Fans of American Horror Story naturally have a season that’s their favorite. For many, it’s probably last year’s Coven. I’m partial to the second season’s Asylum, but I go back and forth between it and the first season’s, which has subsequently come to be known as Murder House. My favorites are due to the overall subject matter of the season. (Witches don’t interest me much, so that’s why Coven is at the bottom of my list.) This year, we have Freak Show and, based on its subject matter, it probably won’t be my favorite. But it will likely be the most disturbing.
Freak Show opened last night with the image of Sarah Paulsen walking through the gates of the “freak show” in slow motion while an excerpt from her diary was read as narration. It said she’s “about to enter the gates of hell, but, like the pull of gravity, there was nothing I could do about it.” I find extra meaning in that statement, because that’s exactly how I feel about American Horror Story: I know I’m about to see something awful, but I have no control to stop watching.
The rest of the episode consists of a variety of flashbacks intercut with scenes from the early days of Paulsen’s arrival. Its primary purpose is to introduce us to this year’s cast of characters and the title of the episode is quite revealing. It’s called, “Monsters Among Us.” It’s 1952 in the outskirts of Jupiter, Florida, where Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) and her freak show are being evicted from the land where they have set up shop. No customers equals no revenue, equals no rent being paid to the landlord. But Mars isn’t going to give up easily…
She hears of Bette and Dot Tattler (Paulsen), Siamese twins who have just been mysteriously involved in the murder of their mother. Before the opening credits roll, Mars has infiltrated the hospital dressed as a candy striper to convince them to join her. At this point, we have to talk about the special effects used for Bette and Dot. They are amazing. While unsettling at first, I quickly got used to the image of a woman with “one bladder, three kidneys, four lungs and two hearts.” Oh, and of course, two heads.
The two seem to be psychically linked; they can talk to each other without speaking out loud. When one of them inhales from a cigarette, the other exhales its smoke. When she meets them, Mars doesn’t hesitate to ask what we’re all wondering. With two hearts, but one shared reproductive system, has anyone tasted their “cherry pie”? Their answer hints at the personality differences between the twins, but I’m looking forward to seeing those differences play out during the course of this season’s story.
But there are things I didn’t like about the scenes between Mars and the Tattler twins. In what I take as homage to Brian DePalma’s classic Siamese twin thriller, Sisters, director Ryan Murphy uses split screen frequently. At first, it’s clever, if not a little heavy-handed, to place the split between the twins. But then the gimmick is overused as it wipes to include Mars on one side. At the same time, the background music is so loud that it’s hard to clearly understand what the characters are saying. I’m sure I missed something in the early scenes of this episode.
The other characters include Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters), also known as “Lobster Boy”. What he does to a young woman with his “flippers” at a Tupperware party pushes the boundaries of what can be shown on television, even on cable’s FX. Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates) is the “Bearded Lady”. She has a yet-to-be-explained loyalty to Mars and is commonly known as her “henchman”. American Horror Story regular Frances Conroy also appears as the lone woman in the audience for a show who wants to buy the Tattler twins from Mars. It’s unclear at this point if she will be a recurring character.
While these are important characters for this season’s Freak Show, we haven’t seen all of them yet. We know that Denis O’Hare, Emma Roberts, Michael Chiklis and Angela Bassett (among others) are also in the cast. But as we know from any Ryan Murphy show, we can’t expect to see the entire cast in every episode. In this case, it probably would have been too much for one episode, even though this one ran an extra 30 minutes. If history repeats itself, though, it won’t be long until the trait of characters missing from week to week becomes annoying.
From what we see of her in episode one, this could be the season where Jessica Lange has the most fully realized character. We already know more about her than we did at this point in other seasons. Speaking with a German accent, her Elsa Mars is ruthless, yes, but also sad and touching. The end of the episode packs an emotional punch when she reveals her true reason for bringing the Tattler twins into the freak show. Then, on top of that, we’re left with a heartbreaking image that, without dialogue, adds another layer to her character.
I haven’t even mentioned the killer clown that’s roaming the area, beating young lovers with his juggling pins and viciously stabbing them with a small pair of scissors. He’s responsible for four murders, according to television news reports, and the police suspect the Tattler twins. If you don’t suffer from “coulrophobia” (fear of clowns), you’ll nevertheless be afraid of this one. His face is some bizarre combination of mask, makeup and what looks like botched surgery. It will be interesting to see how he further integrates into the story.
If the title of the first episode, “Monsters Among Us,” is not obvious enough for you, the concept is hammered home repeatedly during the show. Mars states, “My monsters wouldn’t hurt a fly.” Then, “My monsters are the beautiful ones.” They apparently don’t mind being called “monsters”. But don’t call them “freaks,” or you’re likely to get your throat slashed.
In other circus/carnival/side show movies, the residents are usually sympathetic and misunderstood. (Like Mars says, “I’ll tell you who the real monsters are, the people outside these tents.”) But that isn’t the case here. Mars is legitimately crazy and her “troupe of entertainers… family” is clearly comprised of brutal murderers. This is Murphy’s signature twist on a horror trope, which makes this season of American Horror Story so intriguing. If it’s like the previous three, we may have an idea of what to expect following the premiere, but we’re likely to be surprised (and terrified) at every subsequent turn.