Taking a few weeks off to think about it, then re-examining everything I wrote about American Horror Story this season, it’s easy to objectively see where Freak Show fell apart. It started out strong, my favorite season yet, but then its momentum slowed after only five episodes. After a week’s break at Thanksgiving, it returned with my least favorite episode, then (with one exception) declined steadily after that, ending its run with my lowest rating yet for an episode and ultimate dissatisfaction with the entire season.
Its trajectory isn’t unprecedented. You can see from my very first recap/review that the consistency and strength of the show surprised me. However, I predicted that Freak Show would eventually fall into the same pattern as every other Ryan Murphy show, that is to say scattered and sometimes incoherent. I will maintain, though, that it never got silly. This isn’t faint praise; it’s actually quite significant and something you can’t say about Murphy’s previous shows such as Popular, Nip/Tuck and Glee.
What I liked most about Freak Show was its cast of characters. Overall, they were clearly defined, well written and true to their personalities from beginning to end. But compelling characters have to be seeking something and learn a lesson over the course of the story. How true were the characters to the story? (Warning: spoilers abound.)
The way it eventually played out, Freak Show seemed to be Elsa’s (Jessica Lange) story. But I had forgotten that the very first scene of episode one (Monsters Among Us) featured the Tattler Twins (Sarah Paulson) joining Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities. If you now view the season as being the Tattler Twins story instead of Elsa’s, does that change your opinion of how it all played out?
Much of the season revolved around Bette and Dot Tattler. Although conjoined, the two women couldn’t be more different. One was an extrovert who wanted to be a star and the other was an introvert who wanted love and happiness. As early as episode three (Edward Mordrake, Part 1), these differences drove them to seek extreme measures to physically separate. Three episodes later, Elsa had fed this desire because she was jealous of the threat they posed to her being a star.
Even earlier than that, they became the object of Stanley’s (Denis O’Hare) plot to collect and sell oddities to the American Morbidity Museum. So, not only did the story begin through their eyes, but much of the drama also revolved around them. Over the course of the season, they also became the objects of affection for Dandy (Finn Wittrock), Jimmy (Evan Peters) and Chester (Neil Patrick Harris), creating various combinations of romantic entanglements and rejections.
I didn’t gather from most of the season that the Tattler Twins truly loved Jimmy and that the other relationships were a result of his initial rejection. But since she ended the season in a flash forward showing her married to Jimmy and pregnant, I have to assume she got the happy ending she wanted. But is it the one she deserved? She did participate in the ultimate fates of the people who threatened her, but only as a supporting character, which didn’t really satisfy her strength of character.
Elsa brought the Tattler Twins into the fold as a desperate measure to save her failing freak show, but she soon regretted her decision when their popularity began to outweigh her own. Her character was perhaps the most simple and solid of the entire cast. She was selfish, had delusions of grandeur and would take extreme measures to get rid of anything or anyone who got in her way. But for too much of the season, these traits were hammered home without her actually taking action.
We needed something to happen sooner. Her character became tedious. On the other hand, when she did act, it seemed extreme. Perhaps her actions were appropriate for the amount of time she stewed over them. Or perhaps it’s that fact that all her plots ultimately failed that she became boring. When her freaks eventually rose against her and sent her running out of town, I originally thought their reaction was abrupt. But now I wonder if it was simply a failure in the storytelling that made it seem that way.
Was Elsa the villain of the season? She was rarely portrayed as sympathetic, unless you feel she was justified in taking the actions she did based simply on her strength of character. She got a happy ending, as well. After summoning Edward Mordrake by performing on Halloween, confessing her sins and then dying by what could really be considered suicide, she ended up under the big tent with all her freaks who had also died over the course of the season, destined to be a star forever.
If not Elsa, then whom? After episode three, I predicted Dandy was going to become the real villain. He usurped the most fascinating creation of the show, Twisty the Clown, to become the primary threat to nearly the entire cast. Many episodes began with Dandy and he was clearly a favorite character of the writers. Although certifiably insane, he never reached the level I hoped. That isn’t to say he didn’t perform some of the bloodiest acts of the season; it’s just to say he never reached the heights I predicted.
His momentum slowed during the season after furiously propelling the story forward until about episode ten (Orphans), in which he didn’t appear at all. This presents another gripe I’ve always shared about American Horror Story, the fact that characters come and go from week to week. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; The Walking Dead does it all the time. In a way, it’s less annoying there because those standalone episodes truly stand alone. American Horror Story tries to minimally continue its subplots each week, skewing the perception of its timelines.
Dandy definitely didn’t get what he wanted by the end of the season. However, did he get what he deserved? I was a little disappointed that the handful of surviving freaks weren’t more creative in orchestrating his demise. They were more clever and methodical in exacting their revenge. I guess his fate was appropriate for the ultimate threat he posed; however, it did not match the overall chaos he caused over the course of the entire season.
Stanley actually got a more appropriate fate, so maybe he was the true villain of the season. Regardless of who committed the atrocities, Stanley was behind most of them. When Elsa stated in episode one that the real monsters live outside the tent, and the season regularly dealt with the true meaning of the word “freak,” maybe it was the more human, most sane person who was the real bad guy. I said, “more” human, because Stanley was also a freak, housing some type of unseen monster in his pants.
In fact, most everyone was a freak in this season of American Horror Story, and that’s a point the season made for me… over and over and heavy-handedly. It’s not only physical deformities that make people freaks. Look at Del (Michael Chiklis). As Jimmy pointed out in episode eleven (Magical Thinking), he’s a freak for being normal. Two episodes earlier (Tupperware Party Massacre), Ethel (Kathy Bates) told him he was a freak because of the shame he holds inside.
Freak Show’s moral consciousness lived within Jimmy, but that doesn’t mean he always did the right thing. He was the embodiment of the freaks’ overall persecution, the face of the freak community. He was the most sympathetic character for me and was given the most satisfactory conclusion. Given a choice to be “normal,” he ultimately embraced the fact that he was a freak and chose to live with it. He was a character who went through a traditional story arc.
A couple other characters’ stories provided some level of disappointment by season’s end. Ethel’s fate came early when she was killed in episode 8 (Blood Bath). Until then, she was my favorite character, providing the show with its true emotional core. Maggie (Emma Roberts), was never a favorite, nevertheless she met a fate I don’t think she deserved. It may have been meant to be ironic, but it was misplaced, even though it was visually one of the season’s most gruesome scenes).
Other characters came and went with various, inconsistent, levels of importance. Paul (Mat Fraser) and Penny (Grace Gummer) flew under the radar but sometimes erratically rose to the surface. Barbara (Chrissy Metz) appeared with a specific purpose but then faded into the background. Regina (Gabourey Sidibe) hung around for a couple episodes only to provide a turning point for Dandy. And, most confounding of all, Chester first appeared in episode eleven and only for two episodes.
On the other hand, the fates of two seemingly secondary characters packed two of the heaviest emotional punches of the season. Ma Petite (Jyoti Amge) was killed in episode seven, but her absence was felt in all the remaining episodes. Pepper’s (Naomi Grossman) story was told in the closest thing American Horror Story has come to a true standalone episode. It controversially connected the dots between two different seasons of the show; however, it was individually the strongest episode of this season.
These are just some of the reasons why, in the end, Freak Show disappointed me. I have some suggestions for the creators so that next season will not ultimately do the same thing:
- Shorten the season. Thirteen episodes are too many for this particular series to sustain. It had started to show signs of stress before the season was half over and it was downhill after that. I’m under the impression the writers had to struggle to extend it and characters and events were added so they could do that.
- Don’t break for the holidays. The weeks off at Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year’s broke any momentum the show was building. I transitioned from being excited about the next episode, to dreading what would happen next.
- Don’t feature so many characters. If you must have so many characters, give them consistent and appropriate time for the roles they play in the story. The plot developments should be surprising but the storytelling shouldn’t be distracting.
- Make true standalone episodes. If there were going to be so many characters, Freak Show may have worked better for me if each episode featured only one character and the overall plots played out in the background of each episode. The odd mixture throughout the season was disorienting.
With all the criticism, Freak Show was still a better season than most TV series at this point in their runs. I mean, it’s overall ranking is still well above average. At its best, American Horror Story was gory, scary and shocking. Within individual episodes, the characters were strong, the situations compelling and the writing smart.
But overall, from beginning to end, its original vision was not realized. Actually, I don’t know that; the show’s creators may be entirely happy with the final product. But it’s the audience that keeps a show on the air. And that’s perhaps my fifth suggestion for the creators: remember your audience. The characters in the show should be the victims of atrocities, not the show’s viewers.