American Horror Story: Freak Show – “Monsters Among Us” Season 4 Premiere Review

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Brian Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s horror anthology series returns with a surprisingly slow premise; building up the characters before delivering the chills.

I’d like to preface this review with a quick anecdote: I am absolutely terrified of clowns. I saw Stephen King’s It at a friend’s house when I was far too young, and have been traumatized ever since. I do realize the irrationality of my fear, but that doesn’t stop my skin from crawling every time I see one. Even Ronald McDonald gives me the creeps. So, hopefully, you can understand that I was a little hesitant to begin watching American Horror Story‘s fourth season.

Sure enough, it doesn’t take long for the killer clown of my nightmares to show up in the premiere of Freak Show. Played by Shutter Island‘s John Caroll Lynch, this clown—named Twisty, because, why not?—wears an eerie half-mask with a horrifying pasted-on smile. Though the lower half of Lynch’s face is concealed, his manically expressive eyes do all the work, and boy are they effective. Needless to say, my skin was crawling.

What’s interesting, though, is that even with this homicidal, kidnapping jester on the loose, Freak Show‘s first episode was surprisingly subdued. With last season’s self-aware romp through New Orlean’s witchcraft—or, should I say, b*tchcraft—and season 2’s giddily depraved look into a mental asylum, I was expecting another fast-paced thrill ride. Instead, we got a slow-burning character study, and not all of the characters have even been introduced yet.

The show takes its time to reveal several of the “freaks” in question. First up are Sarah Paulson’s conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler. It seems a little cliché to make the two heads on her body be polar opposites of each other—Dot is all business, Bette is a starry-eyed dreamer—but it works mainly due to Paulson’s impressive dual performance. Murphy and Falchuk employ some unique filming techniques as well, often using split-screen POV shots to convey the twins’ simultaneous focal points. The Tattlers offer a sort of way in to the world of Freak Show. They’re technically considered “freaks” as well, but Bette’s naiveté and Dot’s apprehensiveness allow them to make an immediate connection.

Other attractions at Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities include Evan Peters as Jimmy Darling aka “Lobster Boy.” His split-handed deformity isn’t as strikingly noticeable as some of his co-workers, but it certainly allows for him to take on a rather lucrative side job helping repressed housewives…um…become unrepressed. Jimmy dreams of a better life than living with a traveling performance troupe, but his mother Ethel (a strangely accented Kathy Bates) insists that they’re in the best place they could be. Ethel is a bearded lady, and believes this job has saved her from a life of ridicule, torment, and self-loathing.

Most fascinating of all, of course, is Jessica Lange’s Elsa Mars, the showrunner and mother hen to all the fellow “freaks.” We don’t find out until the end of the episode what exactly makes her special—her legs are fake—but that doesn’t make her any less of an alluring subject. This is perhaps Lange’s most enigmatic character yet, and her performance really helps to sell the nuance.

We get glimpses at the many layers of Elsa throughout the episode. At first she seems aggressive and domineering when courting Dot and Bette to join her show. Then, she’s kind and motherly to her beloved carnies. In one spectacularly bizarre sequence, she belts out David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” during the opening of her show. Aside from the fact that her knowledge of the song make’s no sense in the show’s 1952 setting, it’s a somewhat fantastical performance.

Afterward, she vulnerably admits to Ethel how much she still yearns to be a star. She hopes the Tattlers are her ticket to the big time, but is nervous as to just how useful they’ll be. It’s hard to really get a read on just who Elsa is, which is exactly the point. We’ll all want to keep coming back each week until we figure her out.

I can already tell that the concept for this season will likely serve as a way for the show to push its message about how no one’s really a freak because we’re all a little weird in one way or another. It’s a bit of a tired adage, especially for Murphy and Falchuk, but I’m willing to let it slide because there’s so many other exciting pathways to explore. The show’s southern 50s setting is ripe for an examination on post-WWII angst, racial tension, and the things that we leave behind as society progresses. At one point, Ethel makes an offhand comment about the dying nature of their show, given the fact that most people can now get their entertainment at home. This idea of a group of people struggling to maintain a lifestyle that’s quickly fading away has so much potential to resonate with our current, ever-changing times. I’m willing to put up with a few more creepy clown scenes if it means seeing it through.

Freak Show still has some more “freaks” to introduce—Michael Chiklis and Angela Bassett were nowhere to be seen in this episode—and I’m curious as to how they’re going to tie Twisty the Clown into the central narrative. Still, “Monster Among Us” gave me hope that this will be one of the most compelling seasons of American Horror Story yet. If Murphy and Falchuk continue to move at this low-key pace, this could really be something special. Unfortunately, the two have continually shown their tendency to abandon their careful buildup and just go completely off-the-wall. So I guess only time will tell. Grade: B+


By Mike Papirmeister

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