Great news, everyone: The horror and darkness have creeped back into ‘American Horror Story’ at last. And while the continuing narrative of Jimmy the Hero vs. Dandy the Villain doesn’t quite manage to be something greater than the sum of its parts, the ‘Freak Show’ delivers the first solid episode in weeks. The ghosts of the past invade the present with a surreal quality that echoes the way Jimmy’s brain is clouded by alcohol, or the way Dell—through misery and frustrating uncertainty—writes and rewrites his intended suicide letter. But it’s Dandy and Stanley who bring the real discomfort and unease to “Tupperware Party Massacre.”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the week that ‘American Horror Story’ delivers the first unsettling and decent episode in weeks is the same week in which Jessica Lange takes her turn sitting out for most of the runtime. Lange’s presence still hangs around the periphery of every scene, even in her absence; she is the overbearing adopted mother of this show, after all. But no matter how much Elsa views herself as the maternal figure at the head of this makeshift family unit, she cannot replace Ethel for Jimmy, or Ma Petite for the whole camp.

The first few minutes of “Tupperware Party Massacre” evoke a very particular sort of reaction: that mixture of nervousness and discomfort that lends itself to baffled and uneasy laughter. I am speaking, of course, of Jimmy’s relationship with Ima, the show’s newest attraction. Jimmy makes Freud’s case in a matter of seconds, lustily feeding his new maternal figure and, lost in his boozy downward spiral of resentment and grief, having sex with her in a shed. If this show is building a narrative of hero vs. villain, this is the arc in which our hero resigns himself to misery after the loss of a loved one, punishing himself for that which is and was beyond his control.

The ghost of Kathy Bates’ Ethel appears to both Jimmy and Dell—for the former, she’s the voice of his own disappointment, the voice of reason he stifles with the bottle; for the latter, she’s the voice of condemnation and self-hatred, the voice Dell hears in his head which pushes him over the edge into a suicide attempt. And the truth is, when you have Kathy Bates, you don’t toss her away so easily. But the way Ethel is incorporated into the episode is both haunting and insightful: to a son, the voice of a beloved parent will forever be their internal voice of disappointment, and to a former husband, the voice of his ex-wife will always be the one that nags inside his head.

The pacing and plotting of tonight’s episode are more in line with the ‘American Horror Story’ we know and love: so many plot developments, so many unsettling moments, and so many totally bonkers developments. But perhaps the most poignant development of all is Bette and Dot’s decision to abstain from the surgery that would separate them, a decision that was Dot’s and Dot’s alone. The twins have a nice intimate moment with each other, and we see the strings of co-dependency that tie them together more tightly than any physical connection ever could. And although she’s rebuffed by Jimmy, I think Dot’s going to be OK, having finally realized that removing Bette would split her in two both literally and figuratively.

Perhaps the only misstep of the evening had to do with Gabourey Sidibe’s Regina, who slips in and out of the picture to interact with Dandy when it’s convenient. Where does Regina go while Dandy is out murdering people? Is she just sitting in one of the Mott mansion’s many rooms, clutching her purse nervously until she hears Dandy doing something strange? They didn’t have the Internet or cell phones back then, so maybe she was biding her time with a jigsaw puzzle. Who knows. What’s frustrating is how casually the show dispenses with Regina. It’s a missed opportunity to create some conflict to hinder Dandy. And here I thought Regina would be a stronger, no-nonsense character like her mother—she certainly was the first couple of times she appeared, but where did that version of Regina go? She was likely frightened off by the overbearing music during her confrontation with Dandy.

Regina issues aside, both Dandy and Stanley give tonight’s episode the horrific boost it needs. From Dandy’s titular “Tupperware Party Massacre” in which he creates a giant blood bath in a suburban pool, to Stanley’s general unpleasantness, this episode had plenty of cringe-worthy moments. Finn Wittrock is more imposing and unsettling when he turns on his confidence and charm; he is the insidious tendencies of white male privilege personified. And the scene between Stanley and Dell probably gave us the most terrifying moment of the episode, with Stanley using his unnaturally large penis to intimidate and mock Dell. Those slapping sounds were more upsetting than any amount of bloodshed.

And while tonight provided more disquieting and cringe-inducing moments than the last few weeks have offered, there was still plenty of melodrama, particularly from Jimmy’s drunken corner. But “Tupperware Party Massacre” managed to solidly blend together the drama with the horror, wisely allowing Sarah Paulson and Kathy Bates do most of the dramatic heavy-lifting, which in turn gave us moments that were intimate and meaningful—a nice contrast to Jessica Lange’s scenery-chewing (which is still always fantastic, by the way).

Additional Thoughts:

  • “You’re nothing. You could be a pillow, a donut, a sock.”—Esmerelda delivers the best diss of the week.
  • “I AM THE LAW!” Finn Wittrock just quoted ‘Judge Dredd’ while standing naked in front of a bathtub full of blood. Did this show just peak?
  • I love how baffled ghost Ethel is by the notion of Tupperware, like anyone would want to keep uneaten food.
  • As much as this episode prospered without Lange, I’ll be happy to have her back (presumably) in the next episode.
  • Stanley is so weird and creepy and hilarious. Please let Denis O’Hare do more things.