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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–“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.