“Pink Cupcakes” is all about fantasies: fantasies of fame, of riches, of power, of love, of family. The episode opens on Stanley’s fantasy, in which he is not quite the guest of honor at a gala celebrating the American Morbidity Museum’s exhibit of “exquisite human anomalies,” featuring chunks of preserved corpses provided by Stanley’s murders. Of all the deluded, desperate, demented characters in AHS: Freak Show, Stanley is the only one whose vivid fantasies we enter in this episode, and in the guise of Richard Spencer, Hollywood talent scout (“here from the land of dreams”), he spins fantasies for his prey as well.

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With her long-cherished lust for stardom, Elsa is susceptible to Stanley’s flattery, but not to his offers—at first. Scorning his promise to make her a TV star, Elsa muses, “Motion pictures are the expression of our souls, our inner dreams, our fantasies.” That’s romantic talk from a woman whose most memorable film appearance features a chainsaw taking her legs, and almost her life.

Elsa isn’t alone in clinging to her dreams in the face of harsh reality. Despite Maggie’s frequent rebuffs, Jimmy Darling keeps hoping she’ll love him. Bette Tattler dreams of hosting a variety show, and Dot just dreams of freeing herself from Bette. Gloria Mott deludes herself that her vicious, stunted son will channel and contain his violence, while Dandy concocts a plan to satisfy his bloodlust. Desiree imagines a “normal life” as a mother and wife, living “like any other lady walking down the street.” Dell promises himself a quiet love nest with good light and sweet music for Andy (Matt Bomer). Andy envisions himself drawing seaside portraits in L.A. for two bucks each, away from a life of rough johns and bloodied shorts. Each of Jupiter’s inhabitants harbors a fantasy as sweet and bright as those pink cupcakes Stanley (Denis O’Hare) cooks up, and sometimes as poisonous.

It’s no surprise that American Horror Story: Freak Show trades in fantasy. The first-episode rendition of “Life On Mars” feels both startling and inevitable, and everything about its staging—the powder-blue suit and eyeshadow, the harsh stage light on Jessica Lange’s honestly aging skin, her voice sometimes confident and sometimes reedy—conspires to straddle the line between ludicrous and transcendent. Elsa’s reprise of that performance, every element the same but now devoid of magic and power, is devastating. Especially cruel is the moment when her voice vanishes into the muffled soundtrack, perfectly conveying the panic of a performer whose bombshell has turned to bomb. It’s the very image of a fantasy shattered, leaving Elsa cowed and eager to embrace cheapened stardom on TV, amid shampoo commercials.

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Gloria Mott, too, succumbs to the inevitability of disaster in “Pink Cupcakes.” Finding Dora murdered in their dining room, her façade of stiff merriment disintegrates, the false hope that she could cajole Dandy out of his growing savagery falling away in an instant. She abandons her cajoling and pleading and instead unhesitatingly plans to accommodate her son’s murderous desires. Perhaps the most chilling moment in this season is Gloria’s cool, calm, “We’ll figure something out.”

“Pink Cupcakes” is all about dreams and the denial that nourishes them. Jimmy longs for the affection of lovely, young, normal Maggie, but minutes after she rejects his kiss, he reaches out to Desiree—undeniably beautiful, but as much an outsider as he is. Desiree is starry-eyed at the thought of bearing Dell’s children, but she soon renounces “this jacked-up sham of a marriage.” Maggie insists that she “won’t be involved in murder,” but immediately acquiesces to Stanley’s promise that it won’t look like murder. Even in Stanley’s most self-aggrandizing fantasies of success, he stands by, snubbed, as another gala attendant is lauded as the guest of honor. Andy follows his daydreams about sunny California with the flat reality that he’ll never leave Jupiter, and he ends the episode pleading for death—but even that is denied him. Everyone in the orbit of Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet Of Curiosities sustains themselves on a fantasy, and in tonight’s episode, everyone settles for less than they want, and sometimes less than they need.

Stray observations:

  • This week in “Maybe society is the real freak show”: The Cabinet Of Curiosities features living performers practicing their hard-won artistry and attracts small crowds of townsfolk who pay modest ticket prices and betray only moderate interest in the acts. The American Morbidity Museum, which exploits the corpses of those performers with “no questions asked,” draws an elegant, affluent, educated crowd, both in Stanley’s imagination and in the reality shown in earlier episodes.
  • This week’s proposed American Horror Story spinoff: Elsa snaps at Stanley, “I would rather be boiled in oil than be on television.” I smell a reality series, folks.
  • This week in American Horror Poetry: “This body is America: strong, violent, and full of limitless potential.”
  • “Mrs. Mott, I’m feeling really uncomfortable, so I’m going to go now.” Regina Ross (Gabourey Sidibe), Dora’s daughter, displays the most shocking thing in all four years of AHS: a character establishing reasonable boundaries.
  • During Elsa’s on-stage meltdown, she looks around for sympathy, only to see Ma Petite (Jyoti Amge), the world’s smallest woman, actually playing the world’s smallest violin.
  • “So these freaks are going to be beautiful corpses? How? Poison? Suffocation? Drowning?” “Yeah! All great ideas!”
  • Emily’s speculation corner: Maybe I’ll take Erik’s smile and wear it on my face. Maybe when I don his smile, I’ll absorb his spirit and his power. Maybe I’ll take over American Horror Story reviews forever… and ever… and ever. Or maybe he’ll be back without incident next week! Which is the real horror, I ask you? (I mean, I think it’s the first one, but tastes differ.) Thanks to Erik Adams for letting me step into the Cabinet Of Curiosities this week!

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