American Horror Story Freak Show: Blood Bath review

American Horror Story plays with the concept of perfection - and perception - again in this week's episode. Here's Ron's review...

This review contains spoilers.

4.8 Blood Bath

American Horror Story seems to be having a lot of fun this season playing with the concept of perception. We perceive Paul as abnormal because of his tattoos and his deformed arms, but he’s got a good heart and seems to be a very popular and loving person. Elsa perceives herself as a big star, the main event, the attraction that brings people into the tents to check out her freak show, but in reality, she’s not that great at holding an audience, her singing is okay, and she’s definitely not going to win any awards come Oscar season (though Jessica Lange probably has another Emmy waiting for her) as her acting is actually pretty bad. Of course, Elsa’s abilities as a performer and entertainer vary wildly from scene to scene, depending on if we’re getting her perception or someone else’s perception of her behavior.

When Jimmy and the gang recover Ma Petite’s bloody, shredded clothing after a cold opening of Gloria speaking to her faceless therapist, Elsa Mars is in fine form. She’s sobbing, she’s grasping at the mangled dress, she’s staring at a complete emotional breakdown. Everyone’s pulled in almost immediately by this, except for Ethel, who knows better.

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Later on in the episode, when Ethel’s body is discovered after she’s decapitated during a suspicious car crash suicide that’s way too well plotted out to have been conducted by someone like Ethel, Elsa has another huge emotional breakdown, dropping to her knees at the crash scene and wailing in German to the heavens about Ethel and how she’s lost her best friend and all that stuff. Unlike the earlier scene, Elsa’s emotions ring hollow. It’s hammy, like watching a child pretend to be upset to avoid getting in trouble, and it’s because we see it through the eyes of Stanley and Maggie. They’re con artists who make their living being able to convincingly lie to those around them and Elsa, the supposed Hollywood attraction, is only able to fool the most naïve of her followers (Jimmy, tellingly, rushes over to comfort her while the rest of her coterie hangs back a bit).

It’s a clever, subtle thing that Jessica Lange and director Bradley Buecker have worked out for this episode. There are a lot of things she’s doing in this episode that work really well. She’s able to make her acting look both realistic – in that it is an expression of emotion – and also fake in the best possible way. It’s fun to watch Elsa’s mind work as reflected in Lange’s eyes, especially when she squares off with someone of her acting stature, like Kathy Bates. Talk about a study in contrasts; Lange’s Elsa is all wild eyes and snarl, and Bates’ Ethel is somber, heartbroken, and ultimately victimized by Elsa’s manic desire to remain the main event.

In those few scenes, Ryan Murphy and Jessica Lange establish Elsa’s true character. Ethel is her best… possibly her only friend, but Elsa’s true only friend is herself, and she’ll do anything for her own career. Including, of course, multiple murders. Stanley has Dell on one hand and Elsa on the other, and both of them have proven their willingness to kill to protect themselves in some specific way. It’s nothing new to know that about Elsa, since she sold off her best attraction and has tried to replace them with a mutilated Penny and the newly-arrived fat lady Barbara/Ima Wiggles (Chrissy Metz)

See also Gloria and Dandy Mott, who fill out the B plot with some wonderful depravity. There’s not a lot of them this week, but what we do get is pretty surprising, fun, unpleasant stuff. It’s the little details in Dandy’s plot line that really make it pop; he decorates his tree with cat skulls, it’s white with blood-red lights, and his answers when Dr. Feinbloom gives him an ink blot test are just hilarious, thanks to Finn Wittrock’s delivery. Of course, when Dandy is finally pushed too far and he has to take active measures to protect himself, because Gloria is no longer willing to hide her twisted child’s affectations from the world, he does so despite the cost to himself. It’s chilling how Dandy simply connects the dots and eliminates his mother when she says she’s unwilling to protect him and doesn’t want to go on without him, either. That whole twisted relationship, particularly in this episode, has been really entertaining stuff, thanks to Wittrock and the wonderful Frances Conroy, who is as dry as a martini when given odd tasks like disparaging the Roosevelts for their cousin-marrying.

The episode ends with yet another dichotomy between our hero, Jimmy, and our villain, Dandy. Both have just lost their mother to murder. Jimmy, drunk and broken, lashes out at his girlfriend and buries his face in the corpulent bosom of the show’s newest attraction for a stand-in. Dandy, on the other hand, sheds a single tear, smiles a creepy smile, and bathes himself in the lifeblood of his late mother. Rather than looking for a stand-in parent, Dandy immerses himself into his mother’s essence, because it’s not about the loss for him, but what he’s gained by killing his mother.

Dandy Mott has killed the last person willing to stand in his way, if only slightly. He’s completely free to do whatever he wants now, and that should be terrifying for Bette and Dot Tattler, Jimmy, Elsa, and everyone else he’s ever come into contact with. Given his obsession with freaks, it looks like Stanley isn’t the only lurking danger near the Cabinet of Curiosities.

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Ron Hogan just has to wonder what Dandy would need to clean that blood out of the tub once he’s tired of bathing in it. That’s going to be a mess, and with no Dora and no Mother to clean it up, they’re going to have to throw out that tub when he’s done. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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