American Horror Story: Freak Show – “Massacres and Matinees” Season 4 Episode 2 Review

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Well…that escalated quickly.

Freak Show is still the most subdued season of American Horror Story yet, but if this episode is any indication, things are going to be speeding up real soon. “Massacres and Matinees” featured an increased amount of plot progression and some interesting new characters. Things are certainly heating up, but I’m a bit worried at the direction this show is going in.

Michael Chiklis and Angela Bassett show up as Dell Toledo and Desiree Dupree, a married couple who also happen to be carnies. He’s a strongman and she’s got three breasts and both male and female reproductive organs. So, of course they fit right in in the Cabinet of Curiosities.

Or so it seems. Toledo, as it turns out, has a bit of a temper. Though he and his wife come to Elsa looking for work, they’re actually on the run from the Chicago police after Toledo killed a gay man who was sleeping with Desiree in an attempt to “cure” himself. He also shares a dark history with Ethel—who, according to Kathy Bates’ twitter, is from Baltimore—and, more importantly, Jimmy. Apparently he’s Jimmy’s absentee father who, no big deal, tried to kill him as a baby for crying too much.

As of now, I can’t really get a read on Toledo as a character, which is frustrating given the show’s excellent development in the premiere. After moving into the camp, he changes everything from the time of the performances to the billing order, and by the end of the show I was surprised that he hadn’t just taken over the whole thing. Chiklis plays him with a convincing menace, but there’s nothing to really indicate why Toledo gets so angry so quickly. Bassett’s Desiree also remains shrouded in mystery, although I did appreciate her hysterical line about the ping-pong balls. Perhaps their intentions will be revealed in the weeks to come, but everything we got from them in this episode felt very rushed.

As I predicted, the idea of the “freaks” wanting to be seen as normal carries over this week, and is especially effective during a diner sequence in which Jimmy tries to get his fellow carnies to eat with regular human beings. Of course, any interesting subtlety this scene has is ruined by Toledo storming in and kicking the sh*t out of Jimmy while everyone else watches. For a guy who’s living life on the lam, he sure seems to be causing quite a stir in his new town.

Other than that, Evan Peters does a lot of moaning about how he and his kind are no different from anyone else. There is a truly dark subplot where Meep, the carnie who bites off animal heads, is accidentally framed for the cop’s murder after Jimmy tries to pin it on Toledo. Though Meep is completely innocent, he’s thrown into a cell with real criminals and is beaten to death by them. It’s a shocking moment for sure, making you wonder just exactly who the real “monsters” in this society are. The dictum “we are all freaks” is a noble one, but other than this grim ending and the beginning of the diner scene, everything else Jimmy did felt a little cliché.  I expect edgier commentary from American Horror Story. I mean, come on, this isn’t Glee.

Or is it? Another musical number becomes the centerpiece of this week’s episode during one of Toledo’s mandatory matinee performances. As it turns out, the Betty Grable-worshiping Bette doesn’t really have a lot of talent, but her other half Dot can really belt out a tune. She sings Fiona Apple’s “Criminal”—I find it strangely fascinating that Ryan Murphy continues to use an out-of-place songbook—and the crowd goes wild.

Everyone notices her star power, including Elsa, who tries to use mind games to tear the two sisters apart. Hmm, a plotline where Jessica Lange’s character becomes jealous of a younger woman who threatens to dethrone her…where have I seen this before? Oh yes, it’s literally the same plot from Coven, except Madison Montgomery is now Dot, and instead of fighting to be the Supreme, they’re fighting to be the headlining act in a freak show. It’s more than a little disconcerting to see this series directly borrow plotpoints from it’s previous seasons, especially after the realization that Coven‘s finale was little more than an updated version of the Asylum ending. There’s a lot of potential for originality with Freak Show, and I hope Murphy realizes soon that he doesn’t need to rehash old narratives.

The strangest part of Freak Show, however, continues to be Twisty the Clown. Yes, he’s terrifying, but what exactly does he want, and how does he relate to the rest of the story? The episode’s director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon created a truly horrifying opening sequence, where a store worker follows a roundabout trail of blood that leads to his boss’ head on a shelf. Before he can scream for help, however, Twisty is behind him with a knife. Later, Twisty’s two captives try to escape, and Twisty’s mouthpiece comes off in the process, revealing a truly unsettling mess underneath. So yes, all of this is very scary, but what exactly is the point?

Twisty does gain an unlikely ally in this episode, in the form of a spoiled crybaby named Dandy (Finn Wittrock). Dandy is bored of his luxurious upbringing, and longs to run away and join the circus. They don’t accept him, and when he comes home, his mother (the always excellent Francis Conroy) presents him with Twisty as a new friend he can play with. Twisty tries to leave, but Dandy follows him into the woods to his decrepit bus and…helps him?

I’m confused as to how this one is going to play out. Dandy clearly has some unresolved issues—his moment of bashing his head against his car steering wheel is pretty disturbing—but he’s another character whose motives are more than a little unclear. Also, why is Patti LaBelle playing his housekeeper, and why did she only have like four lines?

“Massacres and Matinees” introduced us to a slew of new characters, and advanced the plot at a heightened pace. There’s more to come as roles for Emma Roberts, Dennis O’Hare, and Wes Bentley have yet to be revealed. I’m still fascinated by the world of this season, but I’m nervous that too many cooks in the kitchen—or, too many freaks in the freak show—could prevent the series from fully developing all of its characters and messages. The premiere slowly introduced us to everything this season would have to offer, but now the train is picking up speed and I’m nervous it might soon become derailed. Grade: B-

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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