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Another American Horror Story season comes to an in a spectacularly ridiculous yet underwhelming manner. Freak Show can most simply be described as an uneven season, one that started off with sublime, atmospheric style; muddled through the bulk of its episodes; and, though the writers brought in some crazy, audaciously entertaining story threads towards the end, ultimately buckled under its own weight. If it weren’t for its endlessly watchable performers, who took mediocre material and somehow produced compelling performances (I’m looking at you, Angela Bassett) for the most part, Freak Show would have been a virtually fruitless endeavor.
Having bought the sideshow in the previous episode, Dandy is calling the shots and ready for his time in the spotlight, but his easily perturbed nature makes him lash out against the “freaks” in a chilling way. The spoiled man-child goes on a rampage, coldly killing every “freak” he encounters in an effectively disturbing sequence. One of the few moments of the episode that works as a piece of suspense and horror, Dandy’s spree is brightly lit and in your face, the brutality of his actions in plain view. This is another instance in which the season’s repeated use of fantasy sequences actually pays off, as it did with Chester’s “trick” last week. We have been conditioned to question almost every moment of overt violence shown on screen, so when something so shocking happens the sense of doubt and unknowing within us heightens. Because Dandy’s actions are so sudden (especially that first shot that kills Paul) and seemingly out of nowhere, it takes considerable time for us to grasp that this is actually happening. This disorientation builds even more tension and makes for an interestingly thrilling viewing experience.
Sadly, this sequence is the highlight of the hour because soon after that, Dandy’s comeuppance comes much too swiftly and easily (like Stanley’s before him). First of all, why did Jimmy have to be one of the few surviving “freaks’? He is the worst, and for what he contributed towards Dandy’s demise, it could have easily been anybody else in his place (certainly more beloved and engaging characters like Eve or Paul). It was really Bette and Dot and Desiree who reel Dandy in for his undoing and though it is a fun kind of karma at work in his death, it was incredibly convenient. The brief epilogue showing Desiree, Bette and Dot and Jimmy living happily ever after was also a bit overkill.
But the episode doesn’t end there, no. Instead of letting us wonder how Elsa Mars wound up on the cover of Life after having left Jupiter in disgrace, which was cool, slightly open-ended resolution to her story, the writers felt the need to give her a completely unnecessary send-off. I know this is probably Jessica Lange’s final season, but the focus on Elsa in the finale made no sense and carried no dramatic or emotional weight. Yes, it was fitting that Mordrake come back for her, but the show could have gotten to that point in a more economic way. Did we really have to suffer through Elsa’s rise in Hollywood, a coffee commercial, even more Danny Huston romantic interludes and an extended look into her afterlife? I think not. The whole thing was a tedious exercise with about a million tacked on endings that failed to impact on any level.
“Curtain Call’’ culminated the season by providing closure to most of the characters (perhaps too much) with an ending that was almost cloyingly saccharine and practically cheerful, not exactly what one expects from American Horror Story. Even in seasons where the show indulged in a “happy ending,” there was always a sense of irony or darkness underlining the narrative. The Harmon family found peace by the end of Murder House but they had to die in order to do so and condemned to share a house with a bunch of hostile, annoying and troubling ghosts. Also, antichrist baby. Briarcliff was shut down by the end of Asylum, Sister Jude was redeemed, Kit lived a happy life and Lana Winters became a success, but the dark season ended in a particularly grim note. A woman killing her own troubled son in cold blood will make for a bleak and biting conclusion. Even Coven, which had many issues, invited a bit of melancholy into its relatively happy ending.
Freak Show slipped right through the writers’ hands, they had everything: a compelling setting, intriguing characters, rich time period, beautiful visuals, a stunning cast, the makings for an engaging narrative, etc. but they just squandered it all. Though this season certainly had more enjoyable highlights (Lange belting out Bowie’s “Life in Mars”, Sarah Paulson’s impeccable and impressive performance, Angela Bassett serving tri-breasted realness, Michael Chiklis’ affecting portrayal of the conflicted Dell, Dennis O’Hare’s almost gleeful turn as the slimy Stanley, German S&M films, Pepper’s origin story, killer ventriloquist, and more) and a more compelling setting than the lackluster Coven, it feels more disappointing because it had all the potential in the world.
What did you think?