American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Clowning Around

Photo: FX

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American Horror Story
Episode Title
Edward Mordrake, Part 2
Editor’s Rating

I have a sneaking suspicion that thousands of American Horror Story fans are going to run out this morning and go to Jo-Ann Fabric, Michael’s Craft Store, and whatever shoe store is next to them in the mini-mall so that they can buy some lace, hot-glue-gun it to a mask, and then shine their knee-high boots. It’s an instant Elsa Mars costume that is far more flattering than her Life on Mars ensemble we’ve grown accustomed to.

Alright, I have to give it to American Horror Story because this is the episode where it finally got good (but I’m going to leave some caveats at the end). The Edward Mordrake device of the two-headed Wes Bentley that rolled in so slowly like a glowing green mist last episode really sprung to life in part two of this Halloween double-feature. Mordrake visiting allows us to discover backstories of all of our favorite freaks, both large and small (I mean that figuratively and mean no slight to the world’s smallest woman, who is my favorite freak).

We learn that Seal Boy (who performed at my birthday party one year and, this is not a joke, sang an Elvis song while his naked wife stripped off all of his clothing and underwear) got his tattoos to scare people but would never touch his face. The Half-Woman (does she even have a name?) was an orphan who once stabbed a fellow hobo because he did a really bad Al Jolson soft-shoe. But what about the world’s smallest woman? Where is her creation myth?

But the origins we wondered about the most were Elsa’s and Twisty the Clown’s and, no matter what we could have guessed, the truth is even more shocking and twisted than whatever it is that Kathy Bates is calling her Baltimore accent. Considering Elsa is a German, missing her legs, and living in ‘50s America, I figured it had something to do with some crazy experiment during the war. But no, I guess Mr. Murphy got his fill of Nazi-hunting during Asylum and Carol Burnett’s cameo on Glee.

How did Elsa become a freak? Snuff films. Bet you didn’t see that coming! I think that snuff films is going to be my answer to every mystery posed to me from now on. “Guess what I did today?” “Snuff films.” “What do you want to have for dinner?” “Snuff films.” “What time is your flight?” “Snuff films.” I never would have thought of snuff films as a plot device, but here we are, watching Jessica Lange in a bad wig and a lace mask (are we sure this isn’t already Ryan Murphy’s Halloween costume?) getting her legs sawed off by a bunch of German dudes wearing pantyhose over their faces. Now, that, my friends, is how you do horror.

Still, I don’t think that is what makes Elsa a freak. Even before she got her legs sawed off, she was just as damaged as she is now. Elsa is a freak because she is so determined to be famous, so keen on getting the attention and adoration of others that it has warped her mind just as it would eventually warp her body. That is what made her different from the other freaks. They were born with physical deformities that impacted how they lived their lives and how they were treated by others. Elsa was damaged psychologically, and that unquenchable thirst for an audience, even while forcing a former German soldier to sit on a toilet seat made of spikes, is what broke her body. That’s why Wes Bentley wants to put her in a plastic bag and videotape her floating through the wind for all of eternity. He is shocked by her delusion, but is her fantasy that she’s really talented, or is her fantasy that it is her missing limbs and not her craven desire for fame that makes her deformed?

She’s not the only one who is really screwed up. Finally, we find out what Twisty’s deal is, and everything so far makes sense. Twisty was some sort of simpleton (it’s hard to believe that he was dropped on his head by his drunk mother and that she also told him that he was a good person) who was tormented by the freaks that he worked with. They told everyone that he touched children so he couldn’t get a job as a clown, and he sat in his dirty trailer for years, his white costume looking more and more like the "before" picture in an OxyClean commercial. Eventually, he tried to blow his head off and failed, leaving him with the mangled mouth that had to be covered by the mask.

Now it makes sense why he did what he did. He killed the toy-store owner because he was cruel to him previously. He kidnapped the girl so the kids he took would have a babysitter. He didn’t kill Gloria or Dandy because he really wanted to go to Gloria’s house and please whatever children lived there, freakish Cole Porter devotee that he might be. Twisty really did love children and performing for them, and his desires got perverted because of his circumstances.

That seems to be why Wes Bentley finally chose Twisty to take with him to the other side, because he was the purest of freaks. He wasn’t damaged psychologically or physically; he was just a victim of the mistreatment, neglect, and torment of others, and that is why he became the scary killer that we know today. (This is also a comment that the freaks of this world, put upon as they might be, are not incapable of the intense cruelty that is meted out by the mainstream world.)

So it’s only episode four, and the big monster of the season has already been dispensed with. That seems about par for the course for AHS. Luckily, it's Edward Dildohands who gets all the credit for taking down Twisty, and deservedly so. When he and Madison Montgomery (what is Madison Montgomery’s name this season? Esmeralda or something?) run out of gas in the middle of the woods, they end up stumbling upon Twisty and his henchman, Dandy. Edward, being the hero (and the constant love interest of Emma Roberts), saves the day. Well, he gets everyone free and then lets Wes Bentley’s tiny talking head save the day, but same thing.

The episode ends with the people of the town showing up to thank Edward Dildohands for saving them, and the freak show is saved from economic ruin. It could be the end of our show, but there are still nine episodes left. What is going to happen? Well, if it wasn’t obvious before, the freak show is going to tear itself apart.

Bette and Dot are mad they’re not the headliners anymore, and they are also not Edward’s No. 1 girl(s) anymore. Del the strongman is mad at Edward for being the man around camp, and at Elsa for being a woman in charge. Also let’s not forget about his past with doomed Ethel. Elsa is mad at everyone who doesn’t realize what a huge effing deal she is. And Ethel, well, she’s mad that she and the world’s largest woman and the world’s smallest woman didn’t even get to appear in this episode, probably because of something having to do with Equity bylaws about how many fake accents can be in one episode without having to call OSHA.

That’s not all the future holds (and this is also the part where I start talking about the caveats about this episode). Naturally, Dandy comes upon Twisty’s lifeless body and takes off his mask. For some reason, there is something way freakier about seeing a real human wearing that mask than watching Twisty wear it. Anyway, I’m not buying Dandy as a villain. First of all, he killed Patti LaBelle (genius, as always) and she didn’t even get a chance to sing an anachronistic pop song. Second, the best AHS villains are ones who are conflicted. Sister Jude was a tormenter, but she became the tormented. The Gimp in season one turned out to be a ghost-boy destroyed by his own mother’s narcissism. Dandy is, well, he’s just a spoiled brat.

I just can’t get too scared or too interested in anything Dandy does. I just want him to die because every time he is onscreen, it is like having a little bit of popcorn stuck in your gum behind your back molar, and you just dig and dig and dig at it, making your gums raw, and you still can’t get it. You can’t deal with it and you can’t make it go away, so you just make it worse and worse, until finally, you have to go to Duane Reade at 3:29 a.m. and get some damn dental floss.

And speaking of Patti LaBelle not singing, we have to have a little conversation about the rules. The biggest problem every Ryan Murphy show faces is that it doesn’t play by the rules that it sets up. In the first three episodes of this season, someone performs a pop song from the future. That leads the viewers to believe that each episode will contain a pop song from the future, but here we are, in the fourth episode, and no pop song. It’s not like they skipped a musical number in the second episode and did it again in the third so we would think, Oh, this just happens sometimes. No, they did it three episodes in a row, establishing it as a convention to how this season is going to be structured.

When a show like this reinvents itself every year, the audience is looking for guidance about how it should watch each episode. By the third, one of the patterns should be thoroughly established. The thing about horror is that it subverts that familiarity by sticking impossibly frightful things into it. It lulls you into a sense of familiarity only to shock you out of it.

However, that is not what is happening with regard to the future songs. Should we expect one next week? Who knows. Should we expect to see another future pop-song ever again? Who knows. Apparently, the conventions and logic of this world are of absolutely no interest to the creative team. If they can’t be bothered to create a consistent world, then why should we bother to watch it? Well, I have your answer: snuff films.

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