Reviewing American Horror Story: Freak Show poses something of a challenge. What area should one focus on? The cinematography? The politics of disability and queerness? The stunning display of Jessica Lange’s abject femininity and the unsung glory that is Frances Conroy? Some combination of all of the above?
That’s part of what makes this new season of American Horror Story so compelling. Part of enjoying this series, I have found, is taking it on the terms that it establishes for us. And that, it seems, is very hard to do, in no small part because Ryan Murphy’s directorial and authorial persona is so strong and so potent that it threatens to overshadow anything that he produces. In this case, however, I think it worth dwelling on some of the positive/enjoyable aspects of this week’s episode, “Massacres and Matinees.”
To begin with, this season of AHS shows some remarkable versatility with cinematography, showcasing how camera angles and colour can dramatically (re)shape how we respond to particular environments. In addition to the numerous canted angles that serve to alienate us and signal to us the distorted and strange world we are being asked to view, I was also struck by the stark and subversive colour arrangement of the tense scene between mother and son pair of Dandy and Gloria Mott. Only AHS could so compellingly change a seemingly normal upper-class meal into something obscene and subversive.
Jessica Lange continues to channel the haunting and abject spirit of Marlene Dietrich (particularly as she appeared in the noir masterpiece Touch of Evil), and to great effect. Elsa may be her most deranged yet enigmatic creation yet, and I for one am very excited about seeing in which particular directions this season (which may be Lange’s last) will take her character as she struggles to maintain her control.
As pleasurable as it is to watch Lange’s performance, however, I think that Frances Conroy continues to be the unsung star of this show. Time and again she has proven that she can successfully weave together the demonic and the angelic into one single performance. Her portrayal of Gloria, a woman clearly unhealthily obsessed with her son (who is himself a perfect example of the 1950s nightmare of the mama’s boy) manages to twist familial bonds into something disturbingly lurid. The fact that she seems so oblivious to the sinister appearance of everyone’s favourite killer clown (though one could argue that she is clearly aware of his murderous potential), only heightens the sense of alienation and disturbance that we experience.
But what about the series’ politics of disability and queerness? This episode seems to mark one of the “thesis moments,” when it becomes clear (at least, as clear as this series ever is), about what it wants its viewers to think. In this case, the political message comes from the mouth of Jimmy, who defiantly (and somewhat desperately) asserts that all they want to be is treated like everyone else (hence their strident disavowal of the term “freaks”). Yet this is the one thing that they are strenuously denied, as everyone in the town of Jupiter insists on seeing them as not only different, but deviant and dangerous. And, as is all too often the case, such prejudice turns to violence. This seems to me at least to AHS‘s attempt to evoke the desire for being treated just like everyone else even while it disavows that possibility. Who knows? Perhaps by the end of this season all of the characters will embrace their difference and create a world all their own.
Ultimately, I found this to be a compelling second installment for the season, setting the stage nicely for the things to come. Again, AHS is one of those series that needs to be taken on its own terms, as nebulous as those sometimes are. It stridently and yet subtly tries to unsettle the things about ourselves and our culture that we tend to hold the most dear. As a queer person who is always seeking out ways to disturb and unsettle normativity, I can’t help but see the series as a good thing, even if it doesn’t always succeed as much as I’d like.