Well, here’s the good news – American Horror Story: Freak Show was not the dumb, exploitative, disgusting dreck tonight that it was last week. That might sound hyperbolic, but it isn’t. Last week was abhorrent television and far from what I would call entertaining, engaging, or even interesting. The writers didn’t treat the characters like characters; they were treated like two-dimensional action figures in the sandbox of one really sadistic kid. Thankfully, tonight wasn’t like that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was a good episode.
The good moments of the episode were led by Paul the Illustrated Seal, who makes a far more intriguing protagonist than Jimmy. Jimmy is just a static good guy, always fighting for the underprivileged, always doing the right thing. He’s not unfaithful like Ben Harmon from season one, he doesn’t have self-serving interests like Lana Winters from season two, and he’s not living in the shadow of an emotionally abusive mother like Cordelia in season three – he’s just not a very layered character (you could argue that having the guilt of Meep’s death gives Jimmy more depth, but besides one scene, that really hasn’t affected his characterization).
Paul, on the other hand, seems more bitter about his condition than Jimmy, probably because Jimmy can “pass,” like he says in this episode. Also, Paul doesn’t blindly follow Elsa like Jimmy, even if he does sleep with her. He’s suspicious of her star-seeking ambitions and knows that she wanted the twins out of the way. He also sneaks away from the grounds to have a real relationship with a “normal” girl. When he goes into town to buy his belle the perfume she likes, he runs into Dandy buying two woman’s hairbrushes, two sets of makeup, and pairs of other women’s products. He puts two and two together and alerts Jimmy of his suspicion that Elsa sold the twins to Dandy.
When Elsa catches wind of these accusations, she delivers her hammiest, most over-the-top monologue to date about trust, and to earn her trust back, Paul volunteers to take a spin on the wheel that Elsa practices throwing knives at. Naturally, Elsa hits Paul in the stomach with a knife, just as his love his sneaking away from an overbearing father to come visit him. Paul’s storyline tonight was the best episode arc that the show has offered yet. Unfortunately, the rest of the episode was pretty lacking.
Stanley and Maggie do more scheming this week, but still no action. We get another horrifying fake-out death scene, this time showing Ma Petite drowned in a jar of formaldehyde, but it’s all just another daydream, a cheap manipulation of the viewer’s emotions without having real consequences on the landscape of the show. Would drowning Ma Petite have been unforgivable of Maggie? Yes, but at least it would have made her more interesting.
Over at the Mott house, Dandy tries wooing Bette, which goes over easily, and Dot, which doesn’t. Dot only holds back her contempt for Dandy because she believes his money will be the key to being separated from Bette, but when Dandy throws a tantrum and reads Bette’s diary, he gives up trying to find love with the twins and gives into his darkness in his soul. Luckily, Bette and Dot are gone in the garden when Dandy makes this realization, but poor Jimmy comes knocking on the door. All that set up just for a cliffhanger. These scenes were uneventful, but not unbearable, in part due to Finn Wittrock’s performance, perfect levels of camp, menace, and immaturity.
We’re given no Dell this week, very little Jimmy, and everyone else just stands around in the background. I wonder why Kathy Bates agreed to do this season; she’s done nothing but hang out, bearded, with that ridiculous accent. The only thing she gets to do tonight is tell Elsa that if she’s lying about the twins, she’ll kill her. That’s a promise I’d like to see delivered upon. Jessica Lange has played baddies in the past, but none as fiercely unlikable as Elsa Mars, who’s unfortunately given more screen time than anyone else, meaning most of the episode I spend grinding my teeth, wishing her ill.
Nearing the mid-season break, AHS appears to be set on coast. This episode was largely inconsequential, a filler episode meant to tease us along to an episode where something of substance might actually happen. Coven set the bar low last season, but things didn’t fall apart by episode five. We may be in for a mess this year.