‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ Review: “Blood Bath”
There is a figurative line, somewhere on television, between tedious melodrama and soap opera theatrics, and yet another line exists over which you can cross into the blissful, Lynchian territory of self-awareness and not-quite-rightness. In that surreal place, soapy theatrics and camp are embraced satirically and knowingly because this is a place that looks like somewhere you know but feels like an unsettling dream. I don’t think ‘American Horror Story’ is on the same level as David Lynch, but I’m starting to convince (delude) myself into thinking that maybe after tonight’s “Blood Bath,” it’s striving for the same tonal quality.
Or maybe I’m high. I don’t know. Sometimes after watching an episode of ‘Freak Show’ lately, I just want to fill in these reviews with: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Much of the first half of “Blood Bath” serves to remind us that things haven’t changed much since we took last week off for the holiday—this is a little disappointing in the sense that so much of these recent episodes have been nothing more than slow-moving drama, with Ryan Murphy and Co. abnormally restraining themselves. Or maybe we’ve just gotten so used to the much-ness of ‘American Horror Story’ that the antics of ‘Freak Show’ seem terribly basic. One of the things that the series hasn’t forgotten how to do well is give its leading women some fierce monologues and duets to sink their teeth into, and tonight sets the stage for one such scene between Jessica Lange’s Elsa and Kathy Bates’ Ethel.
With the latter accusing the former of killing Ma Petite and waving a gun around with every intent to off them both, we knew one of those women wasn’t walking out of the tent alive—and we knew Elsa (or better yet, Lange) wasn’t biting it so soon, especially not with that desperate hunger for fame yet to be sated. Again, what’s most irksome about this season is the repetitive nature: Lange is once again the fierce, complex matriarchal figure whose ethics are little more than posturing, and who will sacrifice others to save herself. We’ve seen her play this character in every version of this show, and whether she’s in a nun’s habit or wearing a little black dress (default setting), her type is the same. That’s not to say that Lange doesn’t play the hell out of that type and get us to somehow empathize with these deeply flawed characters, but it’s all become so expected.
Elsa and Ethel’s showdown breathes life into a limp first half hour, aided in part by Finn Wittrock’s continued Patrick Bateman-esque take on Dandy Mott. But even the stuff going on at the Mott Mansion reads more like shenanigans than actual horror, no matter how hard Dandy is trying to intimidate his mother into killing Regina before she can alert the cops to her mother’s disappearance.
There’s something about the tone later in the episode that approaches this genuine level of self-aware satire, where it knows it’s being melodramatic and soapy, but that maybe that’s kind of the point? Perhaps we’ve been approaching this season all wrong. Perhaps we’re watching it incorrectly, waiting for some over-the-top, absurd horror that will never come because that’s what this show has trained us to want, like the audience members who attend Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities, waiting for the Freak Show to begin. Maybe the horror is of a more human nature, and perhaps this soap opera version of the show is as it was meant to be—and it’s supposed to be amusing instead of serious. Maybe Ryan Murphy spent some time watching ‘Twin Peaks’ and the tone of this season is just another reference on the giant pile of references in the Big Ryan Murphy Bonkers Blender.
Or maybe I am really deluding myself. Maybe I am trying to make this season something better than it actually is or will ever be. What happens is that, later in the episode, the dialogue is so thick with that serious melodrama, while the scenes are so ridiculous: Penny and the ‘Freak Show’ ladies kidnap her father with the intent to tar and feather, mutilate, and murder him, but Penny lets him go after a big speech from Esmerelda—cut short by Desiree with our social commentary of the week, calling Esmerelda out on her white girl privilege. All of this while Lee Tergesen sits covered in fake tar and feathers. Then there’s Elsa’s newest recruit, Ima, a very large woman rescued from a weight loss institution. Elsa suggests that Ima is more than just a way to help save the show from the loss of two of its players, but that she had Jimmy’s needs in mind; he can snuggle up to Ima’s bosom and it’ll feel just like Ethel’s … and then he actually does it. And of course there’s Dandy and Gloria, two characters who could probably actually support my thesis/delusion about Ryan Murphy striving for some Lynchian tonal quality.
Dandy kills one of the best parts of this entire series far too early, and then proceeds to bathe in her blood like a gender-bent Elizabeth Bathory, which is probably a metaphor for something to do with how much I hate what just happened here.
- Hey, Gabourey Sidibe is actually on this show after all.
- ‘AHS’ has this structural/narrative rule which insists that one or more main characters must sit a week out every few episodes. I wasn’t distracted by the absence of the Tattler twins, and only reminded myself that they were gone near the end of the episode, but I’m trying to recall if they employed this tactic in previous seasons. Is this perhaps Murphy and Co.’s way of trying to avoid their old habit of overstuffing each episode? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
- RIP Gloria Mott. Frances Conroy, you are a treasure. I assume she’ll be back next season, which some fans have already speculated is about aliens/Tilda Swintons.
- Finn Wittrock’s butt, ladies and gentlemen.
- This may have been the episode that gave me Stockholm Syndrome. I don’t know. We’ll see next week.