‘American Horror Story’ 4.13 Recap: “The Thrill Is Gone”

With an episode appropriate titled ‘Curtain Call’, the fourth season of ‘American Horror Story’ finally drew to a close last week. This not only marks the end of the ‘Freak Show’ storyline, but also Jessica Lange’s residence as star of the series.

I wonder who will take her place next year. Will one of the other regulars (Kathy Bates? Angela Bassett? Sarah Paulson?) step up to become the lead, or will someone new be brought in? Will the absence of Lange make it more difficult for the producers to fulfill their desire to link all the seasons of the show together into one big continuity?

Whatever may happen in the future, the ‘Freak Show’ finale has both some good moments and some disappointments. Among the latter is the lack of Neil Patrick Harris, whose character Chester apparently served his purpose and was ambiguously written out. We last saw him turning himself into the police for the crime of murdering… a puppet. That doesn’t seem like something that would stick, but I guess we’re just supposed to assume that he’s in jail now.

With Chester out of the way, Dandy owns the circus, and he’s a truly lousy boss. He forces the freaks to put up signs advertising him as the new headline act, and expects that everyone in town will flock to see him sing showtunes. Disappointed that no tickets have sold, he takes out his anger on the freaks, berating their incompetence and threatening to do unspeakable things to them. Eventually, the freaks rebel against him and quit in disgust. “You’ll never be one of us, and you don’t own us,” Paul (literally) spits in Dandy’s face.

Meanwhile, in Hollywood, Elsa camps out in the lobby of a major TV network, showing up day after day to see the president and refusing to take “No” for an answer. Well, “No” is all she gets, until she finally snaps and slaps the president’s rude secretary. As security guards manhandle her and try to throw her out, a man intervenes. He introduces himself as Michael Beck, Junior VP of Casting. Elsa immediately sees an opportunity.

The day after the freak rebellion, Dandy composes himself, puts on his stage makeup and suit, and calmly walks through the circus shooting every freak he sees, starting with Paul and his girlfriend Penny. As he systematically searches through the camp, no one is safe. Eve grabs an axe and jumps him from behind, but Dandy manages to shoot her first in the leg and then in the head. Only Desiree is able to successfully hide from him.

Of course, Dandy has spared the twins Bette and Dot, who he’s left bound and gagged until he finished with everyone else.

Later that night, Jimmy returns to the circus and finds a big pile of his friends’ bodies under the big top. Desiree comes out from hiding to tell him what happened.

The second half of the episode is particularly strange. We return from a commercial break to witness Dandy having a glorious fantasy wedding to the twins – or specifically, to blushing bride Bette. Even Dot seems content with the pairing. She promises them privacy when they consummate. An ecstatic Dandy announces that he wants to have loads of freak babies. Surely, by the gauzy soft-focus of the scene if nothing else, this must be a dream sequence?

No, apparently not. That evening at dinner, the twins have their new maid prepare Dandy a meal. It’s Desiree, of course, and she’s drugged him. Jimmy arrives momentarily as well. As Dandy begs his wife (wives?) to help him, Bette pulls a gun – the very gun he’d shot up the circus with – and shoots him in the arm.

The twins, Desiree and Jimmy bring Dandy back to the circus, strip him to his underwear, and lock him in what they claim is the great Harry Houdini’s water cabinet. They tell Dandy that he’s finally the star attraction he always wanted to be. Then the four of them go sit in the front row, munching popcorn and watching attentively as Dandy flails around in the ever-rising water and finally drowns. “Heckuva show,” Jimmy declares.

We next jump forward to 1960. Elsa is the huge TV star we were already foretold she’d become, has multiple Emmy awards, and has just been granted a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Fame and fortune have not satisfied her, though. She’s bored and unhappy, and a raging diva bitch to everyone she works with, especially her husband/manager, Michael Beck. Despite pressure from the network, she refuses to do a Halloween special.

Elsa meets with Massimo (Danny Huston), the only man she’s ever truly loved, and begs him to run off with her to start afresh in Italy. Sadly, Massimo tells her that he has a terminal illness and only a month to live.

During a particularly rough night of boozing, the president of the network reveals to Elsa that infamous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper has dug up the snuff film with Elsa having her legs cut off. The scandal will surely ruin her and taint the network, so the president preemptively fires her. When also told about the massacre at the freak show, Elsa dejectedly says that she’s changed her mind and will do the Halloween special after all. “Might as well go out with a bang.”

Come Halloween night, Elsa opens her show by mangling Bowie’s “Heroes” in that special way only she can. Watching the broadcast on TV, we find Desiree happily married to Theo Huxtable, and Jimmy settled down with the now-pregnant twins. (That’s going to be one messed-up baby.) They all seem to know what will happen next. As should you, if you’ve watched the whole season.

Yes, having violated the carnie rule against performing on Halloween, Elsa is visited by the ghost of Edward Mordrake (Wes Bentley), and his collection of lost souls, including the crazy clown. Because only she can see them, it appears to everyone else that she’s simply frozen-up in the middle of the song. She tells Mordrake that she’s ready to be taken and join his troupe. He stabs her, upon which she collapses on stage. However, as she dies, he tells her that, “Your place is not with us.”

Elsa is instantly transported back to the circus. Ma Petite is there, along with all the murdered freaks, even Ethel and Meep. They welcome her back and rush her up to the stage, where she’s given a standing ovation and the opening bars of “Life on Mars” start up. End Scene.

So ends the ‘Freak Show’. Unfortunately, I still can’t say that I ever really fell in love with this season. The biggest problem, for me, is that ‘American Horror Story’ is at its best when it goes totally balls-out crazy. For all its trappings of weirdness in the settings and the storylines, this season never unleashed the insanity. It came close with Twisty the Clown, but that storyline was shut down far too quickly.

Still, for what it is, this is a relatively satisfying wrap-up and a decent send-off for Jessica Lange. Dandy’s murder spree at the circus is a really unsettling sequence. The sudden jump to the wedding and the resulting confusion over whether it’s real or a dream is bizarre, and reminds me of the confounding first season finale. I’m not sure whether that’s a good or bad thing. Regardless, I still look forward to seeing where this show goes next season.

7 comments

  1. John D.

    This season was a mess. Last season wasn’t too great either.

    They’ve been losing ground and getting more and more convoluted and ridiculous since “Asylum.”
    For starters, they need to figure out what they heck they’re trying to be. Is AHS horror? Then make it scary, for God’s sake. Is it parody? Satire? Then make it satirical already. Is it fantasy? Is it a black comedy? Then make the damn thing funny.

    They try to be ten different things at once and only wind up doing a half-assed job of all of them. Even the writers don’t seem to really know what they’re doing half the time. Pacing? Character development? Story arcs? Consistency? Hello?

    They need some new writers, PRONTO. As it stands right now, the show is getting by on weirdness; but even that will eventually get old. Without solid storytelling, consistent, COHERENT plotting, and well-developed characters, the spectacle that is AHS is eventually going to go the way of another show that got by on ‘weirdness’ until people started to get sick of the nonsensical mess it had turned into: Twin Peaks.

    Time to get your act together, AHS. Literally.

  2. Clemery

    This was the worst AHS ending since the first season. Like John D above and the reviewer, I found it difficult to get on board this season, although I did stay along for the ride… and while I did enjoy aspects of some storylines (and agree totally that Twisty the Clown was abandoned way too soon), the season as a whole just felt like a jumbled mess.
    The NPH character was completely pointless and added nothing but running time to an already bloated season, and while I eventually started to enjoy Dandy’s shenanigans, his story in this final episode was terrible and completely ruined any credence that had built up before it.

    John D., I agree… this show is in desperate need of some fresh ideas and new writers, as well as a focus on a particular genre.

  3. I’m just glad it’s over. The bad outweighed the good this season, and last season. Elsa’s wrap up was much too long. All those syrupy moments with Danny Houston give me flashbacks of the jazz player from last season…not a good thing. I’m glad they spared me another Life On Mars. I’m not sure if I’ll be back for another season.

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