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).