Welcome to another episode of ‘Soap Opera: Freak Show,’ in which we’ve (hopefully) reached peak melodrama. Although Jessica Lange’s Elsa subdues herself somewhat in “Test of Strength,” allowing for more theatrical performances from the father/son bonding of Michael Chiklis’ Dell and Evan Peters’ Jimmy, there’s still way too much heightened drama and not enough of that horror that the show’s title promises. And where’s all the bonkers weirdness that we’ve come to love from Ryan Murphy and Co.? This season has worked itself into a woefully boring rut.

To say that this season of ‘American Horror Story’ is spiraling out of control would suggest that there’s an abundance of action or that Murphy has piled on too much of his wacky plotting—that’s simply not the case, particularly in the last two weeks, which have been increasingly melodramatic. ‘AHS’ has never been a subtle series, nor does it typically employ restraint in a manner that resembles anything rational or traditional. That’s part of the charm, for better (Chloe Sevigny all mutated and crawling across a playground) and occasionally for worse (aliens). I keep going back to ‘Asylum’ as a reference point because it’s the series at its best, thematically, narratively, visually, and yes, it even managed to occasionally find moments of subtlety—but it was the Ryan Murphy version of subtlety, and that was totally OK.

“Test of Strength” finds the series, for the second week in a row, restraining itself in a manner that is far too normal for what this series is and what we’ve come to expect—especially for a season that’s focusing on a freak show, and has characters like Dandy, a Bret Easton Ellis sociopathic prototype, or Denis O’Hare’s Stanley, who’s a totally delightful nutjob just waiting to happen (especially if his past characters on this series are any indication). Restraint—at least not in the way normal human beings know the word—is not in Ryan Murphy’s vocabulary, and yet here we are, watching a f—king soap opera.

There is, however, blossoming potential in the creeping, old Hollywood horror of Dot and Bette’s return from Dandy’s candy-coated manor to Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities, where Bette has become a fame-hungry egomaniac, convinced that she is the next Eve Arden. The twins make financial demands, and Bette dyes her hair blonde and acts like a diva, and the show begins to once again insinuate the sisterly terror. With Dot secreting notes to Elsa and making plans to meet with the surgeon in Chicago who separated the Brodie twins, we get the show’s first signs of artistic life since perhaps the ‘Edward Mordrake’ double feature, with a splitscreen correspondence that places either Dot or Elsa as romantic black and white floating heads—an homage to an era that gave birth to Lange, and a world in which Dot and Elsa will never thrive.

While Lange gives her jaw a rest and doesn’t chew on the scenery much this week (not that all that chewing is a bad thing), Dell and Jimmy pick up the slack when Jimmy promises to kick Dell out for attacking Amazon Eve. Of course Dell won’t admit that Stanley has a gun pointed at his balls, and instead gets his son wasted and finally admits that yes, he’s Jimmy’s father, just before he almost murders the kid. This is the part on the soap opera where the violins would crescendo, the cameras would cut back and forth to close-ups on their watery eyes, and we’d cut to commercial just as Dell admits his parentage. Instead, the two hug and stumble off drunkenly into the morning, and Dell murders Ma Petit.

Kathy Bates once again delivers one hell of a monologue this week through her beard slightly more tolerable accent (or am I just used to it now?), as she tells Jimmy that they can’t rely on the world or the police or anyone else to right the wrongs done by people like Dell, or to enact justice, especially when it comes to outsiders like them. It’s especially painful for Ethel after learning of her doctor’s suicide, and Bates delivers the monologue with such moving sincerity. She always manages to find the utmost, deepest humanity in these very particular characters and bizarre moments. You kind of just throw your hands up like, yeah, she did it again. She got me.

It takes most of the episode and sitting through a ridiculous amount of wheel-turning drama before “Test of Strength” builds momentum to anything resembling good: Dot and Bette’s conflict of interest and Sarah Paulson’s captivating performance as not one, but both women evolve is something special and unsettling, and I hope I’m not foolish to believe it’s building to something truly wicked. On the other hand, Dell’s murder of Ma Petit wasn’t the gasp-worthy moment that I think the show was aiming for, given that his introduction in the first episode was outright villainous and the backpedaling to try and give him depth ever since hasn’t entirely worked. But seeing a tiny, dead Ma Petit in a jar in a museum finally raises the stakes just enough to promise that maybe ‘Freak Show’ is finally ready to stop spinning its wheels and get back into gear.

Additional Thoughts:

  • This week, Jimmy sings Nirvana’s “Come As You Are,” and ‘Freak Show’ has officially gone too far with this music thing. I was on board with Jessica Lange singing David Bowie in 1952. I was even OK with Lana Del Rey and Fiona Apple. But angst-ridden Evan Peters abruptly singing Nirvana is just too much and too on the nose. We started the season with Mica Levi’s score from ‘Under the Skin,’ and we’ve now moved on to these obvious, jarring, pretty mainstream songs. Get it together, ‘AHS.’
  • Hey, remember when Gabourey Sidibe was on this show?
  • I kind of want Dell and Stanley to hook up, though.
  • Do we think Stanley and Dandy are going to team up to try and murder everyone? Probably.
  • Amazon Eve is a queen. Do not mess with Amazon Eve.
  • Oh, and I guess we should talk about Nurse Penny, whose dad had her face tattooed and her tongue forked so she could be a real freak. What a cool, thoughtful dad. That was as close as this episode got to be being bonkers. I guess.