With only three episodes left in the season, it’s hard to imagine a satisfying resolution to all the remaining stories of American Horror Story: Freak Show. Introducing more characters at this point doesn’t encourage viewers to invest emotionally—or even voyeuristically—in the stories already established. American Horror Story: Freak Show doesn’t need more plotlines. It needs fewer.
But heck, the show was never going to wrap up those stories anyhow, so if Ryan Murphy is going to fritter away the last few episodes (and previous seasons indicate that he will), shoehorning in a Neil Patrick Harris arc is a fine way to fritter.
Or it would be, if it weren’t so heavy-handed. Just seconds into the episode, Stanley announces with hammy significance that “there are two sides to show business.” Not surprisingly—for there are few surprises left in American Horror Story: Freak Show—that becomes the theme of the episode. Two sisters joined together, in their bodies, in their minds, and in their quest for a lover. Two specialists in feats of strength, united to free their jailed comrade. Two police officers beaten to death. Two hands taken, not the one promised. Two women grudgingly allowing an estranged husband to watch their lovemaking. Two madmen longing to saw a woman in half. And, of course, Marjorie and Chester locked in Chester’s narrow frame, scheming and battling for supremacy.
In case the doubling isn’t enough symbolism, “Magical Thinking” hammers home the idea of Marjorie as the true personality and Chester as her wooden puppet. Alice objects to him “sitting there like a dummy with that puppet.” Chester blurts to Marjorie, “Stop putting words in my mouth!” Paul says Chester’s stage makeup makes him look like a wooden soldier from The Nutcracker Suite. Chester, tempted and distraught by their request to deflower them, is calmed only by Dot and Bette’s reassurance that “you are real,” conjuring up Pinocchio’s desire to become a real boy. Get it? He’s a puppet.
That’s not the end of the over-elaborated narrative. Dell’s reminiscence of his own youth illuminates his absent fatherhood. He abandoned wife and son not merely as a burden, but as a reminder of his miserable childhood as “the black sheep of the famed Toledo lobster-claw clan,” an outcast among outcasts. But the scene, ending with Dell tending to Jimmy in the hospital, would have been stronger without his capping line, “I’m almost 50 years old and I’m feeding my son for the first time.” The symbolism of the act was clear, even facile. It didn’t need to be spoken aloud.
Despite its irrelevance and its overburdened writing, “Magical Thinking” is laced through with the kind of clever touches that keep me glued to AHS no matter how tangled and unsatisfying its seasonal arcs become. Jamie Brewer is inspired casting for Marjorie. Her voice, so distinctive with its wry mirth, tickled my memory before I placed it, and and the twinkle of her eyes and knowing smile make her a canny choice for a ventriloquist’s mannequin come to life. She portrays the imagined Marjorie with a balance of menace and matter-of-fact humor that makes the story feel more developed than it is.
Harris carries most of the episode on his shoulders, bringing brightness and depth to a sketched-out part and making the episode’s unnecessary departure from the main story a diversion rather than an impediment. As Chester, he moves gracefully from smarmy salesmanship to anxiety to lust to a childlike yearning, and the agony on his chalky face as he pleads with Marjorie in the big tent is touching.
Chester’s longing to be real—to be included, “to belong”—is not only an allusion to Pinocchio. It harkens back to “Orphans,” in which Desiree read The Velveteen Rabbit to Pepper. The performers of Fräulein Elsa’s Cabinet Of Curiosities often reject the banality of the rabble’s life, but they also hanker for the inclusion they see as the birthright of the physically normative. (Dandy, Penny, Maggie, and Stanley should be proof enough that genetic ordinariness guarantees nothing, especially not acceptance or love.) But the relative subtlety of the refrain is surprising amid the blaring, blatant excess of the season.
These grace notes notwithstanding, “Magical Thinking” continues AHS’s course as a disjointed collection of incidents rather than a coherent narrative leading to a rewarding end point. The show has enough panache, enough presence and magic and sparkle, that I keep expecting it to deliver something meaningful along with its weekly dose of lurid moments and images.
American Horror Story banks on its standing as an anthology, resetting every year with a stable of gifted actors. But this season is even less substantial than its predecessors. The series resets every season, but AHS: Freak Show feels like it resets every few episodes. Shifting focus, never letting itself unwind a tale or examine a character for more than an hour, introducing and discarding romances and alliances willy-nilly, killing off characters as soon as their inner self is revealed, this season of AHS: Freak Show never allows anything or anyone to become important or resonant.
- In Chester’s mind, Marjorie speaks with Jamie Brewer’s voice, but it’s not clear what Chester’s audience hears or what we, the television audience, are to infer. Does Chester provide her voice? Does he stand by, mute, as onlookers puzzle over his silence?
- After all those allusions to Pinocchio, wooden soldiers, and ventriloquist’s dummies, I can’t be the only one who braced for a joke about (ahem) wood when the twins reached for Chester’s groin.
- Stanley pretends his plan to sell Jimmy’s hands is a sudden inspiration, then whips out the emetic necessary to speed it along and ushers in a decoy ambulance attendant. Even Jimmy doesn’t seem fool enough to fall for that.
- Emily’s speculation corner, with all the potential spoilers that implies: Tonight’s “next week on AHS” reveals the return of Danny Huston, which suggests the easiest path to tie up several story lines. He crafted Elsa’s wooden legs, making him her Geppeto. He will no doubt be pressed into service to create prosthetic hands for Jimmy Darling. And unless I’m mistaken, he’s the voice of Dandy’s unseen psychiatrist, so let’s hope there’s a confrontation coming between our two saw-happy gentlemen and Dr. Feinblum.