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“Test of Strength” is a wildly uneven hour of American Horror Story: Freak Show, with a shaggy narrative and varied tone, it provides some engaging moments, but fails to come together and form a cohesive hour. Aside from an early scene in the Mott household, the episode deals mainly with the characters of the freak show, exploring an array of subplots that follow the main characters in their respective journeys. There is plenty in this episode to make it an absolutely fantastic hour, but some excessive scenes and awkward shifts in tone get in the way of its potential greatness.
Bette and Dot’s return to the sideshow is a subplot that works in this hour, though nothing about it is particularly terrifying or scary, their interactions with Elsa are delicious fun. This storyline gives us the mandatory camp fix of the week as the twins’ battle with Elsa rages on and Bette develops a confident and amusing demeanor with the help of a new hairdo. What going blonde can do to a person! Bette’s little transformation provides a lot of hilarious banter (“We make the perfect before and after picture!”) and generates more tension between her and her sister for Elsa to exploit. The twins are such fun characters and are portrayed so beautifully by Sarah Paulson that any scene with them is an absolute joy, regardless of the lack of horror in them. It is nice to finally enjoy an episode with a substantial amount of the Tattler sisters.
The interplay between them and Elsa is a dynamic that is fun to explore, and one that has potential for generating more drama in the future. Their mini power play is not only unfolding in an enjoyable way, but is also pushing Elsa to pursue drastic measures to ensure her standing in the freak show. Which is in a seriously perilous condition now that Jimmy has officially turned on her and is outwardly combative and Ethel overheard her plotting with Stanley. Things are looking quite dire for Miss Mars.
But it is all about Dell this week, after spending some time in the background the series puts him front and center and he is as fascinating as he is vile. Michael Chiklis is doing an amazing job depicting the reprehensible carny in a refreshingly nuanced way. He lets Dell’s insecurity and vulnerability subtly seep through the alpha dog, macho demeanor he has adopted and elevates the character from simple villain to a more complex and complicated figure. Dell is hateful and despicable, but Chiklis’ portrayal makes him watchable and compelling and in this episode he explores Dell’s emotional struggles in an engagingly understated way. The narrative takes him in interesting places, being manipulated by Stanley he is forced to act in horrifying ways for the sake of keeping his true nature a secret. From what we have seen previously of him, it makes sense that he would go along with Stanley’s ruse and go as far as he did to appease him. And, of course, he would first attempt to kill Amazon Eve initially; perhaps the most difficult “freak” to take down and a foolish choice on his part, but his arrogance and desperate need to convey his masculinity obviously inform his irrational actions.
His interactions with Jimmy definitely soften his hardened persona and though he initiates the moment of bonding with ulterior motives, the outcome of it appears to be quite earnest. While the father/son reconciliation might seem like a pleasant moment on the surface, there is a wariness underlining the whole thing. Because we know that deep down, Dell is the worst, despite his surge of fatherly love; and Jimmy, who has tried to be a beacon of justice and goodness throughout the season, is now slowly succumbing to his father’s loathsome ways. The scenes of the two men are compelling, but mostly because of the fantastic work done by Chiklis, he brings the necessary emotion and gravitas into the endeavor while Evan Peters, who gets asked to go to some challenging places, fails to match his level. Therein lies one of the disappointing aspects of the episode, which calls upon Peters to play second fiddle to Chiklis’ Dell, but he just does not rise up to the task. Peters is a fine actor, he has done great work in all the American Horror Story seasons (even when saddled with a horrible character like Coven’s Kyle), but perhaps the writers trusted him with too much in this particular hour. Chiklis acts him under the table in al their scenes together, he sometimes manages to put a strong performance (his drunk acting is quite funny) but mostly he just looks like he is trying too hard. I did not buy his emotional breakdown at all.
It is Jimmy’s turn to do a big musical number and this one is the first number in the season that is a complete dud. There is no reason to have this scene other than the fact that Ryan Murphy wants it to be there. Unlike the previous musical interludes, it doesn’t reveal anything we don’t know about the character, it doesn’t provide a significant turning point for Jimmy, nor does it move the story along in any way. It provides some background music for a brief montage where we catch up with Paul and Penny, but that is it. The only thing that would forgive all those misgivings is if the performance were somehow so much fun to watch that we would dismiss all reservations and just go with it. However Peters’ performance is lackluster at best and the sequence isn’t shot in a particularly inventive or artful way. The entire thing is roughly shoehorned into the early moments of the hour, spoiling it substantially. The episode then has to work to make up for this narrative failure and never manages to recuperate.
The hour devolves into a series of moments (some connected some disjointed) of varying degrees of success that never materialize into a cohesive episode. The foray into Penny’s personal life is as disjointed and out of place as last week’s but is redeemed slightly by the horrific and surprisingly dark way it unfolded, providing one of the few truly terrifying moments of the hour. As I said before, the twin’s sparring with Elsa and with each other is an entertaining story and one that adds the expected lightheartedness to the series, but it often plays like an entirely different show. Their little showbiz drama is quite separate from everything else happening in the freak show. Ethel and Desiree are given a few moments to play but none of them really stand out as particularly insightful or engaging, nor do they help furthering the story. Dell’s narrative is the strongest in the hour and one that manages to sustain an air of dread and drama throughout, but it isn’t enough to make this a great episode. “Test of Strength” takes some characters to interesting places and provides several compelling moments, though some brilliant scenes stand out, the sea of average/underwhelming moments dominate.
Though Freak Show began with a considerably straightforward narrative, (a welcome departure from the general insanity that is a standard season of AHS), it has officially entered the crazy-cuckoo, all over the place kind of storytelling that we have come to expect from the horror show. What did you think?