American Horror Story doesn’t do polite introductions. The opening moments of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s creepshow anthology are wasted if there isn’t a little bloodshed; if it’s the blood of a well-known pop star, all the better. But the thrill of American Horror Story—the thing that keeps us coming back every October though we swore we’d quit the show last January—is in the unexpected, and “Monsters Among Us” goes the unexpected route: It’s a season opener with a sense of patience. There’s still plenty carnage to be had, but that comes in between scenes that establish characters and explore relationships. The screen is first splattered in crimson in the cold open, but you have to cool your heels if you want to see something truly strange and unusual. For example: Jessica Lange performing a number from the David Bowie songbook.
The Coven premiere, “Bitchcraft,” moved so quickly it was no wonder that practically every major character had been killed and resurrected (and then maybe killed again) by the midpoint of the season. Befitting a story about old-fashioned showmanship, “Monsters Among Us” prefers to set a stage. The episode still drunkenly totters from scene to scene and setting to setting, as is American Horror Story’s wont. But this is a season that’s taking place in the American South in 1952—and that’s a setting where things move.
Just a little bit.
As it is with any declaration about American Horror Story, that’s a qualified statement: “Monsters Among Us” keeps viewers waiting before it pulls the curtain up on conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler, but it’s not like this is Jaws and two-headed Sarah Paulson is Bruce the mechanical shark. Paulson’s Double Mint Twins act is the backbone of “Monsters Among Us,” but the episode makes enough time after that reveal to check in with the Tattlers’ biggest fan and new employer—Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet Of Curiosities proprietor Elsa Mars—in addition to some of her star attractions. Evan Peters is Jimmy “Lobster Boy” Darling, whose ectrodactyly provides him with a lucrative side gig at Tupperware parties (and gives Ryan Murphy the cheapest excuse to pull a POV shot out of the AHS bag of horror-movie tropes). Kathy Bates, meanwhile, is more than just a head this year—though the role of ambiguously accented bearded lady Ethel Darling means we’ll still be spending 13 weeks paying close attention to her head. Also, there’s a killer clown, because American Horror Story ought to get to John Wayne Gacy before Murphy and Falchuk fold up the tents for good.
A return to the mid-20th century suits American Horror Story, and not just because that’s the last time period in which a traveling attraction like Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet Of Curiosities could exist in its natural state. With World War II seven years in the past, the Korean War ongoing, and Jim Crow alive and well, this season of American Horror Story concerns a whole society where “Us vs. them” is still a lived, everyday reality. (Rather than one that’s ignored by polite society until something like the Michael Brown killing happens.) Much of the patiently unfurling world-builidng in “Monsters Among Us” is tied up in this idea, with Elsa, Jimmy and company shown to be cut off (or hiding) from the world at large, separated by diner counters, the height of a stage, or the seclusion of their farmland encampment.
And sometimes, they’re just cut off from themselves. Though telepathically connected, Dot and Bette are portrayed as polar opposites: The latter a starry-eyed romantic who worships at the altar of Betty Grable, the former sternly conservative (though she trades her frown for a smile whenever Jimmy’s around). Duality looks to be a major Freak Show motif, and Dot, Bette, and their Brian De Palma-indebted split screen are just its most obvious embodiments: Mirror imagery abounds in “Monsters Among Us,” and there’s also the sequence in which Elsa forces Penny to watch footage of a depraved opium fiend who looks an awful lot like the de-candy-striped captive. Jupiter, Florida is apparently the inner-conflict capital of the Sunshine State. (Does this mean that Jupiter is transiting Gemini? I’m not one for astrology, but it seems American Horror Story: Freak Show might be.)
In line with those dualities, tonight’s episode is very careful to remind us of the fine distinctions between “extraordinary” and “freakish”—and the performers in Elsa’s employee appear to avoid the f-word when they’re off-stage—so prepare for a season of being asked “Aren’t we all freaks?” But there’s a far more interesting question being asked in “Monsters Among Us,” the one that sits alongside “Did Elsa Mars invent David Bowie in 1952?”: What drives people to put themselves on display? The “Life On Mars?” interlude—complete with camerawork that does its own cover version of the promo clip for Bowie’s original—is ludicrous, but it raises the very glam-rock notion of accepting and projecting your inner superstar. “Stars never pay,” Elsa tells the Shelly Johnson of Jupiter’s very own Double R, and her Marlene Dietrich fixation (and accompanying Marlene Dietrich suits) demonstrate that she’s done her homework on star power. (But does she know “Starman”?)
But then there’s the more difficult question raised by freak shows since time immemorial (and, more specifically, fiction about freak shows): Where’s the line between embracing your extraordinariness and being exploited for it? Given American Horror Story’s taste for camp and exploitation, “Monsters Among Us” navigates this gray area with relative grace. And the patience of the episode really comes in handy there: Dot’s repressed nature is troubled by what happens beneath the tents, but the mini-kitchen sink dramas and workday scenes starring the Cabinet of Curiosities performers paint an quotidian existence for characters like Jimmy, Paul, or Eve. During the day, they’re everyday people—it’s when the sun goes down that they’re main attractions.
“Monsters Among Us” is not without its typical Murphy-Falchuk bullshit: The very first image of the episode has a Dutch tilt, while other sequences take particular glee in rubbing the viewer’s nose in gory violence and kinky sex (or kinky violence and gory sex, implied by the POV shots of Twisty The Clown’s first onscreen kill). And there’s already the hint of a character arc that’s doomed to be discarded before too long: Dot and Bette’s positioning as saviors of Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet versus Jimmy’s self-appointed role as savior of Fraulein Elsa’s Curiosities. But will anyone save American Horror Story: Freak Show from itself? The answer to that question doesn’t require much patience: The series’ behind-the-scenes all-stars, Tim Minear and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, handle the writing and directing (respectively) on next week’s installment. At least under their watch, the Freak Show will keep from turning into a shit show for one more week.
- Welcome to The A.V. Club’s weekly coverage of American Horror Story: Freak Show. Barring any cataclysmic circumstances, you’ll find me in this space until the end of the season. I have a tortured relationship with AHS as a whole, but in spite of its faults, it never fails to entertain me. Feel free to remind of that statement when I’m ragging on the show on Twitter.
- A disclaimer: American Horror Story: Freak Show deals in some sensitive topics, and while I’m writing these reviews from a place of conscientiousness, mistakes still happen. If you happen to come across a term or phrase that’s been rendered insulting or derogatory with time, politely bring it to my attention, and the proper edits will be made.
- On the horizon: We have a For Our Consideration essay in the works about Freak Show’s treatment of its subject matter, written by The Lady Aye. In addition to being an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Penthouse, and Salon, Aye is also one of fewer than three dozen female sword swallowers in the modern-day sideshow trade.
- If Elsa’s reference to “the state madhouse” isn’t enough to remind you of American Horror Story’s second season, she goes ahead and drops the word “asylum,” too.
- Penny isn’t just Freak Show’s most likely candidate for the Cleopatra-from-Freaks treatment—she’s also apparently clairvoyant, at least enough to see Homeland’s fourth-season premiere: “If I gave birth to something like that, I’d drown it in the bathtub first thing.”