American Horror Story so frequently finds itself wandering blindly into outlandish narrative territory because the anthology really only has one story to tell. All four installments of the anthology series focus on families (of a sort) and the people who’ve decided they know what’s best for those families. Any conflicts that arise amid the gore and the gristle are fights for the soul of the family: The marital spats between the Harmons of Murder House, the institutional battles within Asylum, the scramble to be declared “supreme” in Coven. Episode two of Freak Show initiates a similar battle by folding strongman Dell Toledo (Michael Chiklis) and genetic unique Desiree Dupree (Angela Bassett) into Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet Of Curiosities, giving the fourth season the necessary emotional spine it’s free to ignore for weeks at a time.

Advertisement

That Dell and Desiree haven’t already claimed the Cabinet Of Curiosities as their own is the most shocking part of “Massacres And Matinees.” On the lam from a murder rap in Chicago—where Dell snapped the neck of a gay man who was trying to “cure” himself in the bed of three-breasted, intersex Desiree (a cutaway that’s one pop song shy of a Ryan Murphy bingo!)—the duo clearly has designs on Elsa’s show. Elsa’s still on the scene at the end of this week’s episode, a sign that “Monsters Among Us”’s relaxed pace was no fluke. Add to that Frances Conroy’s Gloria and her survivial in the jacked-up face of Twisty The Clown, and you get the most patient opening entries in any American Horror Story.

That’s not to say things aren’t moving: The search for the killer (and a little bit of planted evidence) leads to the sickeningly swift railroading of poor Meep, and a few bumps on the head have Dandy playing Renfield to Twisty’s Dracula. But Freak Show acts more comfortable with sequences like Jimmy’s return to the diner, lightly plot-advancing slices of life from American Horror Story’s heightened reality. Evan Peters chews on a few too many variations of “I AM A HUMAN BEING” this week; the diner scene is a more effective method of achieving the same goal, a small playlet demonstrating the prejudices that drove the performers out of society and into tents, all the while showing why they’re not quite ready to go back.

Better still is the dinner at the Motts’, in which Conroy and Finn Wittrock’s domestic melodrama makes its own poor fit among the opulent crystal and cool pastels. I was just complaining the other day that American Horror Story could do more to disorient viewers, and then Alfonso Gomez-Rejon drowns Frances Conroy in cream-colored drapery. (And then I thought: “Is that Patti LaBelle? That’s definitely Patti LaBelle.”)

Advertisement

Gomez-Rejon is the undisputed king of the American Horror Story directors, and anytime his name winds up on an episode, we’re guaranteed a fantastic visual grab bag to match the show’s scatterbrain tone. Twisty is my least favorite part of the season so far, but the throat-clenching tension of “Massacres And Matinees”’s cold open uses John Carroll Lynch’s character to marvelous effect, tracing a full 360 around the toy store before reaching the bloody conclusion. It’s a chilling bit of traffic direction by Gomez-Rejon, made all the more claustrophobic if you’re paying attention to the whole frame. An out-of-focus Twisty appears over the shop boy’s shoulder before the clown is spotted among the mannequins; at the very top of the scene, there’s Mr. Hanley’s head, where it’ll be found when the sequence comes full circle.

Following the dull, clean monochrome of Coven, the popping colors and three-ring grime of Freak Show is refreshing—just so long as you don’t think about the odor hanging around Fraulein Elsa’s encampment. The look of American Horror Story has always been the show’s saving grace; with a knack for visual storytelling, it’s no wonder the first two Freak Show installments temporarily transform into music videos. (That and, you know, Glee.) Out of context, Dot and Bette’s Fiona Apple number is something that could’ve played alongside Mark Romanek’s “Criminal” video in late-night MTV rotation circa 1997—attributable more to the camera angels and those incriminating zooms than the doofy midcentury mosh pit.

Advertisement

Sarah Paulson’s star turn(s) on Fraulein Elsa’s stage sets up a Russian nesting doll of recurring American Horror Story plots. Control of the Cabinet Of Curiosities is all tangled up in a generational clash of Fiona-Madison proportions, with the flames of Elsa’s professional jealousy fanned by the success of her newly minted top attraction. While eschewing some of last season’s less attractive qualities, the patterns of Coven are rising up all over again: Jessica Lange’s character pitted against a younger rival; a feud between Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett that spans the years. The slow boil of Freak Show can’t be long for this world: The family room is starting to get mighty crowded, and the show still has to make room for the latest American Horror Story personas of Emma Roberts and Denis O’Hare (not to mention the top hat and crazy facial hair of Wes Bentley).

But while they prepare to tear themselves apart from within, the folks united under the Fraulein Elsa’s banner still face threats from the outside. Meep’s tragic fate is just one example of this; don’t forget, there’s a psychotic clown lumbering around out there, too. (And he has two captives who could still turn out to be full-fledged characters—so the running lengths on these episodes are going to stretch to two hours by the time this thing is over, huh?) Beneath Jimmy’s mournful howling at the end of the episode, there’s a dark portent: The boy, his mother, and the people he’s chosen to call his kin all gather around a gangway that’s shaped like a coffin. American Horror Story usually whiffs with its narratives, but it’s precise in its visuals, and that image tells of negative developments in the present and the future. “Day time is for kiddie shows,” Elsa snaps at the suggestion of a Cabinet Of Curiosities matinee. Looks like Freak Show is about to plunge itself into the nighttime.

Advertisement

Stray observations:

  • This week in “Maybe society is the real freak show”: Defenseless Meep is thrown into a holding cell, where he’s intimidated (and presumably killed) by a group of actual criminals.
  • This week in characters that deserve a subplot but didn’t get one: This appetizing entree. Gaze upon the Mott fish, and tell your children of its glory.

Advertisement

  • Erik’s speculation corner: It will be revealed that Dandy has a murderous alter ego. His quickness to follow Twisty, the thing with the cat, and the whole “I hate you” head-bashing interlude certainly suggest so.
  • Thanks to everyone who weighed in on the Ethel Darling Accent Mystery last week. As Kathy Bate confirmed on Twitter, Ethel’s apparently from Baltimore. I’ll take her word for it, even as her pronunciations remain the most distracting element of the show.
  • Did you forget about Elsa’s prosthetic legs this week? Because American Horror Story seems like it did.
  • Freak Show gets its equivalent to Freaks’ “Gooble gobble, we accept her”: “Kill the copper, kill the copper.”
  • “Three titties, proper girl parts, and a ding-a-ling. I’m a full-blown hermaphrodite. Put that on your banner.” Oh, American Horror Story, how I missed your poetic ways.
  • Prelude to American Horror Story: Sesame Street Monsters?: “Puppetry is a sad cousin to a live performance.”

Advertisement