We’ve had a nice three-week break from ‘American Horror Story,’ which has given us plenty of time to maybe forget some of the show’s shortcomings and perhaps look forward to rejoining the ‘Freak Show.’ Ryan Murphy’s absurd horror series returns with an all-new episode featuring some very special guest stars, including Neil Patrick Harris and his creepy little puppet friend.

The passage of time does a funny thing: the more that time has passed, the more that things become condensed in your mind. Last month I could write 800 words on all the problems with ‘American Horror Story’ in its fourth season, but now I find myself able to reduce my thoughts and feelings about this season down to a few sentences. It’s mostly: Jessica Lange is playing the same character she plays in every season; the series has no unifying purpose, nothing to bring these characters together or unify its many half-cooked plots; the premiere episode was so strong, and the show has been struggling to measure up to it, like a drug addict chasing that first high; and finally, does Ryan Murphy have attention deficit disorder? Maybe!

“Magical Thinking” does manage to combine elements both melodramatic and unsettling with the arrival of Neil Patrick Harris as Chester, a traveling salesman and aspiring magician who believes his wooden ventriloquist’s dummy Margaret is a real person. Margaret is voiced by Jamie Brewer from the ‘Murder House’ and ‘Coven’ seasons, and she’s a real delight to have back on the show, especially in such a creepy capacity. We’ve seen Brewer hint at this combination of adorable and sinister in her final appearances on ‘Coven,’ so Margaret seems like a really great fit. She also gets to play Chester’s imagined personification of the doll.

This week Murphy and Co. begin setting up the remaining two episodes of the season, which involves some convenient plotting. Elsa hires Chester as a bookkeeper, allowing him to perform as a warm-up act, which leads to her discovery that the mentally unstable war veteran has a bit of cash to spare, so she sells her Cabinet of Curiosities to him with the promise that he won’t disturb the existing lineup. Elsa is now free to traipse off to Los Angeles and become a big, bright and beautiful star, leaving this struggling past of squandered hopes and dreams in the dust where it belongs.

Meanwhile, we discover that Jimmy allowed Stanley to amputate his hands, although he was under the impression he’d only be losing one in exchange for the money needed to get a lawyer and get out of jail. This gives us more nice bonding moments between Jimmy and Dell, and Michael Chiklis has clearly been taking pages from Kathy Bates’ actor handbook—he’s fighting really hard and almost succeeding at getting us to sympathize with his very unsympathetic character. It brings to mind Bates’ performance in ‘Coven,’ in which she somehow managed to elicit something resembling sympathetic pity from viewers while playing one of the most vile racists in history. There were moments where you could briefly forget what that woman had done to people. It’s an insane acting ability that only someone like Bates possesses, but those who have seen ‘The Shield’ (myself included) were already aware that Chiklis is able to operate on that same dramatic level. He almost sells it, too, until that unavoidably ridiculous comment about being a 50 year-old man who’s feeding his son for the first time, while Evan Peters’ Jimmy gazes up at him with helpless little toddler eyes.

Jimmy and Dell’s talk of buying the show from Elsa signals pretty early on in “Magical Thinking” that Dell probably won’t make it out of this episode alive. And he doesn’t because someone conveniently delivers Ma Petite’s Body-in-a-Jar to Elsa, and Desiree begins adding a whole bunch of stuff up—she could deal with the macho BS, she could deal with his repressed homosexuality and his volatile temper, but murder is too far for the woman who almost gleefully murdered Penny’s dad. But before Desiree has the chance to off him, Elsa does it for her.

As for the Tattler twins, they’re busy trying to lose their virginity to Chester, which opens a whole can of crazy worms regarding his past. It’s through his interactions with Dot and Bette (and Dandy’s discovery of their tryst) that we learn of his sad and twisted history: he was a soldier who went off to war with his friend, and while they were away, their wives began a relationship together. His pal died, but Chester lived to return home to his wife and her lover, who are both more than happy to torture Chester by having sex in front of him—even for ‘AHS,’ this is kind of absurd.

Harris really personifies the tone Ryan Murphy is striving for—he’s disturbing and disturbed but sort of wonderfully deranged and off-kilter. A few episodes back I wondered if the melodrama on this series was intended to be satirical, and when Harris steps in, you get the impression that that’s definitely the case. This is less obvious with Jessica Lange’s performance, which I almost wish would go full ‘Mommie Dearest’ at this point. Harris also provides us with this week’s one truly horrific moment, when he walks in on Brewer’s “Margaret” repeatedly hacking at his wife and her lover with an axe, in a manner that unnervingly lacks enthusiasm. She turns to talk to Chester, but she never stops the insistent chopping motion that strikes the bloody bodies over and over with these awful, dull thuds. Gruesome stuff.

With only two episodes left, I find myself a little more than worried. Tonight’s episode conveniently ties up some loose ends or at least begins to pick up those ends with every intention of tying them soon, but there feels like there’s still so much left that’s going to get crammed into two hours of television. Penultimate episodes of ‘AHS’ have always been far more engaging and enjoyable than the season finales—those hours which are mostly just made up of characters making some sense of their lives after the chaos.

Additional Thoughts:

  • Dandy is really jealous of Chester and mercilessly taunts him, making the aspiring magician recede further into his insanity and insecurity. At the end of the episode, we have no clue where “Margaret” has gone, but I guess I’m just happy that Harris is sticking around for at least one more week. I just wish Murphy could have snagged him sooner because this character feels like he should have been around for a lot longer.
  • You know, when I start thinking of plot holes in ‘AHS,’ that can’t be a good thing—like, why didn’t Elsa just go over to the Mott mansion and sell the circus to Dandy? She knows he’s loaded and has an interest in the twins, and it doesn’t seem like she’s aware of his psychopathic tendencies at all. Hell, she sold the show to Chester and she’s pretty aware of his instability.
  • I’m sorry, but I still really like Dandy and his great Patrick Bateman-esque performance.
  • It was Emma Roberts’ turn to sit an episode out, but does anyone really care besides Jimmy?
  • I feel like Angela Bassett is being totally wasted.