American Horror Story: Freak Show, the fourth installment of Ryan Murphy’s depraved opera of camp, bad deeds, and disturbia, is set in Florida.
You have to love a guy with a sense of humor.
While infused with Murphy’s signature, sly, self-aware wit both in conception (the freaks are in Florida!) and execution—as much as his American Horror Story series have been an homage to tenets, tropes, and clichés of the classic horror genre, they mock them with diabolical glee—Freak Show is actually remarkably scaled back in campy comedic bite when compared to his last iteration, Coven. In fact, Freak Show dials back on everything that was set to 11: the delicious one-liners, the unabashed scenery chewing, and even the overt scare tactics.
The result is a Freak Show that, aside from its cast of Ripley’s-ready characters, is remarkably un-freaky.
Instead it’s a more dingy, moody melodrama that disturbs—and, therefore, delights—by drawing you into the seedy shop of horrors set up under the circus tent and leaving you to live uneasy among its uncouth, unsightly, and unhinged characters. The outright boo!s and buckets of blood that have come to define the series so far have made way, it seems, for a storyline that plans to mine its frights in a slow-boiled plot development—though “story development” and “Ryan Murphy” in the same sentence might actually be as shocking as a creature jumping out from under the bed.
Don’t be confused. This is still American Horror Story. It is still out of its damn mind, and blessedly so. There is a psycho clown serial killer that will haunt your dreams until the end of time and a man with fingers that have deformed themselves into flippers that he uses to masturbate women for money and there is Kathy Bates wearing a beard.
But there’s also a perception that maybe, just maybe, there’s a sense of direction and an end game for this story that Murphy will actually take his time to reach, a departure from the kitchen-sink approach to his previous American Horror Story iterations where it was hard to escape the suspicion that the narrative was being made up as the writers went along.
Maybe it’s because not much happened in the Freak Show premiere. Maybe it’s because our own personal deformity is blind, sometimes misguided faith in Ryan Murphy. Or maybe because it’s true, as it seems that Freak Show actually seems to be taking a risk by letting story replace scare and satire this season.
Even if that means we’re missing the cheesy camp that the anthology has seemed to thrive on.
Of course, though, this is titled Freak Show, and accordingly there is plenty to marvel at. Chief among them is Sarah Paulson’s dual, astonishing performance as conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler. Set in 1952 in that veritable freak palace that is Florida—times may change, but realities don’t—the narrative begins when Bette and Dot are implicated in a murder. (Of their mother, no less.)
The sisters are a marvel of visual effects, but even more so when Paulson’s acting is taken into account. The experience of watching her cherubic countenance contort into two completely different characters stemming from the same body, reacting to the same situation, in the same camera frame is not just worth gawking at, but relishing. An increasingly integral part of Murphy’s American Horror Story troupe with each successive season, this is the wildest, most impressive performance she’s pulled off yet. Well, performances.
A German expat named Elsa Mars, the proprietor of the titular freak show played by AHS grand dame Jessica Lange, discovers Bette and Dot after reading about them in a local Florida newspaper. She’s been leasing field space for her own human zoo nearby, and, facing eviction, she needs a headliner.
Ethel “The Bearded Lady” Darling (Kathy Bates), Jimmy “Lobster Boy” Darling (Evan Peters), the world’s tiniest woman, Amazon “World’s Tallest Woman” Eve (Erika Ervin), a man who bites off the head of living animals: none of them are doing a sufficient job packing in the crowds. The Tattler twins, despite their penchant for murder and a lack of socialization, having been kept hermits by their mother (who they killed), are the show’s best hope.
One of the twins shares Elsa’s infatuation with show business, and finds joining her showcase of strange to be intoxicating, if it means a dressing room and a spotlight. The other’s detestation of the whole charade might be too on-the-nose in the opposite direction: “Dear diary, My soul plumbs to new depths of despair,” she writes after they join Elsa’s cast.
But as with everything Ryan Murphy does, there’s subtext to each characterization, and a lesson to be taken away from every TV show concept—even ones that find Meryl Streep’s daughter participating in an opium-induced bacchanal with creepy clowns. (That happens!) The lesson here, it should be obvious, is that while there are those willing to let their freak flags fly—or at least exploit their abnormalities for profit—there are those who are, by most accounts, “normal,” whose own inner sordidness might merit them earning “freak” status above anyone with a physical oddity.
There’s the ickiness, for example, of Elsa, an otherwise gorgeous, confident, and ambitious businesswoman and wannabe showbiz star styled to seize all of Jessica Lange’s Hollywood beauty. There’s the sinister and seedy way she blackmails, teasing out the sexual insecurities of those she bullies—a monologue questioning how Dot and Bette navigate their singular reproductive system when only one party wishes to pleasure themselves, for example.
And in contrast there’s Bates’s Ethel Darling, styled with no makeup, an unflattering wardrobe, and—I don’t know—a lady beard, but who exhibits the purest heart of any character on the show, and feels a debt to Elsa, whose motives for putting on the freak show are purely selfish, for providing a home for her, and a family.
Then, of course, there’s those who Elsa both desires and says she detests: the people who come to gawk at her little, atypical family. The public. The judgers. Confronting one, played by Grace Gummer, descendant of Streep, Lange erupts into a very Murphy-ian monologue:
“I’ll tell you who the monsters are: the people outside this tent. Housewives pinched with bitterness, stupefied with boredom as they doze off in front of laundry detergent commercials and dream of strange, erotic pleasures. They have no souls. My monsters, the ones you called depraved, they are the beautiful, heroic ones. They offer their oddity to the world. They offer a laugh or fright to those in need of entertainment.”
Should there be any ambiguity on this account, Peters’s “Lobster Boy” character straight-up murders a police detective who calls them freaks. American Horror Story: Freak Show, it seems, is a revenge tale. This premiere has laid down the groundwork for a war: the underdogs and underappreciated will rise. Their freak flags will wave.
Murphy has been dealing in “outsiders” his entire career. There’s the ironic misfits left out of Popular, the insecure surgery-seekers of Nip/Tuck, the crooning wallflowers of Glee, and, now, the kinds of humans we’d put in a zoo. Freak Show, then, by its very name should be his crowning achievement.
It’s hardly that, lacking the aggressive whimsy and emboldened storytelling that’s made him the pied piper to a nation of TV-watching weirdos, mocked and ignored. But there’s a seriousness with which he’s given this first Freak Show outing that actually piques more of a curiosity than trotting out the expected onslaught of spooks, one-liners, and cheekiness could’ve possibly be done at this point in the American Horror Story run.
But the one thing that has been the hallmark of this anthology series it’s unpredictability—not just how the show will change tonally from year to year, but, really, from episode to episode. Who knows what’s lurking around the corner next week. But we’re freaked enough to find out.