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American Horror Story: Freak Show takes a more fragmented direction in narrative with “Pink Cupcakes”. The hour weaves in and out of disparate storylines as the characters inside and outside of the freak show struggle with their own existential crises. Once again the episode seems to be divided in two halves: what is happening with the people in the freak show and what is going on with Dandy. While the two major storylines are kept separate for the most part, they converge in interesting and fun ways. Despite all that goes on in the hour, the episode does lag only providing just a few moments of horror and intrigue with a whole lot of padding.
Over at the freak show, the story is composed of two major story arcs: Stanley and Dell/Desiree. The most predominant of them being Stanley’s continuing plan to stealthily murder the “freaks” and sell them to the “morbidity museum”. This would be a much more fun and scary plot line if we’d just get to see his plan unfold organically instead of watching the various fantasies that develop in his head. These flights of fancy don’t illuminate anything particularly unique or new about the character, and other than showing some cool looking “freak” corpses, they don’t offer anything of interest. The sequence with Bette and Dot is completely unnecessary, though it does give us some fun time with the Tattler twins, not for one second did I buy that he had succeeded in killing them.
If the writers’ intention was to mislead us into thinking the twins were dead, then they failed. And if it wasn’t, what was the point? The dream sequences are not scary or horrifying or exciting. We already know how ambitious Stanley is and how far he is willing to go to cash in on these people’s deaths, there is no real need to have these scenes other than to fill time and mislead the audience. It would be much more interesting to just follow his attempts to trap the various “freaks” in his flimsy ploys, each failed attempt building up tension until he finally succeeds. Because Dennis O’Hare is clearly having a good time with the character and he has such great moments as the devious conman that he would be better served with a more engaging storyline.
The repercussions of his presence in the freak show are unfolding in a semi-compelling way. Elsa’s desperation and ultimate paranoia (all heightened by “Mr. Spencer’s” convenient arrival at the sideshow) make for fun material. The brief “Fame” montage that shows her getting ready to meet Stanley is a highlight of the episode that perfectly conveys her desires and mental state as well as being another fantastic use of David Bowie’s music this season. However, though it is fun to see Elsa becoming ruthless and obsessed with the idea of fame and glory, etc. this is the third season in a row where the writers have pitted Jessica Lange against Sarah Paulson. It is a dynamic that we know works well and the actors carry off beautifully, but regardless of how much fun it can be or how good the performances are (and they are great), we have seen it before and it doesn’t make for particularly riveting television.
Paulson is, once again, playing the up and coming ingénue(s) disturbing Lange’s reign and threatening her status; and Lange is again a grand dame desperately holding on to the little bit of control and power she has left. It is a great story, but we have seen it. Earlier in the season it seemed like Elsa would become somewhat of a departure for Lange, in terms of character, starting out as a much more vulnerable person that would go through a different type of struggle, but the show has reverted to familiar ground with the character. Perhaps now with the twins temporarily out of her way, the writers can take a more unexpected direction with the character.
Like they did with Dell and Desiree. Who saw Desiree and Jimmy almost getting it on coming? I know I didn’t. As for the more notable surprises and turns in Dell and Desiree’s story arc, they were hinted at and suggested in earlier episodes but not so explicitly that every reveal was telegraphed. Subtle is not a word I usually use to describe anything about American Horror Story, but Dell’s homosexuality is something that was actually handled with an uncharacteristic amount of subtlety. For those paying attention there were plenty of clues communicating his situation, so while some viewers might be surprised or caught off guard by the reveal, there is enough evidence and groundwork that supports it. Their conflict certainly sets up potential drama for the future and spurs another frightening burst of violence rom Dell, this time against the poor doctor who has been nothing but caring to his “freak” patients. Not cool, man.
Dell isn’t the only perpetrator of gruesome violence in the episode, however. Dandy not only provides for one of the most disturbing scenes of American Horror Story history but is also the episode’s only source of horror and scares. While the bulk of the hour in the freak show makes for a creepy drama, Dandy’s story arc comes straight out of a horror film, not a very original one, but a horror film nonetheless. In this particular case, Dandy is the American Psycho of the 1950’s. With a voice over monologue that could come straight out of Patrick Bateman’s mouth, Dandy unloads his unique philosophy as a fantastic montage of him exercising and preening in his big boy room unfolds on the screen.
As for the aforementioned scene, it is a darkly comic and absolutely horrific sequence that would satisfy many a horror movie, junkie. Poor Matt Bomer, never had a chance. And the return of Gloria is definitely something to celebrate. Frances Conroy continues to steal every scene she is in with her amazing delivery of the increasingly ridiculous lines of dialogue like, “These mental perversions are an affliction of the extremely affluent… it becomes a rite of passage to have a psychotic or two in the line.” Ha! And even though her character is an over the top caricature, she manages to find true emotion when it is necessary. Gloria’s heartbreak is evident when she talks to Dora’s daughter on the phone, Conroy lets the façade slip just enough that we can see the hurt and pain making it a truly affecting moment.
“Pink Cupcakes” takes substantial steps in narrative progression: revealing important information about certain characters, depicting noteworthy events in their lives, and moving them around in interesting ways. While so much happens in the hour, the hour ultimately feels bogged down by some superfluous material, familiar storylines and underwhelming drama. Following the insanity that was the previous episode, this one comes across as a fairly average hour of American Horror Story, still there is enough good stuff to keep us tuned in. What did you think?