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When American Horror Story: Freak Show premiered with an uncharacteristically subdued and deliberate storytelling style, I was cautiously optimistic that it would retain this coherence throughout its entire run. The slow pacing and haunting setting created an atmosphere of dread that was a welcome change from the frenzied and breakneck pace of the preceding seasons. Additionally, the insular narrative kept everything relatively tied together. It was more than likely that Freak Show would ultimately unravel, as most of the seasons before it, and it did, yes. However it has somehow managed to recuperate in these last couple of hours. No, it hasn’t returned to the contemplative mood of its opening episodes, quite the opposite, Freak Show has gone so far off the rails that it hardly resembles the show it started off as. Still, by shifting the focus away from Jimmy and spotlighting the ridiculous insanity that the sideshow ensemble provides, the series has taken a much more entertaining approach.
After being bludgeoned by the seemingly interminable Jimmy Darling saga (which is somehow still going on) that overwhelmed the narrative in those middle episodes and single handedly brought down the enjoyment level considerably, the show is kind of fun again. It is a different kind of fun than it was in the beginning but it is fun nonetheless. If one ignores the few scenes that feature Jimmy and his pathetically insipid storyline, then (almost) everything else is audaciously insane and quite satisfying.
Starting with the fantastic cold open, which sees the demise of the manipulative and corrupt Stanley in a chilling and suspenseful sequence. Stanley has been the perpetrator of so much harm and evildoing against this group of people and has been shaped to be this formidable opponent to the “freaks” that his demise does feel hurried and much too “easy” for the show. But, whatever, that’s how things get resolved in American Horror Story. The scene in which the “freaks” descend upon the cowering conman is effectively creepy and tense and makes up for the shoddy narrative construction. And, the final moments of the episode show us that Stanley’s punishment was not as straightforward as it seemed, and perhaps there might be more to his undoing.
The troupe rallying together is fun to watch and an element of the series that was presented early on, but the writers were just not consistent with. It is nice to see this dynamic make its return, but I wish it had stayed present throughout the season; it would have tied many threads together. Regardless, the freak show against the world theme has come back for the ending of the season, or so it seems, and I guess that is a good thing. Their sense of camaraderie and community does provide some wonderful moments, in addition to the wonderful cold open: their meeting in which they discuss Elsa is a great scene as well as their gathering in Ethel’s trailer right before they set off to carry out their plan. Angela Bassett, in particular, makes those moments sing. She, who has been underused all season (whatever happened with her beau?), is making some seriously delicious lemonade out of the shitty lemons that is her paltry material. Her reaction to Maggie’s horrific death (“Steal her jewelry and bury the bitch.”) was absolutely hilarious and appropriate for that character, so cold, but done in a way that doesn’t alienate Desiree. You still like her even after seeing her be so unfeeling.
Speaking of Maggie. Emma Roberts was definitely struggling through that painful scene where she bandages Jimmy’s hands so the writers did her a kindness in killing her off in a remarkable and actually disturbing scene. After playing around with subjective visions vs. reality all season long, the show finally gets it right with this scene. The heightened point of view of Chester’s twisted mind makes us question the veracity of the events, but unlike the previous times this has been done in the season, the conflict and tension created by not being sure what is happening is thrilling and suspenseful. The scene is a crazed fever dream and it is not until you come out of it that one realizes what has actually occurred. I loved how the reality of his actions hits Chester and the audience at the same moment, the gravity of his actions emphasized by the bleak and plain setting.
There was a lot of that kind of stuff this installment, much frenzied action and weird developments that added to the peculiar style of Freak Show. From more conjoined twin sex, to yet another tie-in to Asylum, to direct references to the movie Freaks, to a puppet murder, to whatever they did to Stanley, there was a lot stuffed into this hour of television. And if American Horror Story is not going to bother following through with a coherent narrative, the least it can do is supply the crazy. “Show Stoppers” did just that.
What did you think?