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Get ready for over-the-top abnormalities, intricate atrocities, and things so awful it will make you go screaming from your living room to throw yourself down on the bed and cover your ears with a pillow. No, I’m not talking about the sideshow attractions on American Horror Story: Freak Show; I’m talking about the accents! Why does every character on Freak Show have to have some kind of absurd accent? In a cage match of craziness, which do you think would win: Kathy Bates’s open-voweled Baltimore honk or Jessica Lange’s clipped nondescript German? I’m giving Bates the award in this category.
Welcome, boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen, former Glee fans of all ages, to American Horror Story: Freak Show, which I, Brian Barnum & Moylan, will be recapping for you. How am I qualified? Well, I once had a go-go boy dressed as a clown at my birthday party, I went to Coney Island one time when I fell asleep on the F train and woke up at the last stop, and I read Geek Love in high school — twice. That pretty much gives me a Ph.D. in carnies, don’t you think?
So, what have we learned so far? Well, mostly all the things we know from watching the 2,700 trailers and teasers and pants-wettingly creepy YouTube clips that were released before the big night. This season will be concerned with Frauline Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities, a freak show set up outside of Jupiter, Florida (which is informally known as Satan’s Grundle).
The show seems like it was made to be built around Siamese twins Bette and Dot (can we still say Siamese twins when we’re not talking about a production of The King and I?) — at least they are the first ones to speak and the impetus for starting to follow this crazy clan. Sarah Paulson does a great job giving each of them a distinct personality, but doesn’t Bette, the one who loves Hollywood and is kind of slutty (a.k.a. my kind of gal) seem sort of like a simpleton? She has a potent combination of rage and stupidity that reminds me of Teresa Giudice from the Real Housewives of New Jersey. When you make her angry she can’t harness her words so she just lashes out by flipping a table or, you know, stabbing her mother to death. Anyway, I’m going on record as being #TeamBette.
The most innovative thing about this season so far is how it handles the visual language of depicting Siamese (question mark) twins. So far it accomplished this by showing only one of the heads when that character is speaking in voice-over and using a split screen to show their different perspectives. It’s working wonderfully, and I hope they are setting up this convention now to mess with it in the future and show very different things on either side of that split screen.
At this point, most of what the twins are looking at is Elsa, which could be Jessica Lange’s best AHS character yet. (And speaking of accents, which Lang-uage do we like most? Southern drawl, Boston snarl, whatever she was doing in Coven, or her post-war Germanglish?) I love how she’s introduced clomping down the hallway of a hospital wearing a Cruella de Vil jacket and a Miss White–from-Clue chapeau. Then she turns around and Lange is allowing every crease to be caked with makeup, for the shadows to show her true age. That’s pretty brave considering last year her Supreme ate a man so she could look just a fraction younger. This also builds on the dissonance between how Elsa really looks and how she perceives herself. The fantasy and the reality butt heads like a Japanese fighting fish with a mirror next to its bowl.
Of course this is the engine that drives Elsa’s big number “Life on Mars.” Now, I can’t decide whether to call this number genius or stupid, so let’s just call it genid (stupius?). Like AHS: Asylum’s “Name Game” I cannot resist a giant Jessica Lange camp production smack dab in the middle of an episode. It’s like a Bugs Bunny trap for gays. It’s like an empty cardboard box held up with a stick with a bottle of poppers and a shirtless picture of Zac Efron underneath it. I’m going to fall for that 11 times out of 10. But why a David Bowie song from 1971? Does that mean Mr. Bowie stole this song from Elsa? Does it mean she’s some sort of precognitive who heard the song playing on a radio in a vision from the future? Does it mean Ryan Murphy is just so used to doing covers of songs that really have no bearing on the time period they’re depicting or their centrality to the plot (read seasons two through infinity of Glee) that he just does not give one single Fergie-Ferg about when it was written?
Anyway, there’s a stunning act where glitter rains down around Jessica Lange, and we’re intoxicated with the beauty of her assembled coterie of cuckoos, and it was pretty awesome. And then the lights come up, and she’s a kind of dumpy German woman in a bad suit and worse eye makeup. It sort of looks like Jessica Lange went as Angela Merkel for Halloween. You know I will be YouTubing that performance all the time at 2 a.m. right after watching “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret twice and right before I watch every available clip of the huge tap number from Anything Goes (Sutton Foster’s is better than Patti LuPone’s, #sorrynotsorry).
The curious thing about Elsa, who rescues the twins and is trying to give her troupe a permanent home in Florida, is she is both a critique of that rampant desire to become famous at any cost — a Mama Rose from Gypsy who has literally been cut off at the knees — but one who also espouses a potent idea that the freaks will inherit the Earth. When she says, “These are the heroic ones, they offer their oddity to the world,” I feel like it’s something that Ryan Murphy and all of his writers feel. They’re the freaks in Hollywood making it better for all the misfits. So are they all just as dark as Elsa’s fame-seeking dynamo, or are they the saviors of the voiceless? I have an idea of which they would choose. Still Elsa’s confession that she didn’t rescue the twins to help them, but to make her a star, was the best moment of the entire episode.
We met lots of other great freaks, most notably Evan Peters’s character who will heretofore be known as Edward Dildohands. He’s just so Marlon Brando in The Wild One, and then he has those hands that gross all the girls out but make all the housewives squeal while writhing on their matching duvet sets. It seems like Eddy Dildohands is going to be a lynchpin of the season, and I mean that because he is going to go lynching anyone that messes with his freaks. And when he wins both of Bette and Dot’s hearts, is he going to win their one vagina?
His mother, Ethel, so far seems like a good woman, despite what her accent might lead you to believe. I can’t wait to see what role Frances Conroy’s Gloria Mott and her creepy son Big Lord Fauntleroy play in the show. It seemed like they could just be written off after this episode and we wouldn’t really miss them. It was a treat to see Pepper, who we all remember from AHS: Asylum, but is that a brother she was with? Does Pepper have a brother? Maybe she has a lover? And does she realize that Elsa looks a whole lot like a crazy nun that will terrorize her in the near future? Did the spirit of Pepper Future tell Elsa about “Life on Mars”?
The best freak of all, however, is Twisty the Clown. Each season we get a big monster: the Minotaur from Coven, the gimp from Murder House, and the thing from Asylum (what was the monster that year, aliens or a killer Santa Claus or Anne Frank or Zachary Quinto after he’s skipped a few sessions of laser hair removal?). They are nothing compared to Twisty. He just has that freakish menace that will seep right into your nightmares, and the visuals when he is on-screen are both wonderfully shocking (his lurking in the background at the picnic is right out of Twin Peaks) and strangely appealing. Maybe I’m just a little too drawn to bright colors or have too fond memories of that red-nosed go-go boy from my birthday party.
I guess we’re supposed to start wondering who is behind that mask and whether or not he’s involved with the freaks or just happens to be riding the carousel in the middle of the night with nothing better to do. I bet I know who Twisty is. I bet it’s Nancy Grace. I don’t have a lot of evidence yet, but somewhere deep inside it makes a whole lot of sense: the plastered-on smile, the bizarro hair, the fascination with kidnapped pretty, blond teens. Holy shit — Nancy Grace is Twisty the Clown! It’s going to be a long season, but we have one mystery solved already.
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