With a completely new storyline and set of characters every season, FX’s ‘American Horror Story’ is a series in a constant state of reinvention. Even if you don’t like a given season, you never know what the next one will bring. This year is called ‘Freak Show’, and that title explains the theme pretty clearly.
The setting is Jupiter, Florida, 1952. A milkman doing his morning deliveries thinks it strange that the prior day’s bottles were never picked up at one house. He steps inside to investigate and finds the old lady of the house dead on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood. You’d think that he’d call the police right away, but his is a horror show, so of course he snoops around through shadowy rooms and hallways until hearing noises emanating from a closet. Against better judgment or common sense, he opens the closet and… oh dear god…
Jupiter is a small town. News of a murder travels quickly, especially when the chief suspect is a monstrously deformed… thing. Was it the old woman’s daughter, we suppose? Would daughters be more accurate to say? One body, three kidneys, two hearts, two heads.
The hubbub draws the interest of one Fraulein Elsa (Jessica Lange doing a fun but not quite credible German accent), proprietor of a rinky-dink freak show circus that had recently set up on the outskirts of town but hasn’t drawn much business so far. Elsa needs a new star attraction, and what could be better than a real, live two-headed girl? Elsa visits the hospital, connives her way into borrowing a candy striper uniform, and slips into the room to see the so-called monster for herself. There she finds conjoined twins Bette and Dot (Sarah Paulson in a dual performance, convincingly CGI’d together onto one body). “What pretty girls you are,” Elsa exclaims.
Despite their obvious closeness, the twins have distinctly separate personalities. Bette is naïve, childish and completely obsessed with movie stars and fame. Dot is cold and bitter and distrusting of everyone. Elsa immediately knows that she’s found her new headline act, so she arranges for the girls to sneak out of the hospital and join her freak show family. Bette is excited for her own shot at show business fame. Dot wants nothing to do with it, but doesn’t see any better options.
The girls are introduced to other performers at the circus. Chief among them are Ethel the bearded lady (Kathy Bates) and her son Jimmy the Lobster Boy (Evan Peters). The latter’s malformed flipper hands happen to be advantageously shaped for compatibility with a normal female anatomy, which has earned him a lucrative side career pleasuring bored housewives.
During the twins’ first night at work, a batty rich woman named Gloria Mott (Frances Conroy) buys up all the seats in order to get a private showing for herself and her spoiled, weirdo son Dandy (Finn Wittrock). To kick off the show, Elsa takes the stage first with a bonkers musical performance of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” (which, yes, wouldn’t be written for another two decades – anachronisms like this are apparently deliberate). Mott and her son don’t care much for that. Instead, they offer to buy Bette and Dot as a pet for the boy. The girls don’t want to go, so Elsa refuses. This pisses off Mott, but Elsa is pleased that the twins have accepted their new family. “You’re one of us,” she says – obviously a reference to Todd Browning’s movie ‘Freaks’.
As all this is going on, a terrifying psycho clown who may or may not be connected to the freak show (that’s not clear yet) has been running around town on a murder spree, stabbing people with scissors, often in broad daylight. He’s also kidnapped a teenage girl and a young boy, and keeps them locked in a cage in a dilapidated old bus.
Because Dot and Bette’s mother was also stabbed to death (the episode eventually makes clear that Bette killed her when the mother mistreated them), the police assume that these crimes are all connected. When a detective comes to the circus to arrest the girls, Jimmy kills him to protect them. The episode culminates with the many freaks from the show coming together to hack the body to pieces and dispose of it. Meanwhile, the evil clown watches from the treeline behind them.
In a final scene, Elsa reveals that both of her legs are prosthetic below the knees. Whether this was a birth defect or an injury, I’m sure we’ll find out more later.
For all the inherent craziness of its subject matter, ‘Freak Snow’ is thus far the most straightforward ‘American Horror Story’ narrative in its presentation, which dials back much of the ostentatious stylization and confusing structure of previous seasons. That may wind up being a good thing. I like what I’ve seen so far and think there’s a lot of potential in this storyline.
I also really dig the creepy stop-motion opening credits and the new circus-themed variation on the show’s theme music. (On the other hand, I was a little annoyed at the overt and repeated borrowing of the score from David Lynch’s ‘The Elephant Man’.)
One potential issue, however, is a problem that also plagued Browning’s ‘Freaks’. Because this season of the show incorporates a number of performers with real disabilities (both physical and mental) or deformities, it opens itself up to charges of exploitation by using them for shock value. I’m not sure how I feel about that, to be honest. The ‘Freaks’ movie ultimately painted a very sympathetic portrait of its characters. I’d like to think this show will do the same, but blunt shock value is pretty much the stock in trade for ‘American Horror Story’, a series rarely lauded for its subtlety or humanism. We’ll just have to see how things play out over the rest of the season.