It’s been a big week behind the scenes for American Horror Story. First, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, series creator Ryan Murphy claimed that all the seasons are connected in yet-to-be-revealed ways. This was thrilling news for people like me who dig the mythology of the TV shows they watch. I think it’s an intriguing concept and I can’t wait to see how all the puzzle pieces fit together; however, I’m also one of those people who like prequels and am not disappointed when learning things like, for example, the fact that senseless killer Michael Myers actually has a backstory.
Then, in a scathing opinion piece on avclub.com, Becca James stuck a pin in the balloon by accusing Murphy of a bit of revisionist history. She claims he made that statement to somehow cover the fact that he’s repurposing the same characters and stories, not just from American Horror Story, but also from other shows he’s created. James knows her television and she’s correct about plot elements recurring in different shows; however, I don’t think she’s being fair to Murphy. At the risk of blasphemy, has anyone noticed that every Joss Whedon show has the same formula?
I also disagree with her claim that Murphy is suffering from creative burnout. In the past, I’ve not always been kind to his shows. In fact, I never finished watching the entire series runs of Popular, Nip/Tuck or Glee, dropping them all at some point because they became ridiculous. But I’ve maintained all the way through American Horror Story: Freak Show that, in what is technically its fourth season, the show has never been better. I don’t care if it’s not entirely original. Perhaps in his previous shows he was experimenting and he has just now gotten it right.
Finally, Wednesday afternoon, actress Sarah Paulsen (Bette & Dot Tattler) tweeted, “The last 10 mins of tonight’s episode might be the most upsetting and terrifying thing we’ve ever done. Prepare yourselves.” In my mind, what this all means is that American Horror Story is more relevant than ever. It’s in the news, it’s generating debate and, last I heard, it’s killing in the ratings for FX. These things don’t happen for shows that are exhaling their final creative breaths. It’s a variation of the old “no press is bad press” mentality, although we all know “bad press” can kill a show these days.
Stepping off my soap box, how was episode seven, “Test of Strength?” Well, first I’ll say that after all the “upsetting and horrifying” things American Horror Story has done in its four years, I actually wasn’t sure to what event Paulsen was referring in her tweet about episode seven. Two things happened in the final two segments that were average to me on the disturbing scale, but definitely shocking highlights of this one particular episode. After reading the tweets afterwards, I know which one it was, but it’s more an emotional wallop than a physical one and probably didn’t live up to the hype.
However, what it did do was demonstrate how horror doesn’t have to be all about blood and guts. A simple, quiet act can be more disturbing than an elaborate, bloody act. This is especially true when the characters involved are strongly written and well-acted. What is even more effective about this act is that you may not realize how invested you are in the characters, especially when they don’t appear in every episode and you accuse the series of short-changing their stories. Surprise, American Horror Story has done better than you might think of getting us to care.
“Test of Strength” begins precisely where last week’s episode ended. Jimmy (Evan Peters) arrives at the Mott’s home to retrieve Bette and Dot. When it’s revealed that Dandy (Finn Wittrock) read Dot’s diary, the girls decide to leave with Jimmy. That’s all we see of the Motts for this episode. It then becomes Del (Michael Chiklis)-centric as Stanley, aka Richard Spencer (Denis O’Hare) blackmails him to provide a freak’s body to sell to the American Morbidity Museum. This includes a breakthrough in the relationship between Del and Jimmy, which has ramifications for Ethel (Kathy Bates) and Desiree (Angela Bassett).
It also includes an opportunity for Peters to shine in exciting new ways. He’s an intense young actor, but his characters in previous seasons have not had as much screen time as Jimmy does in Freak Show. In many ways, Jimmy is the conscience of the show. Through him, we see the feelings of the entire cast expressed, experience their moral ambiguities and understand what it truly means to be a freak. Peters rises to the occasion and gives an Emmy-worthy performance. Although it’s Del’s episode, Jimmy nearly overshadows him.
The other subplot featured in the episode involves Elsa’s continuing rivalry with the Tattlers. In a sense, they blackmail her for more money. During dinner with Stanley, Elsa (Jessica Lange) tells him, “I have a serious problem. The twins are back and hell bent on destroying me.” She wants him to help her locate the doctor in Chicago so he can perform the “hideous operation” that will send them away forever. He’s all for it, of course, saying they will be “quietly and easily relieved of their misery… a mercy killing.” Elsa replies, “I’ve heard about managers who would kill for their clients. Looks like I found one.”
I somehow missed the point where Penny (Grace Gummer) became an integral character to the story, but what happens to her is the second event I found “upsetting and horrifying” in episode seven. Her decision to leave home for Paul the Illustrated Seal (Mat Fraser) upsets her father (Lee Tergesen) so much that he decides to show her firsthand what it’s like to be a freak. Literally, his act demonstrates how any person can be made a freak; however, symbolically, it also shows that the line between being normal and being a freak is narrow and not so difficult to cross.
With only a couple subplots featured in the episode, it isn’t as intricate as others have been this season. However, the story is still moving forward and we’re treated to a healthy dose of revelations and turning points. I must admit, though, that I hope something happens soon with the Elsa/Tattler Twins saga. That’s the one place where the season is beginning to spin its wheels. So much time is spent demonstrating the lengths to which Elsa will go to rid herself of them, it’s becoming harder to imagine that their story will eventually end in a completely satisfactory manner.