American Horror Story Freak Show episode 11 review: Magical Thinking

Neil Patrick Harris guests in American Horror Story: Freak Show, which is pepped up immeasurably by his arrival...

This review contains spoilers.

4.11 Magical Thinking

This hasn’t been American Horror Story‘s strongest season. I’m a defender of the show; even when it’s not making a lot of sense, or not the gripping spectacle it was in Asylum, I’m always on the side of its sense of fun and visual panache. Perhaps I’m just a sideshow rube, a mark taken in by the American Horror Story three-card Monte of weird sex, graphic gore, and hammy acting. I miss the flaws, or I ignore the flaws because I’m a sucker for a good con game, and Ryan Murphy is a consummate television con-man.

Everyone on American Horror Story‘s twisted carnival is a con artist of some sort or another. The whole point of the freak show is deception: take a hairy lady and make her a bearded one, play up someone’s unusual facial features with an odd haircut and they become some sort of wild missing link. Anything to separate a rube from cash. Even the honest characters, like Jimmy, either lie to themselves or lie to others, or generally do something unsavoury to make ends meet. Everyone’s got a secret. Perhaps no one has a secret quite as damning as Chester.

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Chester (the promised Neil Patrick Harris) is a wounded war veteran with a metal plate in his head and an unhealthy attachment to his ventriloquist dummy Margery (voiced and brought to life by a returning, awesome Jamie Brewer). By unhealthy, I mean he sits with his dummy and watches his wife cheat on him with another woman during flashbacks, and when said dummy goes missing later in the episode, he has a sobbing melt-down over it. He also has discussions with it concerning, well, everything. And those discussions don’t go well for Chester.

American Horror Story has really punched above its weight as far as gathering an awesome cast is concerned, but this episode proves that guest stars can be as effective as returning regulars. Between the two of them, NPH and Jamie Brewer own the show. It’s good to have them on the show and returning to the show, respectively. NPH’s neuroses, and the way he took his Barney Stinson act from How I Met Your Mother and used the same tools to the exact opposite effect, is counterbalanced by the way that Brewer worked both as the hectoring, mocking voice of the doll and in the matter-of-fact way she filled the doll’s role in Chester’s hallucinations. She’s a lot of fun, and she looks spectacularly creepy in doll makeup. The crazy ventriloquist is an antique trope, but in the hands of these two, it doesn’t matter that we’ve seen it plenty of times because they inject such twisted life into the thing.

That spark of life carried over to the rest of the episode. NPH was never really the focal point, but the way other characters responded to him was. Elsa’s look at him as he cries over a missing doll was really funny. The way Dandy casually manipulated him at the carousel. The way the twins took him in (in more ways than one) in spite of his weird attachment to the doll. Paul’s casual disdain/open disgust with Chester’s swooping in to buy the freak show out from under them… it all worked really well, and I can’t help but think the presence of Harris and the character’s delightful twistedness helped bring that out. Jennifer Salt clearly had a great time writing the interactions between Chester and the rest of the cast.

Cinematographer Michael Goi seemed to have a good time with that, too. When Chester took a look at the twins and saw not our familiar Sarah Paulson but his (we later find out) dead wife and her girlfriend, it’s jarring. That jarring only continues. Jimmy losing his hands as expected was redeemed by the very Asylum-y spiraling shot of him waking up chained to his hospital bed, screaming at the bloody bandaged stumps on his arms. Dell and Eve’s daring rescue of Jimmy via murdering two cops was also handled in a very fun way, with effective use of Dell’s strength and propensity to mash skulls to give the special effects department something to pulp.

All in all, the addition of such a big character so late in the show has served to pep things back up. I’ve been enjoying myself all along, but I understand and accept that I might be in the minority. However, after this episode, I’m very excited to see just what the show has in store for the next (and last) two episodes of our time in the freak show tent. There’s no way everything gets tied up as neatly as the fates of Dell and Pepper, but at the same time, it’ll be nice to see how everything shakes out in the end—and to see Stanley finally get what he deserves, hopefully at the hands of Dandy.

Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Orphans, here.

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US Correspondent Ron Hogan is hoping against hope that Neil Patrick Harris can come back for next season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s LSD fever dream of a television show. If Zachary Quinto can make time for it in between Spock roles, NPH can make it happen. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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