Previously on American Horror Story, Edward Mordrake came to claim Twisty the Clown and take him to that great Freak Show in the sky. Dandy took up Twisty’s mask and murdered Patti LaBelle, thus ending what must be the strangest chapter in her storied career. Jimmy bravely freed Twisty’s captives, vowed to pursue justice for Meep, and basically went on every side quest imaginable to secure his status as a martyr whose inevitable death will make us sad. And Elsa—dear, deluded Elsa—became convinced that Stanley (Denis O’Hare) had arrived to resurrect her career, when his true motive was to kill a freak and sell the body to “science.”
This episode does what I have been begging AHS to do for three seasons—and what it actually did do during Murder House, which was a great deal of what made that season so effective—it made us care. Horror doesn’t stay horrifying unless there are emotional stakes attached to the carnage, and to its credit, this was the most horrifying episode to date. First case in point: the episode opens at a gala at the American Morbidity Musuem, where the rich and powerful can satisfy their lust for freakishness far from the reek of sweat and circus peanuts. The guests of honor are Stanley and Esmeralda, who have procured the body of one of our most beloved characters.
Of course it’s all merely Stanley’s fantasy sequence, but it does a lot of legwork for a dream sequence. For one, it strikes terror into our hearts at the thought of losing Paul, or anyone else, for that matter. And for another, even in his own fantasy, Stanley is slighted and undervalued by everyone around him. And when he comes back to reality, Esmeralda reminds him to keep his massive dong in his pants and keep from banging any more Norse gods while they’re in Jupiter, since the only position lower on the social ladder than the freaks are the gays. So we get the sense that, much like Elsa (and, later this episode, Desiree and Dell) Stanley’s monstrous behavior towards freaks comes from a fear that he may be viewed as freakish himself. Stanley has already procured an aquarium tank and is ready to start luring members of Elsa’s shows into it as soon as possible, and Esmeralda reluctantly agrees to help him.
In a season full of delights, the most delightful of all must be Dandy’s interactions with his mother. It may well be the greatest skewering of white privilege I have ever seen on television. It starts the moment Frances Conroy sashays down the spiral staircase, positively stinking of moonlight and magnolias, and discovers Dora’s body on the floor.
And then she calls the police. Grounds him. Orders him to go to his room for no less than twenty minutes. Later on they hire gardeners to dig a grave for Dora, plant nasturtiums over her body and murmur that even in death, she is making herself useful as fertilizer. Then her daughter (Gabourey Sidibe) calls looking for her.
At the Freak Show, in spite of Elsa’s professed love for film and hatred for television, Stanley insists on representing himself as a TV talent scout. This was the only plot that didn’t work for me, to be honest, because I could just see Ryan Murphy gleefully applauding himself for being a pioneer of the medium and luring even the great Jessica Lange onto his show. First of all, Murphy, when people talk about the golden age of television, they are not talking about you. And last I checked, Jessica Lange is leaving after this season.
Anyway, Elsa soon sings a different tune when it comes to the small screen. She goes in front of a packed house to do her best Dietrich-as-Bowie again, but receives only a faceful of rotten tomatoes.
WHERE ARE YOUR PRECIOUS OSCARS NOW, JESSICA?
I don’t get why this season is determined to make Jessica Lange look as old and decrepit as possible; it feels kind of gratuitously humiliating.