American Horror Story has dealt with all of the themes currently being dealt with in Freak Show. However, for all the explorations of the repressed in society and for all the emphasis on the “freaks” of the past three seasons, this is the season that looks to tackle the issue head on, placing all of its characters within the confines of an actual “freak show” and expounding on the “us vs. them” mentality that’s ever so pervasive in these types of situations.
However, let’s be honest: this is American Horror Story, and this show is to subtlety what up is to down. In fact, if you look at things like The New Normal and last season of AHS, Ryan Murphy is probably one of the least socially conscious showrunners out there; I have no idea what goes on in this guy’s mind. That’s fine, though, because subtlety is not what I’m looking for in a show like this; I’m looking for pure entertainment, and because Coven was the exact opposite of entertaining, the failures at attempting to comment on social issues became even more evident. I hope that’s not the case with this season.
It’s off to a fine start, at least. The duality of Bette and Dot–played very well by Sarah Paulson–reflects larger dualities with regard to our views of freak shows and the freaks in general: you can either view it as a wonderful source of self-expression, or you can view it as a bunch of weird people doing weird things. Societal norms tend to ostracize those who don’t mesh with our notions of “normal”, so we create in-groups and out-groups and feel completely fine laughing and pointing at those outside of our expectations; in turn, they’ll do the same, and we have a situation similar to what is portrayed here. In fact, what’s created is a sense of entitlement, a sense that if you pay to see these weird people doing weird things, they’re yours because they’re not like you. It’s what we see with Dandy and Gloria Mott trying to buy Bette and Dot, for example.
What Freak Show wants to emphasize is not that the freaks are all caring and kind and fitting the “deep down, they’re great!” mold we constantly see with these kinds of stories. Jimmy, for example, winds up getting a mob to join him in repeatedly stabbing a cop who comes to investigate the farmhouse murder, and Twisty the Clown–played by John Carroll Lynch, and is quite possibly the creepiest character the show’s produced–goes all Zodiac on a couple. These characters are anything but moral and anything but compassionate, but they share a common desire: the desire not to be called names and looked down upon the desire to, in some way, feel accepted. Even with the clown, we get the sense that he may genuinely want to entertain people when he performs for his captives, and we get the sense that he may want to feel accepted when he watches the aforementioned cop stabbing.
There’s also another duality to point out with Jimmy, who pleasures women with his deformed hand. These women are simultaneously disgusted and turned on, and that idea is encapsulated by the candy striper’s–Penny’s–horrified reaction to the film of her opium-laced orgy with Jimmy and others. Is she horrified because she didn’t want to do it, or rather because society is at the back of her mind as she’s watching?
Ultimately, the episode is summed up by Elsa’s (Jessica Lange, in possibly her final season of the show) “Life of Mars” scene. We see her selfish nature come out, her desire for fame, and we realize that the same mindset can be applied to not only the observers, but also to the performers. This is a self-perpetuating cycle of violence and resentment and horror.
–Murder House was deeply flawed, but entertaining at times. Asylum was truly compelling television. Coven was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. Let’s hope Freak Show goes the route of Asylum.
-The split screen is an aesthetically interesting choice, although I’m not quite sure if I like it yet.
-Mica Levi’s “Under the Skin” score is used here, and it’s fantastic. That film’s themes also tie into the ideas–identity, body image, entrapment–presented in this episode.
-Once again, the credits are fantastic.
-We don’t get all of the characters in this opening episode, with notable omissions including those of Denis O’Hare and Angela Bassett and Emma Roberts and Michael Chiklis. I’m most interested to see that last one; looks like Vic Mackey’s going to really let himself go.
-There is a copious amount of stabbing.
-I don’t think this is getting regular coverage, but I’ll check in a few times.
Photo credit: FX, American Horror Story: Freak Show