American Horror Story: Freak Show – Monsters Among Us Review
American Horror Story
is back with yet another relentless, over the top, ostentatious iteration and it is gloriously awesome. This season, Freak Show
follows a group of sideshow performers led by Jessica Lange’s Elsa Mars as they struggle to maintain whatever is left of their attraction alive. When Elsa stumbles upon a set of conjoined twins, Bette and Dot Tattler, played by Sarah Paulson, she sees an opportunity that could save her show (conjoined twins will certainly bring in more customers) and recruits them to join her troupe. Meanwhile the town of Jupiter, Florida (where the action is set) is being terrorized by the murderous and terrifying Twisty the clown with which Ryan Murphy and company exploit the scary clown trope in an disturbingly effective way.
“Monsters Among Us” does a fine job introducing the many eclectic characters that inhabit the beautifully rendered, pastel-colored world of 1950’s Florida, which is realized flawlessly by the show’s impeccable production design and cinematography. The entire episode is a feast for the eyes; from the first quiet moments in the farmhouse to the shambolic frenzy of the actual freak show (complete with a Moulin Rouge
-y musical performance of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars”) there is always something interesting and captivating onscreen. The cast is a wonderful mix of familiar faces (Evan Peters, Kathy Bates, etc.) and new additions that add a certain authenticity to the sideshow milieu. The specially abled performers aren’t given much to do this hour, but hopefully will be given stories and actual characters to play in the future, and not just remain the glorified props some of them were in this episode, which would be a shame.
With a vast cast full of unconventional characters (bearded lady, illustrated man, lobster boy, and so much more) and imposing personalities, plus the introduction of various story threads, it isn’t necessarily easy to stand out amongst all the insanity, however Paulson’s Bette and Dot are undoubtedly the standouts in a season that is all about the freakish and peculiar. Not only are the twins a great technical achievement, but a fantastic showcase for Paulson’s impressive acting talents. There is no wonder why the bulk of the narrative hinges on the twins’ experience as they leave their farmhouse and enter the world of the freak show to embark on this new phase of their lives. It is fascinating how; despite all that goes on in a scene featuring Bette and Dot (split screen, voice over, etc.) the performance is never lost or undermined by the special effects and the impossibility of the situation.
The performance Paulson gives as these two very distinct individuals is definitely a major highlight of the episode. The girls have different ways of speaking, different body language, they hold their faces in distinct ways, they have contrasting personalities, etc. We are quick to find out that the domineering and Puritanical Dot calls the shots while sweet, unsuspecting Bette longs for freedom. The show has a lot of fun with their unique situation, the use of split screen shows us each of their perspectives in an visually compelling way and their telepathic conversations convey a sisterly bond as well as a contentious relationship that manifests through a series of snipes and jabs primarily aimed towards Bette. These scenes are the most dynamic and interesting to watch and I can’t wait to see where the story takes them.
As for the scariest character, that is unquestionably Twisty, the scary clown that trumps all scary clowns before it. For a horror show, American Horror Story
has never really been that scary at all. Sure it has been moody and disturbing, it has been unsettling and upsetting, but never really “jump from your seat”, “need to leave the room/pause the television” scary. This might change with Twisty, however, because just the sight of the threatening clown is enough to give us nightmares. He might be the scariest villain in all American Horror Story
history and in this first episode has already committed multiple acts of horrible violence. Even though those acts of explicit violence are horrifying and effective, Twisty is that much more scary in the more quiet moments, like when he is simply, creepily standing still.
In fact, arguably the most disturbing shot of the entire episode is Twisty sitting all alone on that carousel, just chilling, and being a weirdo. His presence alone, in such proximity to where the rest of the characters are, and the implication of violence or threat are intensely disquieting. Aside from Twisty, there aren’t any more unsettling antagonists to the people of Jupiter or the freak show carnies. There is the promise or implication of conflict between the authorities and the troupe members, who feel persecuted and discriminated against. Like past seasons of the show, the theme of the disenfranchised and the plight of the “other” are prevalent and explored in not so subtle ways. While these issues are undeniably engaging and can make for fascinating stories and narratives, they have been showcased to varying degrees of success in the past. Does Murphy have something new to say about these ideas or will we be treading familiar waters?
It is too soon in the series’ run to see where exactly the story threads will lead and if the rest of the season can sustain the fairly contained and contemplative (for American Horror Story standards) tone of “Monsters Among Us” but this is a fun start to the much-anticipated season. What did you think?
- While I enjoyed most of the plot points, the stuff with Penny the candy stripper felt a little bit underdeveloped. Perhaps we’ll see more of her but the weird drug-fueled orgy thing came out of left field (not uncommon to the show) and was so bizarrely untouched after that scene that it felt like something was missing.
- Loved Gloria Mott and her son Dandy, fantastic comic relief and a great embrace of the camp humor the show does so deliciously. “Mother made it cozy for you.” Ha!
- Yes this shoe can be moody and disturbing, it is pulpy and over the top in its violence and subject matter at times, and the narrative might not always make sense, but it can also go and do something sublime like having Jessica Lange sing “Life on Mars” in a spectacular musical number that makes us throw whatever gripes with the show out the window because, come on. How can you not love that?! The show’s unabashed, shameless love of spectacle and extravagance is what makes it ultimately compelling and irresistible.
- They paid her two hundred thousand dollars to take a hot shit on that movie.”