“American Horror Story: Freak Show” Review: “Bullseye”

Well, the title of this week’s episode of American Horror Story pretty much sums up my viewing experience.  It hit all of the right notes:  the acting was on par, the narrative was nice and tightly focused while still moving forward, and there were some interesting cinematographic choices that really showed how dexterous some of the directors for this series can be.  And, last but not least, there were some compelling bits of character development that are, I suspect, going to have some pretty significant consequences in the episodes to come.

To start with the last point first, what really stood out to me this episode was how Dandy and Elsa have come to be mirror images of one another.  Both persist in engaging in their own delusional fantasies; both are supported by someone who clearly loves and cares for them, even against all the evidence; and both are clearly capable of murder.  Yet tonight’s episode threw a bit of a twist into the comparison.  Whereas Elsa continues to cling to her own delusions of grandeur, as well as her self-proclaimed love for her “monsters,” Dandy finally comes to recognize his own monstrosity.  Of course, that doesn’t make his monstrosity, nor his murderous compulsions, any the less horrifying, but it does allow us to see the ways in which Elsa’s delusions are nearly as dangerous and destructive, both to herself and others, as Dandy’s.

What’s more, the scene between Elsa and Ethel revealed a great deal about both of their characters.  While Ethel has so far been willing to take Elsa at her word where the twins are concerned–and who could fail to be touched by the fact that she went forward with the plan to give Elsa her piece of birthday cake–tonight she also made clear that she is not above exacting her own violent form of justice should she find that her boss has been lying to her about their whereabouts.  The fact that Elsa reveals in this scene her feeling that Ethel is the sister she never met (although how we are supposed to read her sincerity is up for debate), coupled with her poignant birthday wish that she only wants to be loved, added a note of wistfulness and melancholy to this episode.  Say what you will about Elsa, but the way that Lange portrays her makes her tug on your heart strings even as you revile her.

The narrative tonight, while not as gripping nor as adrenaline-filled as the last two weeks’, nevertheless gave us a bit of a respite from the absolute depths of horror and terror while still moving the plot forward.  There are still quite a few balls in the air, especially since Dell was nowhere to be seen tonight, and Dandy is still the wild card that he always has been.  And I, for one, still do not trust that Dandy’s mother doesn’t have something up her sleeve.  There was a moment tonight, right after Dandy announced that he knew that he had been put on earth to kill, that suggested that there might be more to her than meets the eye (and I have thought this from the beginning).  Frances Conroy is too brilliant, and too nuanced, of an actress to simply portray a one-dimensional character.

No review of this episode would be complete without mentioning the colour scheme, especially the nifty juxtaposition of Dot’s and Bette’s bows.  My good friend Brian Faucette pointed out to me the Sirkian elements of this season of AHS, and nowhere is this more conspicuously on display than here.  The lurid, almost Technicolor quality of Dot’s red bow in particular practically screamed out for interpretation, but I don’t think it’s so easy to map onto their respective personalities; neither of them is pure.  Nevertheless, the red does at least help us to understand the complex knot of emotions at the heart of Dot’s character and, just as importantly, it also helps us to understand just how close her and Dandy are (since he is also dressed primarily in red).  In this world, no one is safe from being pulled into the vortex of the darkness of the human spirit.

All in all, this episode hit all of the right spots to be a success.  While I wouldn’t say that this was the strongest outing from this season, it did contain enough formal and narrative complexity to make it one of the more interesting.  Hopefully, things will pick up a little bit next episode.  AHS can pull off these slower episodes every once in a while, but hopefully it won’t become a habit.

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