American Horror Story Freak Show episode 2 review: Massacres And Matinees

Sarah Paulson truly shines in Freak Show, a series that has a great deal else to recommend it, too...

This review contains spoilers.

4.2 Massacres And Matinees

Sarah Paulson is phenomenal. She’s been a bit of a workman over the years, putting in solid performances in thankless roles like that of Cordelia Foxx in Coven, but this season she’s really showing off what she can do by taking on a very difficult bit of work: playing two roles at once. Bette and Dot are similar enough in look, but completely different in personality, and not only does Paulson have to act out both of them, she has to make it look convincing when playing against herself. Plus, she’s got a very good singing voice.

Paulson’s expressions and visual tics are really well thought-out. Bette and Dot are two different people who share the same body, and they may be twins, but they could not be more different psychologically. Dot is the more aggressive one, Bette the shy dreamer who wants to be a star. However, Bette’s shyness gets the better of her when the two are thrust into the spotlight by bossy new arrivals Dell the strongman (Michael Chiklis) and Desiree the hermaphrodite (Angela Bassett) who is married to Dell. It’s Dot who rises to the occasion, inspired by Jimmy of all people, but that success seems as though it will be short-lived.

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After its fourth murder, Jupiter is on lock down. Businesses are closed, a late-night curfew is imposed, and Dell is not making a lot of friends as he imposes his hot-headed will on the rest of the folk at the carnival. Even if his matinee idea is successful, if Elsa’s not happy, nobody’s happy. Dell’s history with the Darling family makes things even more complicated, though Jimmy doesn’t know just who this stranger actually is to him quite yet.

It feels really good to have Alfonso Gomez-Rejon back in the director’s chair so early in the season. Even given last week’s exhibition by Ryan Murphy—and it was some of his best directing work on the series thus far in terms of raw visual aplomb—there’s a certain steadiness with Gomez-Rejon that grounds the programme while simultaneously elevating it with awesome camera sweeps and the judicious use of the Vertigo dolly zoom on Dandy’s face as he slowly approaches his new friend the Twisty the Clown (the brilliantly disturbing John Carroll Lynch) or on Elsa’s face when she realizes her two-headed songbird just took her place as headliner. The previous scene, in which Gloria discovers Twisty on the side of the road, is also evocative of a Hitchcock driving scene, thereby continuing the trend of lovingly cribbing from Alfred’s work.

It’s more than just the camera tricks, though. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon does wonderful things with shot composition, with the way he places his characters within a scene, and I can only imagine that his storyboards are works of art. The scenes of Dandy, Gloria, and Twisty are all just… spectacular to behold, making great use of Dutch angles and the massiveness of the Mott mansion to create a sense of Gloria and Dandy’s weirdly codependent, isolated lifestyle. Ditto the brilliant camera positioning as first Bette, then Dot, try their hand at singing. Having Jimmy’s head on the same side as Dot’s is a great touch, too, given their connectedness. The shots of the freaks at the diner, staring out the window as Del beats some sense into his son, seems almost like a Three Stooges shot.

Jimmy as the Martin Luther King Jr. of the freak show set is one of the more interesting ideas put forth this week in Tim Minear’s script. Evan Peters plays a lot of naive types on this show, but Jimmy’s idealism seems fitting given the changes in American culture at that time—there’s a reason the freaks gather at the lunch counter, after all. However, Bette and Dot’s big song number is another delightful anachronism, and when the crowd responds by forming history’s first mosh pit and body-surfing a little person around, it reaches that crazy level that American Horror Story hits when it’s really primed and ready for weirdness. It also works well as a modern audience signifier for the crowd reaction that Dot’s singing would get in that time period. She’s the headlining act, in more ways than one, and Elsa is quite literally old news.

Even one of the things that might not work for some people, Dandy and Twisty’s new-found bromance, works for me. It’s a bit straining that Gloria (the delightful Frances Conroy) would pick up a clown like that, but Dandy loves a good freak show and I have no doubt that Gloria is completely able to look past Twisty’s weirdness just like she looks past her son’s own proclivity towards murdering small animals. The two seem like a natural pairing, and at times in their relationship I can’t tell if Dandy is the prey or the predator. I like that uneasiness, and these two are going to be great friends before they become bitter enemies—or Dandy becomes Twisty Jr.

With all the narrative twists and turns, the addition of new characters, and the pretty depressing death of Meep (Ben Woolf, who played the Infantata in Season 1), it would be easy for this week’s episode to be confusing, but it’s not. It’s a bit of a downer, to be sure, but it’s still a great example of why American Horror Story is great TV, if you’re willing to numb your brain long enough to enjoy the show.  Even if it doesn’t always work, can’t we all just commit to enjoying the way it is weird for weird’s sake?

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Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Monsters Among Us, here

US Correspondent Ron Hogan just has to wonder what song will be next on American Horror Story: Evil Glee Edition. Maybe something a bit more modern? Maybe something less modern? Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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