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American Horror Story: Freak Show – Bullseye Review

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It is Elsa’s birthday week on the latest episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show, and while Miss Mars would like to commemorate her special occasion being doted on and celebrated, the troupe isn’t really feeling it. What starts off as a potentially promising and pleasant week for Elsa quickly devolves into a catastrophic and depressing endeavor full of accusations, mistrust, general resentment, and a potentially deadly knife to the belly. “Bullseye” doesn’t go for the overt horror or sensational moments like other episodes, but it does achieve a tense and anxious atmosphere that intensifies the truly compelling character stories. Freak Show continues its restrained approach to storytelling to create an engaging hour. “Bullseye” might not move the narrative along as swiftly as some might like, but it certainly gives us enough fun character moments to keep us entertained.

The troupe’s growing wariness and resentment compels Elsa to incite some of the more dramatic moments in the entire episode. “Bullseye” closely follows Elsa’s experience as she grapples with losing her authority and attempts to regain her standing with the troupe. Jessica Lange is expectedly glorious in her scenery chewing scenes, of which she gets plenty. Elsa’s emotional arc is familiar to us and to Lange, but she does it so well. Elsa’s story is the driving force of the episode, everything that happens in the hour kind of hinges on her actions of the previous installment. Her selfish act of dropping the twins off at the Mott’s place created a significant ripple throughout most of the characters in the story: the “freaks” are sad about the twins’ absence and suspicious of Elsa; Stanley’s plan is disrupted and is forced to change courses; and Dandy’s life is considerably bettered by their presence only to be completely shattered by the end of the hour.

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Also driving the story is the missing twins, not Bette and Dot themselves and their experiences, but the fact that they are missing and how their absence spurs many of the characters’ actions. There is a lot of talk about how much they miss the twins and how the whole situation doesn’t make much sense. And for all the chatter about Bette and Dot there is, again, disappointingly much too little time spent with them. Though this episode definitely serves them better than last week’s effort, and Sarah Paulson gets some really magnificent moments playing the two personalities (Bette’s flirtations with Dandy versus Dot’s disapproval and resistance) it only leaves us wanting more time with the Tattler sisters. Their scenes crackle with energy, they are visually engaging and offer a different dynamic from the rest of the show.

Their scenes with Dandy are full of campy fun and overall weirdness, the episode would have been better served if we’d seen more of that relationship developing. Because the other Dandy scenes, while amusing in their ridiculousness, are slightly tedious. Yes, it is fun to see him go berserk and get into his absurd rants, but I wish we would have spent more time showing him bond with the twins instead of watching him monologue about the desert that is his soul. Bette and Dot’s diaries are a good device with which the writers can exposit a lot of information in an interesting way. And while their entries establish how each of the twins feels about their current situation they facilitate a kind of narrative economy that robs us of some potentially engaging material. There is a turn that Dot makes in her stay with the Motts that is really glossed over and it would have been much more effective to see her begin to manipulate Dandy and establish this fake bond so when he finally does read her diary his mini-rampage would be that much more impactful and effective.

While the two story threads that drive the story follow Freak Show’s now familiar structure of featuring a sideshow storyline and a Dandy/Mott storyline kept mostly separate lest for a couple of moments where the stories converge, the two separate narratives share intrinsic connections. Not only do they revolve around the twins’ absence and how their presence or non-presence impacts different characters, but they also share a strong thematic throughline that ties it all together. Elsa says it all in the episode’s closing scene where she wistfully longs to simply “be loved” as her birthday wish. They all want to be loved, and this desire guides most of their actions, it might not be the only motivating factor in their lives, but it is a commonality most of them share. It isn’t incredibly subtle, by any means, but it does allow for us to explore the character’s desires in relation to their actions and reinforces the character’s connections.

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“Bullseye” is not a particularly scary or even exciting episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show, but it is one of the more narratively and thematically tight hours the series has given us. What did you think?

 

Final Thoughts

  • Matt Fraser is a definite standout this series and I am so glad he has gotten more stuff to do. The knife-throwing scene was tense and ultimately tragic because he is a deeply sympathetic character that we can root for. Don’t die, Paul, there is hope for you yet!
  • While I enjoyed the scenes showing Paul and Penny’s connection, I couldn’t bring myself to care about the drama with her father. It felt distracting and out of place, I’m just not invested in that character, and the series didn’t do anything to make me care about her at all.
  • RC Cola? Really, Gloria?
  • “I liked Dora better.”
  • We get another fantasy sequence of a “freak” meeting his/her demise. This week the fake out victim is Ma Petite and I think it is a much more effective use of the device. By now we are completely clued in to question the veracity of any possible flash forwards so when Maggie goes into the alternate plan we know that this is not really happening. The sequence is actually quite horrifying and disturbing on its own. But by presenting the hypothetical death a couple of scenes before Maggie attempts to go through with it, it gives us something to dread. Tension builds between the dream sequence and the moment when Maggie wakes Ma Petite and it only intensifies as she sets up to commit the violent crime. Much better done than the intercut scene of Bette and Dot and the pink cupcakes.
  • And while I am happy that Maggie has grown a conscience and doesn’t go through with killing Ma Petite, it is kind of amusing how the show is just stalling in the violence department. We do get the scene with Paul, but he isn’t dead yet. The body count is uncharacteristically low for a season of American Horror Story and it could be due to the whole ‘when you die you stay dead’ that Ryan Murphy has established for Freak Show. Some fans might be frustrated by the lack of shocking or significant deaths so far and I like how the writers have put us in the position that we are kind of hoping/rooting for someone to die already, even if it is someone we like.
Rating
7.5
Pros
  • Sarah Paulson Continues to Impress
  • Suspenseful Sequences
  • Better Fantasy Sequence
  • Tight Narrative
Cons
  • Not Enough Dot & Bette!
  • Not Particularly Scary
  • What's Up With Penny?

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