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American Horror Story: Freak Show: “Show Stoppers”

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American Horror Story has a genuine appeal: A stable of talented actors, lavish period costuming, the pulpy delight of unabashedly lurid storytelling. When it’s on, it’s on, spilling out jolts and moments of hilarity in equal measure, creating striking scenes with its highly stylized imagery and wry scripts.

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But American Horror Story: Freak Show takes the easy way out at every turn. It churns out dozens of potential plotlines, then chops them down, one by one, with no suspense or sense of anticipation. It sets up relationships and dynamics, then discards them willy-nilly. It trades tension and drama for gore, or for punchlines, or for sheer numb repetition.

The first act of “Show Stoppers” is AHS: Freak Show’s most overt homage to Tod Browning’s Freaks, with a feast for the remaining family of Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet Of Curiosities, then a low-angle chase scene as Elsa’s ”monsters” pursue Stanley through the campground. But the script isn’t satisfied with a silent, knowing homage. First, Elsa promises a screening of the film itself.

That screening of Freaks never occurs, not on the TV show and not at the campground. It’s just an excuse for Elsa’s colleagues to outline its plot for Stanley—and for us—just in case we can’t be trusted to recognize the feast, the crawling chase in the rain, the foregrounded caravan wheel, the victimizer turned victim as he desperately scrabbles in the mud. The allusions are many and clear, but Elsa namedropping the film makes them all but impossible to miss.

For such a practiced manipulator, Stanley doesn’t have much savvy when the chips are down. He cowers before Elsa’s threats, not leveraging his damning knowledge of her for his own good, only blurting out the truth as a last-ditch act of revenge. So Elsa intends to set the entire camp against him, and—despite her own fallings-out and failures with them—she does, easily.

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“I’ve found an old friend,” Elsa tells Jimmy, trying to inspire hope in his bitter heart. Massimo has sought Elsa across thousands of miles and tireless, torturous decades, and he happened to walk into her camp the day that another performer is ready to be fitted for prosthetics? That’s convenient timing.

After the previous episode establishing his complicated history of dissociation, Marjorie dashes Chester’s denial in one quick remark: “I’m a doll.” “I’m a monster,” he cries, suddenly reliving and realizing the murderous past he’s denied so long. What a breakthrough! And so easy.

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But it doesn’t clear the path for Dandy to take over the Cabinet Of Curiosities, so Chester stabs Marjorie and turns himself in for her murder, a fugitive surrendered. By now, Chester has accepted that Marjorie is merely a wooden puppet, but he still sees her as a human figure, including the copious blood that spills from her wounds, because that is more visually dramatic, and therefore dramatically easier.

More copious blood, more spilling wounds: Dot and Bette decline to perform as Chester’s assistant, and the story—the spectacle, really, because story isn’t the driving force here—needs a replacement. Maggie volunteers immediately. “I know how the trick works,” she chirps, and “I want to be part of the show.” Last time she was in a magic show, Dandy was trying to actually saw her in two. It doesn’t seem likely, or even remotely plausible, that she’d step up so easily.

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Once she’s in the act, the show could draw out some suspense through ambiguity, by playing with the moment, by creating a layered illusion on the Mars stage and the TV screen… but AHS: Freak Show isn’t invested in suspense or ambiguity or layers. It’s invested in big gloppy gushes of intestinal matter, so that’s what we get. It’s fast, it’s easy, and it’s over. Less story, more spectacle.

The story, or the spectacle, needs Elsa’s “children” to perform their vengeance on Stanley, so they’re given no pause in the moment by his revelation of Ethel’s murder. Indeed, it takes a full night to percolate, then they agree—easily, unanimously, vehemently—that “it all makes sense: Elsa killed Ethel!” The plot required them to take some time, so they did. It’s appallingly lazy storytelling, and it’s characteristic of the whole season.

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Even at its most lazy and repetitive, American Horror Story still delivers moments of striking visuals and potent acting. Danny Huston’s silhouetted entrance and Jessica Lange’s slow approach to him as light filters in through the striped big top feel both romantic and epic. Elsa and Massimo’s reminiscence at Jimmy’s bedside is gratuitous, an excursion tacked on to tether this season yet again to AHS: Asylum, but their faces as they tell it are grim and lovely. The candlelight flickering on the soft edge of Lange’s jaw as she mourns the life they could have had is pure visual poetry, its resonance greater than the whole tawdry episode. And Dandy taking the stage alone feels more than right. It feels inevitable.

For all its shortcuts, “Show Stoppers” sets the stage admirably for next week’s finale. Dandy has taken ownership of the Cabinet Of Curiosities. Elsa is on her way to what looks like fame and comeuppance. Stanley is the new Meep. Jimmy is healing. Maggie is horribly, horribly dead. But when a show spends so much time and energy ginning up new avenues and character interactions only to toss them away unexplored, it’s hard to invest emotionally in those that remain. (Let me be clear: invest emotionally in is critic-speak for give a single damn about.)

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That’s doubly true when it fails to harvest its existing dramatic elements, no matter how resonant, recent, or useful they might be. Only last week, Chester explicitly stated that his dearest wish is to belong, his deepest fear exclusion. We should see his mingled fear and fury ticking away in his head from the moment Elsa brusquely dismisses him from the celebratory table, not him jauntily flourishing his umbrella as he exits with Marjorie on his arm. This week, Maggie promises Jimmy she’ll work toward “a clean start” to “make it right!” But Maggie gets no redemption, no clean start, just her guts slopping out onto the stage, which makes her pledges just so much frantic bleating. As the sideshow performers gather in Ethel’s caravan to plan their final vengeance on Elsa, Desiree chugs a bottle of liquor before smashing it into a crude weapon, as her fellow freaks stamp their feet. It’s a reinterpretation of Freaks’ loving-cup scene, but also a refutation of it, rejecting the shared drink and the bond it symbolizes.

The most taxing element of this season is its insistence on showing and reshowing the same sordid moments: Jimmy’s hands being hacked off, Elsa’s legs removed by a dirty chainsaw, Ma Petite’s drowning (imagined, actual, and remembered). I can’t even call them moments of shock, because they become dull through repetition. It’s grisly. It’s gory. It’s splattery, gutty, messy. But it’s not shocking. The most shocking thing about American Horror Story: Freak Show is how enthusiastically it squanders its potential.

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Stray observations:

  • “I may not have been completely truthful, but I do know people in Los Angeles. My cousin works at the Garden of Allah.” I don’t think a hotelier (or a bellhop) is going to cut any ice with Elsa, Stanley.
  • So, the circus is sufficiently medically advanced to reduce Stanley’s body size by roughly 80% without him succumbing to death from blood loss or shock, but barely capable of keeping Jimmy’s bandages clean and his wounds uninfected? That seems like a poor balance of resources.
  • The wet, heavy splash of guts from the Goldin box made me bark out loud with laughter. Even when I’m most bored with AHS, it still has the power to make me wince and laugh.
  • That’s Hans Gruper, not Hans Gruber. (Benefits of a classical education.)
  • Emily’s speculation corner: Stanley’s story seems to be at a natural end, and without Lillian Hemmings to manage ongoing acquisitions, the American Morbidity Museum may be finished, too, but if this season doesn’t end with a shot of Stanley’s freakishly large member in a display jar (or, depending on FX’s standards, a vaguely phallic object bobbing in a jar in the foreground while a crowd ogles), it will be a wasted opportunity. Another wasted opportunity.
  • Dandy tells Elsa he never refuses a lady in distress. She’s not in distress, she informs him tartly, “but I am in a rush,” which sums up the whole episode.
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