5 / 5
It is exceedingly rare for a television show to withstand the test of time. Shows must continually reinvent themselves to maintain popularity and the interest of its viewers. More challenging, a show must avoid filler episodes, whose only purpose is to maximize time before the show comes its eventual climax. With that standard, many shows fail eventually, not being able to at least meet the expectation set for such shows. Many times, the shows that fail to impress beyond its second season are shows whose foundation is based off a gimmick. Such gimmicks could be being based off of a film or book, or even the merging of genres to do a retelling of a plotline most audiences are familiar with. In that regard, American Horror Story is a anthology show that traditionally would be considered a short-lived gimmick. However, American Horror Story’s newest season, Freak Show, has proven that this show has not only maintained an element of freshness, but has also exceeding all expectations that have been placed upon it.
American Horror Story has proven with its fourth season that this show cannot be stamped with mere labels. The show extends beyond its canon and its genre, making itself comparable with some of televisions’ most dense (and popular) dramas that are currently airing.The reason for this achievement falls onto creator Ryan Murphy, whose vision of the show has been unwavering in originality. More essential to the success of his vision is that his narrative for the show is incorruptible, by which he doesn’t fall victim to the demands of the audience while also resisting the urge to incorporate cheap thrills into his show. To say that American Horror Story’s violence is “tasteful” would be a ridiculous statement, yet it can be said that no element of violence occurs within the story unless it makes absolute sense the plot and the development of the characters.
Freak Show is nothing short of a masterpiece in not only the horror genre, but the entirety of television. It can be argued that American Horror Story very nearly was starting to become a caricature of itself after its third season. Despite Coven being a well-received season, the show at that point focused on deliberate campiness, an ode to B horror movies. If Freak Show had continued that trend, the show would have ceased to engage and challenge its viewers. Instead, the show went into a blatant horror canon, focusing on peoples’ fear of the different. Fears of nonconformity have forever been an issue with society, with judgment and attempts to minimize those who do not fit with what they define as “normal.” By making the freaks in this season the overall heroes, Ryan Murphy has taken the concept of the different and is celebrating it.
Moreover, Freak Show insinuates that it is those who push others to conform that are the true villains of society, a sentiment that may not be that far from the truth. Of course, Freak Show capitalizes on peoples’ irrational fears of carnivals and circuses immediately by introducing Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch) in the season’s first episodes as a murderous clown. Rather than create a slow buildup with this element of horror, Freak Show is daring enough to throw that horror trope right into the mix of the plot as a mere introductory plot device to the characters and their individual plights.
While the murderous clown is horrifying and enough to instill fear towards the season as a whole, Ryan Murphy is brilliant in that doesn’t allow the season to follow into such clichés. He allows for such clichés to be met, in order to appease this expectation from the viewers, but ultimately allows for the real horror to organically grow in the midst of this initial horror device. Incidentally, the true horror of the season is the mentally unbalanced, whose actions are unpredictable and impossible to control. Freak Show, for the first time, truly allows for its villains to not be so blatant upon introduction. Instead, it allows for such villains to manifest into their ultimate persona, like a virus slowly withering away healthy cells from a body.
This especially is the scenario with Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock), whose character is introduced as a man-child, who is protected from his family’s estate and money. Upon first appearance, the character is a blank slate and completely unknown to viewers. The expectation from him is close to none, especially considering this is Wittrock’s first season with the American Horror Story franchise. What Wittrock is able to achieve from the first episode onwards is astounding in how he allows for his character to build confidence and to slowly let go of his sanity to become the show’s most psychopathic and terrifying villain. Such a character could easily allow for the actor to become wooden and campy in his portray, an issue Wittrock avoids entirely. What makes for his character to be so terrifying is that Wittrock’s acting is believable and consistent throughout the season. The progression of his character works solely on the basis of how Wittrock chose to expand upon the character with each passing episode. With that, he was able to establish an unpredictable serial killer, who was able to rationalize, in his own mind, each of his murders. He also added elements of a sociopathic nature, to make the character indifferent to any opinion outside of his own. This makes for Wittrock’s stone face expression to be cringe-worthy to viewers because they clearly can see the fury behind his eyes whenever he interacts with anyone who even remotely disagrees with him. For this achievement, Wittrock is undoubtedly the standout of the season.
While Wittrock may be the obvious standout in the cast, there ought to be acknowledgement for other members of the cast. What makes the cast of Freak Show its most superior yet is in that there was a wide range of acting talent and technique that separated the characters from each other. One other season standout is Frances Conroy, who offers the most subtle of performances out of the entire cast. Her role as Gloria Mott, Dandy’s mousy mother, is captivating in how she denies the reality of what her son is. Conroy’s performance is quiet, yet she is able to exhibit much range and emotion by her facial expressions and body language. In contrast, Kathy Bates’ performance as Ethel, the bearded lady, is exactly the opposite in that she faces reality directly and is not afraid to confront a situation immediately. Her own actions are extroverted and highly expressive, showing tremendous confidence in herself. Ethel also serves as the moral compass of the season, as someone who is selfless and puts others before herself. Even though their characters never meet, Conroy and Bates provide the emotional range of the season, with the rest of the characters exhibiting traits in the center of these two polarizing emotional cores.Yet it is Jessica Lange who is the penultimate standout in this season with her captivating portrayal as Elsa Mars. In typical American Horror Story style, Lange is introduced as domineering and potentially untrustworthy, which feeds into the season’s premise of outsiders immediately labeling others. As the episodes surge deeper into the season, Lange was able to convey something she hasn’t been able to do in any of the other seasons she has starred in thus far: portraying a character who is inequitably sympathetic and vulnerable. Rather than someone exerting true authority and power, Lange’s role is tragic in that her character blinds herself from reality in the hopes that her dreams of being a Hollywood sensation will come true. Lange’s acting range is a true feat of talent in how she is able to express weakness in the character while managing to keep redeemable qualities within the character. This also is in thanks to the season’s excellent writing and Ryan Murphy’s vision.
The one particular episode worth mentioning in regards to this is episode 10, “Orphans,” an episode in which one of the freaks, Pepper (Naomi Grossman), who is Elsa’s first “monster,” loses someone dear to her and is grieving. After some contemplation, Elsa decides to bring Pepper to her sister in the hopes that she will be cared for by her biological family. In a particularly heartbreaking scene, Pepper begs for Elsa to stay, which prompts her to give a tearful goodbye. This scene was integral to portraying the humanity within Elsa and dismissing the notion she is only an opportunist. Her goodbye scene to Pepper generates compassion within the character and furthers the viewers’ understanding of why Elsa has the misguided notion she is a mother to all of her “monsters,” a flaw in judgment that will later come back to haunt her. Yet with Pepper, this is different. In this moment, the viewer is shown a tender side of Elsa, as a woman who only ever intended to bring goodness to those she encountered and “rescued.” This is especially important when acknowledging the character’s past. The exploration of character backgrounds is a motif with Ryan Murphy and the American Horror Story franchise, but he is particularly effective using it in Freak Show in that it creates pity, thus establishing her as a tragic character. Elsa, being a victim of snuff-film brutality, is vulnerable and insecure due to this past. Her aspirations are not out of greed, but rather proving to herself that she is capable of being something. Jessica Lange truly was able to use this backstory to her advantage, anchoring her performance with sheer vulnerability. This makes Lange’s character the most complex character of the season, but also the entire show thus far.
The most important component, though, that Lange and Murphy both establish with Elsa Mars is that she is indeed talented. Her aspirations are not deluded since she proves to viewers in the first episode she can effectively sing, as shown when Lange sings a visually-dazzling version of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.” Subsequently, the music in Freak Show was another element of the season that undeniably separated this season from the previous three seasons. More than once in the season did characters exhibit their vocal talents and did their own renditions of popular songs. Murphy was careful not to let this disrupt the plotline of the season and had it function as something that set the emotional tone of the season from its current standpoint. Additionally, Murphy has stated that the song choices for the show were not only deliberate in tone, but also deliberate by the artists chosen. Artists such as David Bowtie, Fiona Apple, Kurt Cobain and Lana Del Ray were chosen specifically because they were/are individuals who were initially deemed as “freaks” when they first entered the music industry. Very much like the aspiration Elsa Mars has, the music functions as an indication that someone who is “different” can be universally recognized as an artist.
This doesn’t go to say that freaks are universally praised in Freak Show. Murphy was careful in showing that freaks are just as capable of being villainous as the rest of society. Furthermore, Murphy makes such characters two-pronged by incorporating homosexuality into the character as well. This all is in reference to Denis O’Hare’s performance as Stanley, a manipulative opportunist, who only associates himself with the freak show in order to abduct, kill and sell their bodies to a museum for money. By making the character gay and freakishly…ahem…well-endowed, this seems to be Murphy’s message to viewers that goodness comes from within, regardless of whether someone is a freak or not. It is what one does in their actions that define them as good or bad. This is a sentiment that involves many of the characters throughout the season leading right up to the final moments of the finale.
Ryan Murphy’s fourth season of American Horror Story proves that the franchise has matured since the show’s first season. Freak Show was able to convey horror elements while not giving into cheap gratuitous thrills that would only appeal to adrenaline junkies. Instead, Freak Show takes its time with its plot and structure, using each episode as a narrative step leading to the season’s eventual conclusion. The script and direction of the season allowed for the cast to make the characters their own, while also challenging some of the show’s veterans to give their best performances yet. Yet what sets Freak Show apart from American Horror Story’s other seasons is the symbolism embedded within each episode, insinuating that being a “freak” is merely a label a dominant group places on another. One is only a freak if they allow themselves to be categorized by another. Freak Show is a representation of how society chooses to categorize each other when they ought to seek commonalities amongst each other. This is not a mere message, but a life lesson that this season conveys beautifully.