American Horror Story: Freak Show – ‘Massacres and Matinees’

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After an eerie start, it seems that Freak Show is finding its feet in the second episode of the series. We’re now starting to see a return to the American Horror Story that we’re used to – the police are suspicious, the kill count is mounting and there’s no holding back on gruesome murder, as we see two in the opening scene alone. The difference is, Freak Show maintains its air of false brightness, adding a new layer to the creepiness that we have grown accustomed to in previous series.

The first surprise in the episode comes from a character it was previously easy to dismiss as just a spoilt brat. Dandy, the rich boy with an overly-indulgent mother, may be more than just an annoyance it seems – the repetition of his claim to being bored and then the suggestion of a pet’s dismembered body hidden away leads us to believe there very well might be far more to Dandy than meets the eye. The added oddity of him drinking from a baby’s bottle and his obsession with children’s toys makes him even stranger, which is never a good sign in American Horror Story.

Again, as with the first episode, Evan Peters’ Jimmy Darling takes a lot of the focus. The empathy that we developed for his character in the first episode is only strengthened in ‘Massacres and Matinees’, in which we see him try to join the rest of ‘normal’ society in something so simple as eating at a diner. Of course, we already know this isn’t going to go well, but something about Jimmy’s hopefulness that is so quickly crushed, even by those who he is trying to help, just makes his failure a little more upsetting. Both the writers and Peters seem to know how to tug at our heartstrings; even in such an early episode, it’s easy to feel for Jimmy and his struggle for acceptance.

American Horror Story has never been one to shy away from touchy, or more often disturbing, topics, and this is no less true for Freak Show. However, this time, through Jimmy, there seems to be a genuine comment on society beneath the attempts to make us lose some sleep. Where in previous series, the aim has been to use monsters and murderers to make our skin crawl, this time there’s something a bit more. The people who Elsa calls her ‘monsters’, the members of the freak show, are the ones we might initially assume are going to be the bad guys, based on previous American Horror Story experience. Even this early in the series, it seems like this may not be the case this time. The ‘freaks’ are the good guys (to an extent… there may be a murder or two on the cards, but hey, nobody’s perfect), and the bad guys are the ‘normal’ people who are abusing them. With the notable exception of good old Twisty the murderous clown, of course. He’s still pretty damn disturbing.

Twisty does reappear in this episode. In fact, Dandy’s mother, Gloria, tries to hire him. It does call into question why, when one sees a bedraggled, bloody clown walking alone down an empty street, her response was to offer him money to amuse her son rather than to drive away, but I suppose that’s something we just have to accept. After all, Dandy and Gloria aren’t exactly the most normal of people.

This episode also sees the introduction of a new threat: Dell Toledo the Strong Man. He’s violent, he’s forceful and he won’t take no for an answer, but Elsa still allows him to become part of the show, and gets more than she bargained for almost instantly. Dell quickly becomes a problem, but thus far, he seems untouchable. Even Jimmy’s attempts to be rid of him only end in disaster. So now, not only do the cast of the freak show have the police breathing down their necks, Twisty lurking somewhere in the shadows and society constantly condemning them, they also have an enemy among themselves. The tension is rapidly building, and soon, something is bound to explode.

Jessica Lange’s Elsa Mars takes something of a back seat for this episode. Other than a few quick conversations, she barely appears at all. However, when she does, it’s to really throw a curveball our way. Perhaps being under Elsa’s care in the freak show isn’t as safe as it initially seemed, and maybe Dell Toledo isn’t the only enemy within the circus tents.

Moving away from the actual plot for a moment, Freak Show differs from other series in more ways than just in the story it’s telling. The stylistics of this series are a contrast to its predecessors, and this is becoming more obvious as Freak Show comes into its own. The misé-en-scene is carefully calculated, the perfectly positioned props, canted shots and eerie bright lighting all coming together to create a constant atmosphere that while even when nothing is overtly wrong, something definitely isn’t quite right. Freak Show is definitely striking out a little from the typical American Horror Story formula, and so far, it’s a risk that is paying off.

‘Massacres and Matinees’ is a strong second episode that is beginning to develop the plot we saw forming in Monsters Among Us, and, true to American Horror Story’s convoluted nature, introduces more storylines and characters for us to get lost in. The first episode may have seemed somewhat hesitant, but now it looks like the show is finding its confidence again. We’re sure to be in for a twisted and complicated ride, and so far, I’m confident that the payoff is going to be worth it.

American Horror Story: Freak Show is currently airing on FOX on Tuesdays at 10:00pm.

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