If there’s a justification for American Horror Story’s raging “us versus them” mentality, it’s captured in the final image of “Test Of Strength”: Ma Petite, floating in clear fluid, actually dead and seriously on display in Freak Show’s Mütter Museum stand-in. This is no nightmare like the Brocktoon fantasy sequence from last week. Once more, a Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet Of Curiosities cast member has fallen, another defenseless life snuffed out by the big, meaty paws of the outside world. Jimmy Darling and his friends remain on high alert, because the freak is an endangered species in 1950s America. Their livelihood is going belly up and their kind is being hunted into extinction, displayed without their permission for the “edification” of society types. But we all know what society really is, don’t we gang? (A brief refresher: Society is the real freak show.)
It’s a pity, then, that no one thought to be on guard a few nights after Dell Toledo tried pulling a similar stunt in Amazon Eve’s caravan. You can trip over plenty of obstacles defending American Horror Story’s shortcuts and omissions, but this one’s hard to get past. Even after a successful bonding session with his son, even with the pressure of Stanley’s blackmail plot weighing down upon him, there’s no good explanation for the ease with which Dell enters Ma Petite’s chambers. The freaks’ wagons have been circled since episode one in an effort to prevent exactly this kind of thing. Also, most of the people in the camp declare that they want Dell dead in “Test Of Strength.” And yet despite all that, he’s the one tromping around, doling out death on his own.
It’s sloppy, but that’s to be expected from an episode of American Horror Story that tosses seven or eight of its proverbial chainsaws into the air without any noticeable concern for juggling them. What really irks me about the of “Test Of Strength” is how it left me feeling: Numb. That’s a surprise, because Jyoti Amge’s been one of my favorite parts of Freak Show, and I expected to feel her character’s death on a more profound level. It’s the timing of the death that prevented me from doing so. “Test Of Strength” spends the majority of its runtime acting as if it doesn’t have the guts to bump off a supporting player like Ma Petite. It’s an hour-long game of chicken, coming close to chloroforming Eve and braining Jimmy, but backing off at the last second.
There should be a gasp when Amge’s limbs fall limp, but it got none from me. Instead, I felt like American Horror Story was administering a different test of strength, sizing itself up to see if it still has a little of the old ultraviolence in its bones. More of a presence than a genuine character, Ma Petite dies a symbolic death, but not an emotional one. It’s up to us to make sure she didn’t die in vain (and I’ve pretty much failed there), because the show doesn’t seem to care that much about it. Not when there are elaborate tattoos being given without consent and a doctor committing suicide despite the state in which Dell left the physician’s hands!
The introduction of Penny’s home life last week is one of those “Did I doze off during a previous episode?” moments, the type of thing that might convince a viewer that Freak Show’s freak show was abandoned, leaving Grace Gummer and Lee Tergesen as the season’s new leads. They could certainly handle it: When Gummer and Tergesen share the screen, they tap all of the tension that should’ve been in Jimmy and Dell’s barroom summit, a sequence that goes completely slack despite the fact that each of its stars have been instructed to kill the other. With so little screentime, Tergesen is more menacing than any Freak Show villain to come before him, with a chilling command of megalomania that makes him seem like he accidentally wandered into “Test Of Strength” from a different, better show. But like fellow monster Dandy Mott, Tergesen’s Vince picks up a bad habit this week: diverting traffic back in the direction of Fraulein Elsa’s.
Of all the crazy maneuvers American Horror Story could pull in the middle of the season, I hold out morbid hope that one season will spontaneously reboot itself midstream, recognizing the glut of characters and tangles of loose ends left in its wake and restarting fresh. I feel that more than ever with Freak Show, which strains to find anything colorful or fun about something as historically colorful and ostensibly fun as circus life. “Test Of Strength” features a scene that’s nothing but a volley of yelling between Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, Michael Chiklis, and Evan Peters, but even an argument between an Oscar winner, an Oscar nominee, Vic Mackey, and the Fox/X-Men version of Quicksilver fails to make the freak show interesting. There’s a gaping whole in the middle of this season, an emptiness Freak Show is desperately trying to fill with midseason additions like Tergesen or Gabourey Sidibe.
It’s not the actors’ fault: With the exception of Lange, Chiklis, and one half of Sarah Paulson’s dual role, there’s a purity to the sideshow performers that falls short of compelling. The Fraulein Elsa’s core—Jimmy, Eve, Paul to some extent—are incorruptible, to the point that their goodness sometimes imbues them with superpowers. Assaulted in her trailer in the middle of the night, Eve outmuscles Dell—a man whose entire career is built on muscle. (Eve’s no featherweight, but still…) Coupled with the season’s “showbiz as freak show” analogy, I worry that this will lead season four’s main conflict into a tedious philosophical debate: Inherently noble artists (commonly referred to as “players”) slugging it out with obviously wicked critics, con artists, and other perceived parasites (heretofore known as “haters”).
In the form of Nirvana covers and general merriment brought to a loyal and paying audience, the players are going to play, play, play, play, play. The haters, meanwhile, will hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, through methods of exploitation including but not limited to murder, blackmail, forced body modifications, and snide remarks about Jimmy’s rendition of “Come As You Are.” The gist of the argument is that one party creates while the other one destroys, which would have a ring of truth to it if the mere act of creating wasn’t held aloft as an unimpeachably righteous act. The continuing saga of Dot and Bette Tattler suggests that Freak Show doesn’t see things in such stark contrasts, what with Bette succumbing to the trappings of fame and all the fancy hairdos that come with it. But that sort of thing is enabled and abetted by Elsa, who’s as much of an over-the-hill hack living vicariously through someone else’s talent as any leeching villain in a backstage musical. (Though the leeching part is just what Jessica Lange characters do on American Horror Story.)
I hope Freak Show is less myopic than that. I hope that the image of Ma Petite encased in glass isn’t about how artists just aren’t free to make their art, man. I hope that “Test Of Strength” alludes to something stronger, to ideas about finding your place in the world, maintaining that place with like souls while keeping the door open to welcome newcomers. That’s the sort of thing that gives weight to a character’s death, not the shocking circumstances of the death. I don’t have the most confidence that this is the case with American Horror Story: Freak Show, but stranger things have happened. (If you or someone you know witnesses “stranger things” in real life, please contact the people in charge of American Horror Story and remind them of all the weird, unexplained alleyways they’ve yet to wander down.)
- This week in proposed American Horror Story spin-offs: The way Ethel and Desiree sneak past the doctor’s “out of business sign” suggests that the duo could be the right people to resurrect Murder, She Wrote.
- This week in “Emma Roberts was there, too”: The episodic stills for Freak Show contain a large number of images in which Emma Roberts stands isolated in a medium shot, staring off into the distance at actors who get to act out actual storylines for their characters. In this first image, two-time American Horror Story ensemble member Emma Roberts stands in front of an empty cage. What kind of animal was kept in that cage? And where did it go? Surely these are questions that will be answered by characters who are not played by Emma Roberts.
- Here, Emma Roberts, co-star of the sleeper comedy hit We’re The Millers, crosses her arms in the universal sign of skepticism. Either that, or the youngest member of the Roberts family acting dynasty has been captured in a candid on-set moment, struck by the disbelief that she came all the way to Louisiana for this? They wouldn’t treat Aunt Julia this way.
- This week in American Horror Poetry: “The screams of a man who’s been nut-shot / are so specific”
- The letter-reading split-screen effect introduced in “Test Of Strength” is gratuitous, but in all the right, flashy ways. If Sarah Paulson is always going to be stuck in a corner of the screen when she’s just playing one of the Tattlers, so the least the show can do is contrast that with a head-on, black-and-white shot of Jessica Lange. Is that a reference to something specific, or just a new twist on the Sisters riff introduced in “Monsters Among Us”?
- After going to great lengths to make Even Peters come off as a high-school Kurt Cobain in Murder House, “Test Of Strength” finally puts Cobain’s words in Peters’ mouth. Jimmy swears he don’t have a gun, so that should put Dell at ease.
- Next time: Freak Show is off next week for Thanksgiving, but join us on December 3 as we indulge in that most storied of showbiz traditions: The American Horror Story Christmas episode.