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American Horror Story is back to traumatise us once again with its fourth instalment: Freak Show. This time Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s twisted creation takes us to a creepy setting we’re all familiar with: a carnival. Of course, this isn’t exactly dancing elephants and clowns on unicycles, even though that’s creepy enough for some of us. This is essentially a menagerie of ‘freaks’, deformed individuals who put on show for the public to abuse and exploit. There is a clown too. He kills people with scissors.
Jessica Lange returns as Elsa Mars, a German woman who, despite her oddly French sounding accent, is just the right balance of friendly yet ominous. Other recurring cast members include Evan Peters as Jimmy Darling the lobster boy, multi-award winner Kathy Bates as Ethel the bearded lady, and Sarah Paulson as conjoined twins Bette and Dot. Jyoti Amge, the world’s smallest woman, also makes her acting début in this episode.
Set in the fifties, the episode opens with a milkman making a delivery to a seemingly abandoned house. When he discovers that his last delivery has gone uncollected, he decides to enter the house, and discovers the brutally murdered corpse of the owner. Hearing a noise upstairs, rather than do the sensible thing and flee, he of course goes to investigate, and finds the injured conjoined twins. They are taken to a hospital, where Elsa makes her first attempt to recruit them for her show, Fräulein Elsa’s ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’.
Elsewhere, a young couple, Troy and Bonnie, are enjoying a picnic by a lake in true fifties fashion. This sets up the perfect happy atmosphere that is just waiting to be destroyed destroyed, and ‘Monsters Among Us’ doesn’t let us down. Troy goes to grab something from the car, which our clown, Twisty, takes as a cue to enter the scene. His mask and face are hard to distinguish from each other, his clothes ragged, his entire visage extremely unsettling, a stark contrast to the bright and beautiful field the innocent young couple have chosen for their date. Seeing him, rather than do the sensible thing and flee, Bonnie decides to let him give her a little show, which soon takes a turn for the worse. After a disturbing entrance to the show, Twisty takes something of a backseat for a while, lurking in the background, sure to come out and play again soon.
On to another introduction, we meet Jimmy Darling, who is trying to hide his severe syndactyly (the fusion of his fingers into lobster-like claws, hence his stage name) and blend in with other people. This is where we discover what is sure to be a strong theme throughout the rest of the series: the desire to be ‘normal’, or at least accepted. Jimmy’s dissatisfaction and frustration becomes increasingly obvious in his violent reaction to being abused by passersby and his insistence to the other ‘freaks’ that they can all amount to more and deserve respect. Peters’ performance is perfect – already it’s easy to empathise with him.
When a police officer comes to arrest Bette and Dot for the murder of their mother, it is Jimmy who stands against him defiantly, claiming that Bette and Dot are family now. He whistles, assembling a small mob of his fellow ‘freaks’. The police officer, rather than do the sensible thing and flee (alright, I know it’s a standard horror thing, but still…), decides that his best call of action is to insult and disrespect them all. As for Jimmy’s response to this… well, I think it’s safe to say that his desire to be accepted might have slipped his mind for just a second, which is certainly unfortunate for the police officer. It’s already clear that Jimmy’s building resentment over his exclusion from society is going to make for some interesting plot twists and developments, and he definitely seems like one of the stronger characters so far.
Despite the occasional cliché and off accent, the episode is certainly a good introduction. The characters and their intentions are laid out well, and there is plenty to keep us guessing. It seems that Jessica Lange is deservingly once again going to take a lot of the spotlight, though sharing a good portion with Evan Peters. As two fan favourites, the writers seem keen to give them the more prominent roles. It’s good to see Peters playing a more interesting character again – Murder House’s Tate Langdon (series one) and Asylum’s Kit Walker (series two) were great, but Coven’s Kyle Spencer (series 3) was comparatively dull, as tends to happen when you spend most of the series as a reanimated corpse with little brain function, and seemed a waste of Peters’ talent. Jimmy Darling, at least, is already showing a lot of potential.
‘Monsters Among Us’ is somewhat slow compared to the first episodes of previous series. The introductory sequence between Elsa, Bette and Dot seems a little over long, and it takes some time to get to the main plot points. Those of you who haven’t seen previous series may find this hard to believe, but the episode also seemed a little light compared to its predecessors, which didn’t hold back at all in plunging straight into dark and disturbing territory.
That said, this ‘lighter’ (I use the term very loosely) tone may very well be intentional, as it certainly seems like darker things are to come. With the carnival setting, it perhaps wouldn’t be to presumptuous to say that this tenuously restrained atmosphere may well be a façade that is soon to crumble as bright exteriors collapse and we are introduced to the darkness within.
American Horror Story: Freak Show is currently airing on FOX on Tuesdays at 10:00pm.