‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ Review: “Pink Cupcakes”
Every season of television needs a central conflict around which it revolves, around which some other, smaller conflicts float, tethered to its orbit, but always drawn into the grand design. 'American Horror Story' is the obnoxious, rebellious teenage series. It doesn't play by these rules and conventions, sometimes to its detriment. Conflicts and villains are introduced and swept away; those players whom we think major are offed in the first few episodes, and big bads emerge and converge in seemingly senseless fashion. Who are the true villains of 'Freak Show'? It's a question that perhaps the show is still trying to answer.
At a surface glance, the villains of "Pink Cupcakes" are men like Stanley and Dandy -- Stanley, whose greed pushes him to plotting to murder the freaks of Elsa's show for his own gain, and to prey on Elsa's weakness, her lust for fame. Fantasy drives much of this week's hour, highlighted in a clever (if a bit underhanded) sequence in which Stanley lures the twins away, poisoning Bette with a pink cupcake and suffocating Dot, selling their heads to the museum. Dot and Bette may indulge in fantasy, but Dot refuses to indulge in sugar.
Fantasy is a dangerous concept -- and it's so easy to slide into delusion, fantasy's grim twin. Elsa has been deluding herself for a long time, making her an easy mark for Stanley's talk of television and the future, an even easier mark when the packed house turns on her during her performance of David Bowie's "Life on Mars?" It's a performance that, in the premiere episode, was simultaneously a vibrant introduction to Elsa's world and her people, and an almost literal interpretation of Bowie's lyrics about a young girl sad that there's a better life out there waiting for her and she can't have it. In "Pink Cupcakes," the performance becomes something else entirely. It's pitiful and desperate, the crowd doesn't care, and Elsa becomes a sad, confused little girl in silly makeup and a costume struggling for air. It hearkens back to Ethel's story about Dell making her perform Shakespeare in front of the crowds who just wanted to see something freaky. These people don't want to see fancy-pants Elsa perform this big musical number -- they want a freak show.
Perhaps least subtle of all the fantasies and delusions is the life of strongman Dell Toledo, a man who couples himself with masculine women, like the bearded Ethel and the supposed hermaphrodite Desiree. His aggressions toward gay men and his erectile dysfunction have been telling, to say the least. Finding him in gay bar with guest star Matt Bomer hardly seems surprising, but it is a nice turn for Michael Chiklis, an actor whom we've come to identify so strongly with traditionally masculine roles, and whose casting as a strongman seemed to fit type. "Pink Cupcakes" finds some nuance for Chiklis and for Dell, and the last few weeks have thankfully given him some room to grow away from his initial entrance into the camp as an overbearing antagonist. That's not to say that the character of Dell doesn't still come off as another familiar archetype.
Angela Bassett's Desiree gets her moment in the spotlight, backsliding from the delusion of making a life with Dell and into the promise of a fantasy she never thought possible with the discovery that she's all woman after all -- still something of a curiosity with three breasts, but who cares?
We get a bit more of a history and psychology lesson on Dandy this week, learning that his father suffered from what his mother calls the affliction of the wealthy, which seems to be nothing more than a mixture of the effects of inbreeding and boredom. Dandy's fantasies also slide into delusion, but the delusions of a sociopath are deadly, as poor Matt Bomer learns so quickly.
There are a lot of pieces in play right now on 'Freak Show,' with Elsa dropping the twins off on Dandy's doorstep, Stanley's (so far harmless) plots to off the performers, Jimmy becoming the unwitting town hero, Dandy's murder spree, and Dell's rage boiling over (which seems like the least of things). The problem is that there is no central, unifying conflict or theme that drives the season, and that it shifts from week to week. I keep going back to 'Asylum' as a great example because it is a great example of how this show had a core conflict and clear themes, while still doing its bonkers thing and shifting gears almost every week. We need something that unites Elsa and her performers together because right now they feel so scattered. Maybe Dandy and Stanley are the keys to that, but right now I don't see how Ryan Murphy is going to tie it all together if he keeps everything so compartmentalized.
- Elsa is a huge David Bowie fan and somehow procures records from the future. This week, she listens to "Fame."
- Dandy's Patrick Bateman playroom exercise routine is a glorious thing of beauty. This week: Dandy becomes the first great Bret Easton Ellis novel.
- So, what was up with Matt Bomer, like, not dying easily?
- I loved loved loved Desiree telling Dell that she realized that she was only with him because she thought she didn't deserve any better. It was triumphant and heartbreaking in the same breath. This is totally why you hire Angela Bassett.
- This episode gave us more Frances Conroy than any other and it was beautiful. More Frances Conroy!
- We also met Gabourey Sidibe's character: "I'm having a great time at the Barbazon Secretary School in New York." Very specific. Since she's going to law school next, I think it's safe to assume she'll be popping in for a visit, and she will be Dandy's undoing. Maybe she can team up with Jimmy for a buddy thing.