For four seasons now, without fail, the penultimate episode of ‘American Horror Story’ has always delivered. Tonight’s episode of ‘Freak Show’ is no different, except in that it stumbles perhaps more than the others, the dark humor and melodrama wrestling with the horror in ways that can be a little jarring—and not in a great way. But “Show Stoppers” does feature at least a couple of show-stopping numbers, and it’s the kind of stuff that our old pal Dr. Hans Gruber’s dreams are made of.

Yes, Dr. Hans Gruber (or his younger self, anyway) returns to ‘AHS,’ giving us yet another connection to the previous seasons—although it does seem as though ‘Freak Show’ is more directly tied to ‘Asylum’ than anything else. And like ‘Asylum’ and that twisted Dr. Gruber, “Show Stoppers” really leans into the more grisly moments…starting with Stanley, who sits down to what he believes to be a celebratory dinner, after which everyone will watch ‘Freaks’ and bid Elsa farewell to Hollywood. But their plot synopsis of ‘Freaks’ is rather telling (and maybe a little too on-the-nose), and after Elsa throws some knives at him, the rest of the performers take after Stanley with knives and sharp objects of their own.

That early scene cuts away before anything truly gruesome happens to Stanley, but the stage has already been set for an intense episode, in which Danny Huston once again graces us with his presence as Massimo arrives to give Jimmy some new hands. It’s through Massimo’s recounting of how he was separated from Elsa, the love of his life, that the disturbing Nazi Dr. Gruber reenters the picture. Huston and Jessica Lange’s scene together is powerful stuff, however brief, and their performances really complement each other much like they did in ‘Coven.’

But the real show-stopping stuff is delivered via Chester, whose happiness with the twins is making Marjorie very upset—so upset, that Chester agrees to take care of the Tattler sisters to please her. It seems strange that Dot doesn’t pick up on Chester’s mental problems when she was so quick to pin Dandy for the depraved weirdo that he is. But love is willfully blind, or something. And after Dandy tips them off and sows some doubts, Dot and Bette exit stage left, and it’s Esmerelda/Lucy who ends up as part of Chester’s latest trick, sawed in half in the most sickening display. The scene is dripping with the kind of dread and intensity that’s become a little too rare on ‘AHS,’ but definitely proves that Ryan Murphy & Co. are still capable of producing actual horror.

It’s episodes like this that make the majority of the season feel more frustrating, but also renew hope for the future. Nothing has quite measured up to the promise of the premiere, but “Show Stoppers” comes close. Chester’s perverse and violent story arc is so demented and horrific, and its effectiveness is largely due to Neil Patrick Harris’ excellent grasp of the material. But the way he really nails the tone also serves to highlight the ways in which so much of this season has struggled to find that perfect balance that he achieved in just two episodes.

Immediately after Chester’s unnerving display, Desiree scoffs dismissively, declaring that they’ll steal Lucy’s jewelry and “bury the bitch.” All that’s missing is an over-exaggerated snap of the fingers. The problem is that Desiree’s comments aren’t funny—not because what she’s saying is offensive, but because after the deafening silence and shock of Lucy’s death, the show is trying to punctuate the moment with some dark humor and it just feels like such an obvious way to do that. It doesn’t work.

Regardless of the few stumbling blocks in this episode—like the unnecessary flashback to Jimmy’s teen years, which is only unnecessary because it’s so awkwardly tacked on—”Show Stoppers” goes out riding a high, with Dot and Bette rescuing Elsa from murder at the hands of her own, and Dandy’s (predictable) arrival as their new owner. I guess it sort of makes sense for Elsa to pass the baton to Dandy, since he’s also capable of the sort of emotional remove needed to do what’s necessary for the survival of the show, even if that means killing someone. And maybe we’re meant to understand that now that Dandy has what he really wanted, he’ll stop butchering people and bathing in their blood—all that Patrick Bateman murder stuff was actually, appropriately a Bret Easton Ellis-esque metaphor for privilege and petulance…or something. I guess.

But the episode does end on a high note, with Elsa off to follow her dreams with $10k in her pocket, and the revelation that Stanley has been sickeningly—and literally—cut down to size as the show’s new Meep. And then there’s Jimmy, who, when given the chance to start a new life with new, normal-ish hands, refuses; instead, he has Massimo craft him a pair of wooden flippers. Jimmy can get rid of his deformity, but he’ll never get rid of where he comes from, what he’s experienced because of his birthright, and the way it’s shaped him as a man; those flippers represent not just Jimmy and his mother and his father, but his entire makeshift family and all the hurt and shame they’ve endured. To refuse them would be to refuse life itself.

Or, you know, something.

Additional Thoughts:

  • OK, so if everyone found out that Chester murdered Lucy right after it happened, how did Dot and Bette remain oblivious to the screaming and the commotion? I mean, someone is going to tell them, right? Next week, on ‘AHS’: Dandy and Dot and Bette make amends, I bet.
  • One of the other issues with this episode, which I neglected to mention above, is the opening, which gleefully skips over the whole thing where everyone finds out about Stanley and plots to kill him. It’s very abrupt, almost as if we’re missing an episode. But that’s been the nature of penultimate episodes on ‘AHS’—it’s like Ryan Murphy & Co. spend so much time meandering and playing with their myriad plot threads, setting three down just to pick five up, and always indecisive about which to follow, that they’ve distracted themselves from the endgame. I don’t believe for a second that they’ve got an entire season plotted out and planned before they begin. No way.
  • $10 says we see more ‘Asylum’ stuff next week.
  • Dandy likes lemonade with a paper straw, please and thank you.