American Horror Story Freak Show episode 7 review: Test Of Strength

Don't get complacent. American Horror Story is still capable of surprising - and horrifying - its audience. Here's Ron's review...

This review contains spoilers.

4.7 Test Of Strength

I though it was safe to tune into American Horror Story. I really did. After last week’s threatening stance towards Ma Petite, I figured she would be safe. Test Of Strength only reinforced that, as Dell went around the camp looking for an innocent victim to avoid further blackmail by Stanley, who knows that Dell frequents Jupiter’s one gay bar. The episode teases it perfectly. Dell first goes after Eve, who promptly beats the crap out of him because she’s 6’8 and possibly the worst possible target for Dell’s violence. The second target is Jimmy, which works out well for him, but not in the “I need to kill someone so no one finds out I’m gay” sense.

The Jimmy and Dell scene is surprisingly effective. Dell is still kind of evil and pathetic, but it’s clear that what starts out as a blatant attempt to get Jimmy drunk and take advantage of him ends up being, well, a bonding moment. Dell is effectively disarmed by the kind, funny person his son actually is, and when Jimmy stumbles out into the alley to throw up and Dell picks up that brick, it’s pretty clear that Dell doesn’t have it in him to actually go through with killing his own son. And, unsurprisingly, he backs out of it and the two stagger home to pick a fight with Elsa and yell loudly in the middle of camp for vodka-based reasons.

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And then, there’s that third victim. Having been beaten up by a woman and confronted by his son, Dell’s not got much pride left in him, particularly when Stanley drops another carpet bomb of gay insults at Dell and reminds him his reputation as a heterosexual man is at stake, so Dell takes the easiest way out possible. It’s a clever bit of staging, because at this point I figured Ma Petite is as safe as anyone on the show because she’s already been the little threatened butterfly and Dell has already been shown to lack the guts needed to actually kill to protect his secret. But then Ma Petite gets her pretty new dress, tries it on, and goes in to hug Dell. It goes from sweet to horrifying with the crumpling snap of a tiny little neck.

A lot of that credit goes to director Anthony Hemingway, who has a few great tricks up his sleeve this episode to make his mark in the show’s high quality direction. For example, there are a great pair of matching shots, one in which Dot reads a note written to her by Elsa and one in which Elsa reads the response. When Dot reads her note, Elsa is shown on half the screen in black and white, reading her lines instead of doing a voiceover – that process is repeated when Elsa read’s Dot’s note, with Dot in black and white instead.

It’s a bit of flash that the episode needs, but the thing that impressed most was the opening scene. Bette and Dot are eating ice cream in Dandy’s play room when Jimmy comes in to lure the girls away and bring them back into the freak fold. It works, eventually, but as the girls leave with Jimmy, Dandy is shown framed in the doorway, glaring angrily with his cold dead eyes. As Dandy’s rage boils, there’s a strong zoom in on his face. It’s an old-fashioned shot, but it really works in the context of the episode, and it’s little tricks like that which have helped American Horror Story differentiate itself from all the other scary shows on TV. It’s a show that remembers its history (even if it can’t always remember to hold a plot thread), and mines those old-school tricks for a modern audience.

Crystal Liu’s script focuses on the soap opera elements, and that is a bit of a mixed bag. Lee Tergesen and Grace Gummer are great in their domestic potboiler scenes, and Penny’s transformation to freak is one of the show’s best reveals so far; that makeup is spectacular. It’s not the most interesting plot line, but Tergesen is a great sociopath and it will be interesting to see how Paul and Penny get along now that she’s a full-fledged member of the freak show. I liked Jimmy and Dell bonding, and Stanley’s threats concerning Dell were also pretty funny. Still, no amount of Evan Peters acting drunk will take away the sting of Ma Petite’s disappearing act.

I can’t help but feel like it’s deliberately incompetence on Dell’s part. He knew he couldn’t kill Jimmy. He knew Eve would be the hardest person in the camp to kill. As for Ma Petite, who is going to be missed more than the most beloved member of the show’s crew? Dell wants to get found out, because he’s tired of keeping secrets, particularly his big secret. His boyfriend is dead, his wife is leaving him to become best pals with his first wife, his son hasn’t liked him for years, and he’s gay in a very gay-intolerant time in history. Maybe Dell wants to get caught (and killed, or just caught and outed) and this is his very backwards way of doing that?

Or maybe he’s just a terrible person at both life and murdering.

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Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Bullseye, here

US Correspondent Ron Hogan is very sad about what happened to Ma Petite, who is the most wonderful person on the show and one of the few characters who is completely good, rather than some murky shade of gray. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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