It almost goes without saying that American Horror Story thrives during the Halloween season. It’s not just that it’s the time of year for horror movies and slightly menacing jack-o’-lanterns, but AHS is usually a show that bursts with energy and ideas in its first half, then falls apart like a pumpkin hitting the pavement in its latter episodes. The way that Coven completely unraveled in its final weeks still leaves a taste in my mouth that must rival the one Ethel has after a swig of her hooch. AHS never quite sticks the landing, but always comes out swinging, especially when it syncs up with the holiday it was created to run in tandem with.
Tonight was the first episode in many weeks, possibly since season two, that I had to watch the episode live and wasn’t supplied with an advance screener. It’s here that I had to witness the hour and eighteen-minute runtime of American Horror Story: Freak Show for the first time with commercials, and it wasn’t a great experience. Even as a fan of the show, the episode felt quite long, and I can’t imagine having to endure a whole season of episodes at that length.
Having said that, tonight’s episode really impressed me, but mostly from a directorial standpoint. Michael Uppendahl, a TV vet, helms “Edward Mordrake (Part One),” the Halloween episode, as homage to John Carpenter’s Halloween. Our Michael Myers surrogate is Twisty the Clown, who like Mike, stalks his prey in the daylight. Uppendhal then recreates shots, like a POV shot stalking down a hallway, or another through the eyes of a clown mask, that directly recall Carpenter’s classic. Uppendahl even adds his own flair, spicing up Bette and Dot’s dream sequence with some crafty split screen and disorienting effects. However, the director does the most showing off with the Edward Mordrake legend, playing with shadows in black and white, tipping the hat to horror’s origin films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
The show also succeeded tonight at providing a genuine, human story. Rarely does American Horror Story delve so personally into the psyches of one of its characters, but the show creates an emotional, engaging tale from the past and grim future of Ethel Darling. Kathy Bates’ scene with the doctor, where she breaks down into tears after being treated like a normal person, is the first time this season where the show has pulled real mileage out of the “freaks are people too” message. Jimmy’s rally cries and angst over the situation has already been tiring, but showing one of the freaks really open like a raw nerve was captivating stuff.
Later, when the devilish Edward Mordrake (played as creepily as ever by American Beauty’s Wes Bentley) is summoned by Elsa’s song, after Ethel warned that performing on Halloween would summon the man with two faces, Ethel has to tell Mordrake about her descent into Jupiter. Seeing her relive her shame was a real dramatic moment not tied to any sort of shock or gimmick. The device of delving into the freaks’ past might supply a solid formulaic base for the series.
Not that they’re short on characters’ stories to tell. Tonight, we get two more villains in the shape of AHS alums Emma Roberts and Dennis O’Hare, two scammers looking to sell genuine freaks, preferably dead, to museums. Roberts goes undercover as Maggie Esmeralda, a self-professed Fortune Teller who tricks Elsa into thinking she’s legit. She’s already having second thoughts, not enjoying living in such close proximity to the freaks, not thrilled with the idea of killing anyone, and possibly already cozying up to Jimmy, to the ire of Dot. Roberts and O’Hare’s scuzzy partner, who we for some reason needed to learn about his large penis in tonight’s most overt shock for shock’s sake scene, are welcome additions to an already full slate. Not only is this AHS’ biggest set ever, it might also be their biggest ensemble as well.
Behind and in front of the camera, tonight’s episode was a striking success. As long as Freak Show keeps supplying real scares with real characters, accompanied by catchy camerawork, it is on course to be something truly special.
The Best of The Rest
- Dandy, who’s starting to be a sort of anti-Norman Bates, continues to be a complete campy, bratty, infuriating delight. Also, Frances Conroy is hilariously putting June Cleaver to shame as doting mother Gloria.
- Even though Lana Del Ray’s “Gods & Monsters” is more in Jessica Lange’s range, and is a pretty great song, I’m still not loving the musical numbers this season and am waiting for them to meet their demise more so than any character that’s ever appeared on the show, and that’s counting Dandy. Hearing lyrics referencing Jim Morrison, who would have been 9 in 1952, just completely takes me out of the show.
- Edward Mordrake, or Professor Quirrell? You decide.
- Dot is seriously vicious to Bette tonight, telling her of her plans to surgically murder her conjoined sister. Who’s going to get who first?
- Three boobs, and Dell still can’t get it up. Then he finds out he may have to look after the son he didn’t want while also making sure said son doesn’t find out that he’s his dad. Tough break, Dell.