When writing about last week’s premiere of American Horror Story: Freak Show, I purposely omitted a description of the terrific musical performance by Jessica Lange late in the episode. (Treats like that should be discovered by viewers of the show and not spoiled ahead of time.) In a demonstration of her love for the limelight, she belted out a beautiful rendition of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.” What? “Life on Mars” sung in the early 1950s? I guess that’s no more bizarre than anything else that happens on the show. Nothing will top “The Name Game” from season two’s Asylum, but I’m delighted to see the Glee-like incorporation of music into the show. Those moments are sublime.
The reason I lead with this now is that there is another musical number onstage at the freak show in the second episode, “Massacres & Matinees”. This time, it’s Sarah Paulsen doing the honors as one half of the conjoined twins due of Bette and Dot, singing Fiona Apple’s “Criminal”. The lead-up to this one has as important a part in the story as Lange’s did the week before. It’s Dot, the half on the right side of the screen, who wants to be a star, but, when she says, “I’m a little nervous,” Desiree Dupree (Angela Bassett) responds under her breath, “A little tone deaf.” She has no talent.
When Bette unexpectedly discovers she’s the one with a talent for song, poor Dot is crushed. Sarah Paulsen shines as the twins, and the look on her face is great. But she’s not the only one upset by a potential rise to stardom for Bette. Elsa (Lange) does not want to take second billing in the show (“Headliners? They’re my opening act.”) At the end of the episode, she begins a plan to turn Dot against Bette. As if her opinion is not clear, when Jimmy (Evan Peters) approaches her about getting rid of new addition Dell Toledo (Michael Chiklis), she defies him. But then when she sees that he has billed her on posters in small lettering on the bottom, she says, “He has to go.”
Absent from the premiere, Dell and Desiree debut in episode two as a couple on the run following a violent event in Chicago. Dell is Ethel’s (Kathy Bates) ex and father of Jimmy, who is not aware of that fact. It seems his paternity may play a pivotal role in later episodes as characters jockey for power. Their freak credentials are that he’s a strong man and she “has three titties.” When Desiree tells Elsa she’s a “full blown hermaphrodite,” Elsa asks Dell, “What does that make you?” He replies, “The happiest man in the world.”
I mentioned last week that this may be Lange’s most fully-realized performance yet in American Horror Story. This also seems to be the largest role yet for Evan Peters. His Jimmy is the standout freak; he’s their outspoken leader… the champion of their cause. Having seemingly forgotten their brutal murder of a policeman last week, he says, “If they got to know us they’d see we’re just like them. That’s what we got to do, let them know us.” He’s deceiving himself. Unless “they” are all murderers, the freaks are not like them at all, and it’s not because of their deformities.
It does seem this week that Gloria Mott (Frances Conroy) and her son Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock) will be regular characters this season. They’re the bridge between the story of the freak show and the killer clown that’s roaming the countryside. What a pair these two are! He drinks cognac out of a crystal bottle with a nipple and, when she thinks Dandy is bored, Gloria picks up the clown on the side of the road and takes him home as a gift. He says, “I want to be a thespian. I’m turning to dust from boredom.” And when he storms from the room after a tantrum, she says, “Something ghastly always happens when you run off in a mood.”
It appears that Dandy and the killer clown (does he have a name yet, by the way?) may team up. The clown could help relieve the boredom of the young man and Dandy could provide some guidance about keeping his prisoners more secure. Dandy’s definitely gone over the edge after being rejected by Jimmy when he asked to join the freak show. He sits in his car, banging his head on the steering wheel, shouting “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you” over and over again. He could be in over his head with the clown, though, despite his mother’s words, “your very own clown, you can do whatever you want with him.”
“Massacres & Matinees” is another strong episode in the season. If it maintains its focus and continues to advance the story, without jumping to and from various plot points week after week and ignoring characters for weeks at a time, it could well be the best season of American Horror Story yet. So far, I’d argue that in its first two weeks it’s already the most consistent and well-written season yet. Ryan Murphy television series have a tendency to eventually disappoint, but that’s the beauty of the miniseries structure of this one: chances are it will be over before it goes completely bad.