‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ Finale Review: “Curtain Call”
And with that, the curtain falls on another season of ‘American Horror Story,’ as ‘Freak Show’ does its best to come full circle and remember that it had established some plot threads that it should probably tie up. “Curtain Call” is filled with inevitable moments punctuated by maudlin theatrics, which should seem appropriate given the context of the fourth season—but with how much ‘Freak Show’ has meandered aimlessly from plot to plot, delivering half-baked ideas and even lesser-baked themes, very little of tonight’s season finale feels worth the journey.
Jessica Lange has previously mentioned that perhaps she won’t return to ‘American Horror Story’ after season 4. And recently, at the TCAs, FX execs revealed that the fifth season may very well feature “an unusually large reinvention” of the series. It seems even the folks at FX are aware of the show’s creative issues. And it’s not that Ryan Murphy doesn’t have some vibrant and interesting ideas, using common pieces of horror as a jumping off point for some wild stuff—but the problem has always been with the inconsistencies, the lack of thematic cohesion, and what feels like a serious case of ADD behind the scenes. Each episode establishes more new plot threads while dropping others, and never clings firmly to any one narrative element for more than two episodes, max. With Murphy going into production on the first season of his new anthology, ‘American Crime Story,’ it makes sense that the already scattered and barely-focused ‘American Horror Story’ will continue to suffer.
But maybe removing Jessica Lange (as fabulous and ferocious as she is) and reinventing the series is what’s needed to escape this redundant cycle. Much of this season fails to resonate on a thematic, emotional, or visceral level, although Kathy Bates gave us some touching moments and there were occasionally sickening twists. Now that we’ve reached the end, it’s hard to remember characters like Pepper even existed, or those delightful Edward Mordrake episodes.
“Curtain Call” does its best to make us remember why we liked the promise of this season in the first place, but even with an additional David Bowie performance from Elsa, it’s hardly inspiring. We’ve seen her do this act one too many times. We know the song and dance. We know where this is going.
Of course Dandy snaps and murders almost everyone at the Cabinet of Curiosities. And of course, after leaving with Dandy and marrying him, Dot and Bette poison him at dinner—as if they could possibly stay with a monster. Desiree lives and marries Malcolm Jamal Warner’s character, and has the relatively normal life and children she always wanted. Dot and Bette marry Jimmy and they begin their own family, although this pairing (or threesome) feels like the result of these characters having no other options. And then ding dong, Dandy’s dead in a manner which should be terrifying and theatrical, but instead feels banal.
What began as a story that was building to a showdown between the superhero Jimmy and the super villain Dandy, ended appropriately for ‘AHS’ in that the finale only has a passing interest in revisiting this idea before wholly dismissing it and going with a zany murder-revenge plot.
And as for Elsa, she gets her show. She gets a husband (Neil Patrick Harris’ husband, to be exact). And she gets the fame she always wanted. It’s too bad that the finale is preoccupied with ideas that are way too basic for the elaborate stage on which they’re presented: fame has a price; you always lose what you give away; and the sins of your past will come back to haunt you, like a series of 8mm sex tapes you made in Berlin—this is a sadly clumsy reflection of similar circumstances in the real world, where the public feels entitled to own its performers, simultaneously objectifying them and holding them up to the most impossible standards. This is the way Elsa treated her darling Curiosities, and what goes around comes around, I suppose.
The final 20 minutes are terribly overwrought and, like much of the proceeding hour, fail to make an impression. Elsa loses everything in almost comically melodramatic fashion—the freaks are dead, Massimo is dying and can’t take her away from her hellish life of fame, and notorious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper has found Elsa’s old 8mm tapes from Berlin. Elsa has nothing, but when you’ve been to the top and back down to the bottom, where else is there to go?
And so we get a visit from Edward Mordrake (and Twisty! Those were the days), reminding us of a time when this show was actually effective and still intriguing, only to abruptly remind us of how it’s no longer either of those things.
I’m not sure if we’re meant to read the ending as tragic or strangely uplifting—it seems as though Elsa’s been rewarded for her selfishness and now resides in her own version of heaven with all of her old carnival pals and Ethel telling her that famous people don’t receive punishment. Or maybe being surrounded by all those hearts she broke and lives she stole and doomed to death is her punishment. And maybe she’s just too narcissistic to understand it, or too grateful to see them again that she doesn’t care.
And that’s what I mean: there’s no clear thematic message or idea. There’s no cohesion. Nothing about this season has made much sense, but in the most banal way possible.
The first two seasons of ‘AHS’ remain the best, as is the case with most of Ryan Murphy’s enterprises. Perhaps with next season’s promised “reinvention,” we’ll get at least of a hint of a show that delivers on the promise of its season premiere.
- Of all the people at the circus, I thought Eve would be the one to really give it to Dandy, and she comes real close.
- Speaking of Dandy, he remains the MVP of this season (Bates, Bassett, and Lange aside).
- Do you think Dandy put Stanley out of his misery?
- I will see you all next season because I clearly am too dumb to stay away from this series.