Mat Fraser and Erika Ervin in FX’s “American Horror Story: Freak Show”
We thought last season’s tendency to resurrect characters over and over again, in a seemingly endless cycle of dying and then getting better from dying, was just about the cheapest way to wring some horror out of a story deeply lacking in it. How faithless that seems now. We should have known that Ryan Murphy & Co. would devise new ways of generating cheap drama for this season. Instead of constantly resurrecting characters after they die, this season seems to be all about pretend death scenes used to fake out the audience. And yes, we hate you, Ryan Murphy, for forcing us to say the following: This would have been a much better episode if Ma Petit had been drowned in formaldehyde.
Hey, we’re just saying. This show is called American Horror Story, right? Is it so wrong that we wanted to see something that fills us with, you know, horror? Because as much as we love watching Jessica Lange act the shit out of a scene, her histrionics don’t amount to much if she can’t be bothered to put a knife between someone’s eyes, amirite?
Timidity. That’s the word that comes to mind this season. It’s been building in the show since last season, when it became obvious that Murphy & Co. fell a little bit too much in love with their dolls and couldn’t bear to put them through anything too taxing. Oh sure, the “right” people were dead by the end of the season, but it was all so reluctantly pulled off, coming from the show that ended its first season with dead mommy, dead daddy, dead teenage daughter and dead baby decorating their ghost Christmas tree in a house full of dead serial killers. There’s a similar feeling this season; of the creators loving their characters too much to really put them through their paces. We didn’t feel any tension in that scene with Esmerelda and Ma Petit because it was obvious to us that she was never going to go through with killing her. Her whole arc has been about her reluctance to go through with hurting any of the freaks, making the whole scenario feel like a waste of time. After last week’s pretend-killing of Dot and Bette, we’re not thrilled at the prospect of this becoming a recurring motif.
And while we’ve written about how stale the Jessica Lange bitch character has become, we momentarily (and in retrospect, foolishly) thought for a second that we were going to see her really unleashed as the damaged monster they keep hinting she is, but in the end, she was just mildly creepy. And it doesn’t even look like she managed to kill Paul, since he’s in the previews for the next episode. And even if he does die, slowly bleeding out from a gut wound while being surrounded by a bunch of people too dumb to call a doctor may sound horrifying if it were to happen to you, but as a television sequence, it sounds like it would be intensely boring. All that, as Elsa put it, “sturm und drang” for a relatively mild payoff. Once again, we have to ask the question: Where’s the horror in this story? It’s just a soap opera with a really colorful cast of characters.
Actually, we’re going to walk that back slightly, just as the show has done. We were introduced to a really colorful cast of characters in the beginning of the season, but the show has worked pretty damn hard to make them less interesting as the story progressed. When Penny the former candy striper suddenly showed up in the story again, it only served to remind us of her introduction, when she seemingly got drugged, raped and filmed by the freaks. What’s her story now? Middle class suburban ’50s melodrama. “I love him, Daddy and there’s nothing you can do about it!” Seriously? If someone doesn’t take a chainsaw to her after saying something like that we’re gonna feel awfully let down. Then again, the entire production is one big middle class suburban melodrama, with good and evil twins, an aging diva willing to do anything for one final shot at fame, two pretty young lovers from different backgrounds, a failing marriage because the husband is secretly gay, and a mysterious con man from out of town.
And we get it. Or at least we think we do. This is probably partially deliberate, since the other side of the story, the side that actually looks like a Douglas Sirk melodrama of the 1950s, is the side filled with real horror, violence and insanity. Finn Wittrock and Frances Conroy are the two MVPs this season because they’re the only ones who are bringing any real horror to the tale. We predicted a “Who are the real freaks in society?” theme for this season and it looks like that’s exactly what we’re going to get, because Ryan Murphy never met a cliche he couldn’t hammer into a pulpy mess.
We sound bitter, we know. It’s just that, with a cast, a setting, and art direction like this, it’s such a letdown to be getting mostly tired melodrama with occasional spurts of blood. Why is the credits sequence always the creepiest part of every episode?