Condensed down to its regular hour-long runtime, this week's second episode of 'Freak Show' still manages to offer wacky wonders and oddball delights, but the introduction of Michael Chiklis as strongman Dell Toledo presents a new conflict for our cast of characters -- and with that conflict comes a familiar problem for 'American Horror Story,' giving this particular bit of plotting a rushed feeling. And while the overbearing Dell may strong-arm his way into having everyone thinking he's top dog, his three-breasted wife Desiree seems way more interesting.

"Massacres and Matinees" doesn't quite live up to the season premiere -- but then again, how do you follow an act like Jessica Lange's Elsa Mars singing David Bowie's "Life on Mars?" at a little traveling freak show way back in 1952, long before the world knew of Ziggy Stardust? The second episode's title is a literal one, referring to beatings and killings, of course, and the arrival of Chiklis' egomaniacal and violent Dell Toledo, who quickly uses his new contract to replace Elsa as ringleader of the show, insisting that they put on matinees now that the police have enforced a strict curfew.

It doesn't take long before Dell is presented as yet another 'Freak Show' villain, and the episode feels as though it's condensing two hours of plot down to one. 'AHS' is an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink kind of series that doesn't follow typical plot and pacing conventions, but last week felt a little more relaxed -- perhaps because it had that extra half hour in its favor. Ryan Murphy & Co. cram so much Dell plot into this one episode, that you have to wonder just how much more there is left to go, not just with him, but for the entire season. How many more characters are they introducing? We're only two episodes in and we already know that Dell is a bad guy who was once shacked up with Ethel; that Jimmy is his son whom he believed to be a mistake and tried to murder (although he thinks the hermaphroditic, three-breasted Desiree is the ideal woman; amen for progressive thinking); and that he recently murdered a gay man in Chicago for having sex with Desiree, who was rendering her sexual services to gay men to try and turn them straight (so much for that progressive thinking). That's a lot of information, and yet that's only a fraction of what transpires with Dell.

Dell's presence presents a problem for many reasons, but particularly for Jimmy. Albeit heavy-handed, "Massacres and Matinees" explores the tragic dichotomy of the freak show and a good portion of its residents, who long to be viewed by the rest of the world as normal. A sadly inherent element of the carnival itself is this lost group of souls who don't belong anywhere, and who are forced to exploit themselves and allow themselves to be exploited in order to make a living. Do they embrace the freak moniker proudly, or shun it for all the stigma bestowed upon that label by society? At work, they are freaks for hire and for show, but off the clock, they just want to eat some meatloaf at a diner in the middle of the afternoon. If, as Dell insists, people can come to see them perform in broad daylight without the shroud of mystery that twilight offers, then why can't they walk free in the sun? There is now a battle brewing between Elsa and Dell, who represent two sides of an exploitative coin.

The other half of tonight's episode is a wacky sitcom called "Dandy Makes a New Friend." And while it offers some wonderful dark comedy and some sick character dynamics between Twisty and Dandy, who are becoming TV's best new Odd Couple, it also gives us a great moment between Dandy and Jimmy. There are people in this world like Dandy who believe that what they are on the inside is grotesque and freakish and that this exterior they've been given does not reflect what or who they are on the inside. What Dandy doesn't understand because of his mother's coddling is that what he is on the inside is basically Twisty, and by bringing home this psycho clown, his mother has unwittingly held up a mirror to her son in a moment of desperate weakness. "Dandy Makes a New Friend" is my new favorite show within a show.

For all the good that Elsa does, there's a place inside her where the opportunist and the crestfallen girl who never got to become that shooting star collide, and that side is the side that's preying on Dot's weakness, turning her against the more talented Bette. Where Dandy sees his hideous nature on full display in Twisty, Elsa sees herself in Dot, and an opportunity to rewrite history, if only she could remove her handicap -- that freakish thing that kept her from being who she was destined to be, and Bette is the symbol of that. Bette is Elsa's negativity. Bette is the wrong, bad part of Elsa. Bette must be removed.

Additional Thoughts

  • Crowd-surfing to a Fiona Apple song. I do believe I have now seen it all.
  • The music choices for last week were so spot-on, and I am a huge fan of what this score is up to, but Fiona Apple's "Criminal" is such an obvious choice. Using something off of her Extraordinary Machine record, which has a certain eerie, jangly, carnival-esque tone to it, might have been a better and less expected choice, while still in keeping with the tone and directive of Dot and Bette's duet.
  • "Yul Brynner was transcendent!"
  • It's good to know that even Twisty is afraid of something, and that something is Dandy.
  • I do wish that Chiklis was able to do some Vic Mackey stuff here and grease the wheels a little bit with some of that unsettling Chiklis charm before becoming an outright villain. "Too soon!" I cried, and Ryan Murphy just shrugged. I mean, would spreading this story out over two episodes be too much to ask?
  • I am sorry, but I seriously cannot stop laughing every time Kathy Bates starts talking.