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“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.

“American Horror Story: Freak Show” Review: “Pink Cupcakes”

The Agony and the Ecstasy

After finally getting the chance to watch last week’s episode of American Horror Story, I have to admit that I was a little worried.  The infamous clown was dead, the townspeople seemed to have finally accepted the freaks, and all seemed right with the world.  And then tonight’s episode happened, and all of my worries when out the window.

There was something intensely agonizing and pleasurable about tonight’s episode, and I don’t mean the former in a pejorative sense.  Instead, I mean to suggest that this episode of AHS:  Freak Show fully utilized the conventions of the horror genre to their fullest extent, drawing us as viewers into both the beauty and the brutality of male violence.  A large part of this, of course, has to do with the camera’s fetishizing of Dandy’s body as he goes about his exercise regimen and carefully and excruciatingly carves his physique into the ultimate killing machine (noting all the while that he is the epitome of America, well-sculpted and violent).  Indeed, that is part of what makes his character so terrifying; he is indeed the epitome of what dominant mid-century ideology believed America to be (and that many conservatives still want it to be).  He exposes the rottenness, the deviance, and the violence that we as a culture have sought so hard to suppress, and that is what gives his appearances that delicate yet overwhelming frisson.

Naturally, the fact that Matt Bomer was cast as the hustler with a painter’s spirit (who, incidentally, has apparently been carrying on an affair with the repressed homosexual Dell) that Dandy ultimately murders heightens our sense of mingled pleasure and dread as we know what is coming.  The exposure of Bomer’s well-crafted physique, as well as the mingled grace and frenzy that characterizes his death, interweave to generate the mingled senses of ecstasy and horror we are invited to feel at his death.  There is a certain measure of quasi-sexual release of at last having him meet his awaited doom (since we in the audience know that Dandy has chosen him to be his next victim, having already found the courage to do away with Dora).  In my view, there is a decidedly queer sensibility motivating these scenes, ranging from the costumes–Dandy is quite fussy about his appearance–and the prolonged nature of the victim’s death (he even appears to still be alive as Dandy is dismembering him).  I am also reminded of two films that also fetishize and aestheticize exquisite male beauty engaged in or falling victim to frenzied violence:  Fight Club and American Psycho.  Like those films, it remains unclear just how critical AHS is of this type of violence, though it certainly seems to subtly suggest that the repressive regime that forced gay men to live subcultural lives rendered them vulnerable to exactly the types of violence that Dandy indulges in (which in itself may be a manifestation of his repressed homosexuality).

Of course, Elsa remains one of the series’ most stunningly crafted creations, and Lange perfectly captures the obvious state of delusion that has well and truly laid claim to what bit of a grasp on reality she possessed.  Whatever goodwill she might have earned from us as viewers has been thoroughly squandered by her irrational and cruel jealousy of the twins  That, however, does not make her any less fascinating and compelling as a character, though we are clearly invited to be ambivalent about her (and to take pleasure in our own ambivalence).  As always, Lange keeps us poised at the delicate balance of revulsion and sympathy.

fAll in all, tonight’s episode was one of the most ecstatically horrific that the series as a whole has yet produced.  Having taken care of so many of its storylines, however, I am left wondering exactly how they are going to fill up the remainder of the season.  Are we simply going to continue seeing Dandy make his delusionally happy way along the absolute oblivion?  It remains to be seen, of course, but hopefully this episode is the beginning of something grand (guignol)Lastly, it is worth noting this episode’s cunning critique of the medium of television, most notably Elsa’s line that she would rather be boiled in oil than be on television.  Television, she says, represents the death of culture and the dampening of the dreams made possible by the cinema.  It is a striking scene, in no small part because we seem to be living in a media age in which it is television, more than film, that has managed to express our cultural dreams and nightmares.  In the age of the blockbuster and the franchise, can we really say that film expresses our cultural dreams?  It’s a sly bit of ironic hypocrisy on the series’ part, but perfectly in keeping with its continued emphasis on the power of film (to note but two examples, Elsa’s obsession with Marlene Dietrich and Paul the human seal’s note that it was film that led him to believe in the myth of the American dream).  Who would have thought that a TV series would evoke nostalgia for a bygone age of luminous quality cinema?

All in all, tonight’s episode was one of the most ecstatically horrific that the series as a whole has yet produced.  Having taken care of so many of its storylines, however, I am left wondering exactly how they are going to fill up the remainder of the season.  Are we simply going to continue seeing Dandy make his delusionally happy way along the absolute oblivion?  It remains to be seen, of course, but hopefully this episode is the beginning of something grand (guignol).

“American Horror Story: Freak Show” Review: “Edward Mordrake: Part One”

In order to enjoy American Horror Story:  Freak Show, or the series as a whole, really, you have to be able to take the good with the bad and just accept the series as it is, warts and all.  While part of last night’s episode was a little tedious–I’m still not sold that this 1 hr, 23 min. format is a good idea–there were also parts that showcased the series’ strengths, making this a solid lead-up to Halloween.

The scenes with Ethel were particularly poignant ones, and they gave us a much-needed look into her backstory and what makes her tick.  If Elsa remains something of an enigma–and a not very likable one at that–Ethel is the beating human heart of this story.  Her tearful encounter with the doctor was a strong beginning, and the revelation of Dell’s horrid manipulation and abandonment of her, as well as her absolute willingness to die, allow her to occupy a privileged position as we watch her march resolutely toward her own death.  The fact that Mordrake recognizes her virtue underscores what the series obviously wants us to believe of her.

Part of what continues to make this season pleasurable to watch, however, is the way in which it consciously plays with the vestiges of its cinematic predecessors.  The flashback scenes including the sinister Edward Mordrake were eerily reminiscent of the horror classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Todd Browning’s Freaks continues to exert a powerful pull on the narrative and on our consciousness.  And, of course, there is the ever-present shadow of Marlene Dietrich, who continues to serve as the inspiration for Elsa’s antics.  This season of AHS, perhaps more than any other, seems designed in part to provide a specific set of viewing pleasures for the cinephile and the film buff who knows his horror film history.

The best line of the night, as always, went to Elsa who, when confronted with the myth of Edward Mordrake, proudly declaims:  “I am the only myth around here.”  Lange continues to shine, and I particularly appreciated tonight’s allusion to her long-standing competition with Marlene Dietrich whom, she claims, stole her career.  Of course, we in the audience are really expected to believe that Elsa could ever have been up there in the ranks of one of cinema’s most celebrated actresses, but I think we can all agree that Jessica Lange continues to show that she can gather around herself the sort of faded female glamour that made Dietrich so compelling in her later roles (and I’m thinking of her roles in both Touch of Evil and Witness for the Prosecution) and invite us as viewers along for the campy ride.  Perhaps no actress working in television today can so forthrightly and confidently evoke a mingled sense of pitiful and powerful in the same character.

All in all, this most recent entry was a strong one, with some excellent performances and some clever allusions to the past.  Now that Mordrake has been added to the mix, along with two hucksters (Denis O’Hare, swoon), it’s really hard to say what is going to happen next.  Just as compellingly, we know now that the twins may not be twins for that much longer, as it seems that Dot is determined to gain her freedom from Bette, even if that means the death of her sister.  This episode raises the troubling fear of what exactly a set of conjoined twins should do if it turns out that one wants to live a life of their own.  As Dot says, at least one of them can be happy if they end up going through the the separation.

Of course, no review of the episode would be complete without generous priase for Patti LaBelle, who continues to show her defiance and disgust with Dandy and his murderous impulses.  Though Dora hovers at the edges of the main narrative, like Ethel she seems to be one of its more steadfast characters, standing firm, even though she is surrounded by all of the madness and horror that has infected the white middle-class home that she works in.  Thought it might be too much to ask for, we can but hope that she will one day visit a bit of well-deserved justice on Dandy.  We can but hope.

“American Horror Story: Freak Show” Review–“Massacres and Matinees”

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.