murphy wants to show it to you.
What is clear from “Monsters Among Us” (and really just the fact that the season is set at a freak show) is that Murphy and the writers are drawing from Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks. Featuring a cast (if they can be described as such) of real carnival sideshow performers, it was, to say the very least, incredibly shocking to audiences of the time. The film, like Freak Show, was about the family that can be created when otherwise shunned and outcast people are brought together. The most memorable line of the film – a line that has permeated film culture and inspired the title of this episode – comes when the character of Cleopatra (a “normal”) is initiated into the sideshow. The other performers chant: “We accept her, one of us.” One of us indeed.
But wait, the promos showed a two-headed woman! What about the two-headed woman? Ah yes. Bette and Dot Tattler, conjoined twins played by Sarah Paulson, who has likely been taking notes from Tatiana Maslany on how to play multiple, distinct characters with the same face. And Paulson very does well. There is no mistaking the two sisters. Bette and Dot are, perhaps to a clichéd level, utterly separate individuals who just so happen to have two bladders, three kidneys, four lungs, two hearts, and shared circulatory system. That part is important. What hurts one hurts the other. There is no escaping that. Bette is the sweet, wide-eyed dreamer excited about the prospects ahead of her, while Dot is the angry cynic who just wants to live a quiet life. Oh, and they share thoughts telepathically despite not sharing any part of their individual brains.
Like Cleopatra before them, Bette and Dot are drawn into the freak show. After the death of their mother – okay, the murder of their mother by Bette herself – the twins are recruited by Elsa to join the freak show. Elsa believes the twins will finally draw a paying crowd to her ailing sideshow and the twins need to escape the cops who are surely coming for them. Bette, who idolizes elegant movies stars and wants to live a big life, is excited about the idea. Dot very obviously isn’t. But where one goes so must the other.
The freak show is populated by a cast of faces familiar to anyone who’s seen even part of one season of AHS. Kathy Bates appears as Ethel, the Bearded Lady. Bates, sounding a bit like John Travolta in Hairspray, is something of the ringleader of the operation. And as always, she is incredibly watchable as an actor. Brought into AHS for the third season, Bates was a welcome addition to the recurring cast. Evan Peters plays Jimmy Darling, Ethel’s son who has ectrodactyly – his fingers have fused into claw-like appendages. Though he seems to be doing okay with them. Jimmy rents himself out to groups of bored housewives as he’s able to employ his usefully shaped hands to pleasure the unsatisfied wives. This is not your mother’s Tupperware party. Though this doesn’t make Jimmy any less of an outsider.
Oddly enough, this isn’t Murphy’s first foray into ectrodactyly. See, before there was AHS and before there was A New Normal, even before there was Glee, there was Nip/Tuck. The medical drama, also created by Murphy, followed the two founders of a highly controversial plastic center – Sean McNamara and Christian Troy. Now, as is the case with any Murphy show that doesn’t center on singing, dancing, or families, Nip/Tuck was a little bit banana nut crazy. By the end of the seven-season run we’d ended up with incest, breasts big enough they could destroy a phone, self-circumcision, and death by Teddy Bear stuffing. And somewhere in between there Dr. McNamara’s wife gave birth to a boy with ectrodactyly. Whereas as that baby received corrective surgery for his condition, Jimmy Darling uses his deformity in the best way he knows how. As is evidenced by his recurring themes and his continued use of actors with actual physical and mental challenges, Murphy has a deep fascination with this.
Meanwhile, the current “villain” of the season is murderous clown with a grotesque smile and a scalp that clearly doesn’t belong to him. He attacks a young couple, killing the man and kidnapping the girl. He later murders another family, kidnapping the young boy all the while grinning his huge-toothed bloody grin. It turns out he’s living in a van down by the river – I mean, he’s living in what looks like a VW bus in the middle of the woods. His attempts to entertain his captives with balloon animals only terrify them, And me. Seriously, does any actually like clowns? Honestly, The Clown is every Are You Afraid of the Dark episode that scared kids into sleepless nights. I would suggest that The Clown is a previous member of the freak show who was excommunicated for being, well, murderous as fuck. But we’ll have to see if that’s the case.
Now, my problem with American Horror Story is that consistently, I’ve enjoyed the first half of the seasons and gotten fed up with the second half. They jump out of the gate hard and fast and gripping, but collapse under the weight of their own inflated and convoluted stories. But there’s a slowness to this first episode of Freak Show that suggests that perhaps Murphy and Co. are taking a slightly different route this time around. It’ll be interesting to see what the sustained action will be. Clearly there will be tension between Bette and Dot about their role in the sideshow, which will put them at odds with each other and with Elsa. And now that Jimmy Darling as murdered a cop who came looking for the twins one has to wonder if that puts him on the path towards becoming another Clown. And besides, Evan Peters has never really fared well in this series.
But the message of Freak Show is clear as anything: The true monsters are the people outside the tents. They are the soulless ones – the true evil. The real beauty of the world exists inside, with the shunned and cast-aside freaks who know exactly who and what they are and do not pretend otherwise. And with AHS: Freak Show, Murphy invites us to become one of them. At least for a little while.