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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in Jupiter, Florida, and Christmas episodes are all about family. American Horror Story: Freak Show is no different.

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Well, it’s a little different.

Like any traditional Christmas episode, “Blood Bath” centers on family. It explores the tensions and tenderness of blood relations and chosen family alike: the pain of a mother’s rejection and the sweet comfort of her affection, rage at a father’s cruelty, the pleasures of sisterly solidarity, the anguish of witnessing a child succumb to his demons.

Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet Of Curiosities often uses the language of a family, but never so explicitly and repeatedly as tonight. Elsa assumes the role of mother to her performers, but in “Blood Bath,” she positions herself as a Madonna, not just the source of their life and comfort but their “savior.”

Many of her performers also see Elsa as maternal. Ethel rages not only over Ma Petite’s death but at the implied manipulation and betrayal of all the sideshow denizens: “Do you understand the pain of being rejected by your own mother? Of course you do! That’s how you sucked us all in here.”

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That reveals Ethel’s fundamental confusion over the nature of her bond with Elsa, a relationship she simultaneously mourns and ponders in her last minutes. In Elsa’s eyes, Ethel is not one of her infantilized charges; she’s a fellow parent to their eccentric family, never an equal, but always an adult. Ethel reproaches Elsa with “You were our mother!,” but seeing that Ethel means to kill them both, Elsa asks what will become of “our children.”

Echoing Ethel’s uncertainty of her role—in Elsa’s circus and Elsa’s heart—Barbara (Chrissy Metz), the Park Avenue princess turned sideshow Fat Lady, represents both infant and mother. Elsa (ostentatiously eating a Baby Ruth) recruits her with a tacit promise of the acceptance and love Barbara’s own mother withheld. She gives Barbara a new name and a new home. She lovingly drapes her with a bib before urging her to eat, and eat, and eat. But to Jimmy, Elsa describes Barbara as an eroticized mother figure, exhorting him to admire the vast bosom where he could seek peace “on nights when you would have taken comfort in your mother’s embrace.”

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Twisted family imagery and language pervades “Blood Bath,” and blood ties are no safer than figurative families. Disfiguring and disowning her, Penny’s father consigned her to the kinship of sideshow freaks. “You’re family,” Desiree assures her. “We take care of our own.” Penny claims that kinship unhesitatingly, standing with her “sisters” to seek vengeance on her father. Even the song playing in the background confirms his abdication of fatherhood: “Don’t Dare Call Me Daddy Again.”

Devoted mother Gloria Mott frets over her beloved son Dandy and his… family inheritance. As she reiterates to her psychiatrist that Dandy must not be institutionalized, the camera frames her through the balusters of her chaise, placing her firmly behind bars. Gloria is imprisoned not by her son’s illness, but by her insistence on accommodating it.

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Dandy’s notion of his mother’s culpability is just as chaotic as his behavior. Her marriage to a second cousin, her eagerness to excuse and hide his misdeeds, her failure to protect him perfectly from every suspicion, her knowledge of his father’s compulsions—it’s all tangled up together in Dandy’s muddied, vicious mind.

Like Dandy’s mind, “Blood Bath” is a tangled-up mess of half-logical stories and events. Ethel’s conviction that Elsa murdered Ma Petite, whom she adored, is predicated on the belief that she conspired to murder the Tattler twins, whom she disdained—and who, Ethel knows, are safely cloistered away from harm. (“Put them on a bus to Tampa! For me, death would be preferable to Tampa.”) Penny is swiftly persuaded to torture and kill her hateful father, and even more swiftly persuaded out of it. Maggie is suddenly the moral compass of Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet Of Curiosities. Dandy extracts ever-greater promises of help and collusion from his mother, then kills her without a second’s hesitation. It all feels poorly motivated and disjointed. Like the roundhouse blow Elsa lands on Ethel, it’s loud and dramatic, but largely without impact.

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The episode is littered with flashbacks. It opens with Gloria Mott recounting tales of Dandy’s childhood over a flutter of flashbacks. Ethel’s suspicion is illustrated by two more: One of Ethel overhearing Stanley seducing Elsa to murder, another of Ma Petite innocently usurping Elsa’s spotlight. Their confrontation is capped by a flashback of Elsa’s recuperation and the origin of her shapely wooden legs. The discovery of Ethel’s decapitated corpse requires two more: Maggie’s flashback to earlier that morning, and Elsa’s to a bit earlier still. Some flashbacks stand in for stories the characters are telling each other, some serve as exposition or narrative for the audience, and all are distractingly varied in tone and style. It’s not as disingenuous as the pervasive flash-forwards, fantasies, and fake-outs of “Pink Cupcakes,” but it’s as big a mess.

The only part that isn’t a mess is the actual blood bath with which the episode ends. Who would have imagined pettish, impatient Dandy could exsanguinate a corpse so tidily? And who would have thought Gloria Mott to have had so much blood in her, enough to fill a bathtub? Is this artistic license or has Dandy been decanting blood from a whooooole lot of corpses? And does it matter?

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Dandy’s goals are unclear, and so are the show’s. Dandy asks the unseen Dr. Feinblum whether he can “take someone’s power” by eating their flesh or bathing in their blood, but what power of Gloria’s could he covet? Her greatest talent was her ability to shield him from his own crimes through constant, pestering vigilance and the lavish application of money, imagination, and social clout. Killing her, Dandy trades the unfailing protection of a frantic, loving mother for the transient satisfaction of bathing in her blood.

In Dandy’s fevered mind and in the larger world of American Horror Story: Freak Show, the value of blood is not in the bonds it traditionally creates. Even Ethel, who has doted on Jimmy and who rants at Elsa’s perceived betrayal of her symbolic family, shows little concern for her son’s inevitable grief over her death. “He’ll survive,” she says, a shrug in her voice. In “Blood Bath,” blood is valuable only for the power it confers, and we have yet to see what that is.

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Stray observations:

  • This week’s proposed American Horror Story spin-off: Why, Elsa demands, is Stanley helping her cover up a murder? “This is what we do in Hollywood.” In one sentence, he conjures up a mysterious career spent Olivia-Pope-ing his way through the secret scandals of Golden Age Hollywood—and Elsa swallows it whole. I can’t blame her. I’d watch that show every week. Wouldn’t you?
  • Though Ethel’s last minutes include a paean to Elsa Mars’ great dramatic talent, her acting is risibly awful. The grief of Ma Petite’s death contrasts sharply with her transparently overwrought wailings at Ethel’s phony death scene. But it’s still enough to put Jimmy in the cruel position of comforting his mother’s murder.
  • This week in American Horror Poetry: Dr. Feinblum’s all-caps notes have the economy of a spoken-word masterpiece: SMOKING/ANXIOUS/CONCERNED/HOSPITAL DR. WINTERS?/ANIMALS/TORTURE
  • Danny Huston is back! This season, he’s appearing as Elsa’s “savior,” a sculptor and pioneer of prosthetics known as Signor Massimo MyTivoMangledTheName. If you caught his name, please share it in the comments.
  • Dandy’s Rorschach test: “I see a man with his arms torn off. His insides are outside for all the world to see” and “A man is stabbing a woman to death her blood is smeared all over the wall. It’s going to be a very messy clean-up.” What do you see? I see, respectively, a bunny rabbit or a cricket, and two Pegasus. Pegasi? Pegasuses.
  • Emily’s speculation corner: Just as Dandy’s murders started with the gardener’s son, I suspect Dora’s daughter will deliver his comeuppance. As Regina Ross, Gabourey Sidibe’s crisp skepticism cuts through AHS: Freak Show’s histrionics like a knife. She could single-handedly undo Dandy. After all, they grew up together. They’re like family. And no one knows you as well as family.
  • When I spun that scary tale of stealing Erik Adams’ smile to wear on my face, absorbing his spirit and his power, I was closer to the truth than I imagined. Much like the Tattler sisters, Erik and American Horror Story need some time apart, so he’s invited me to finish up this season. Gather ‘round and we’ll get through the last few episodes together. We’re like family now, too.

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