SPOILERS OBVIOUSLY AHEAD
American Horror Story has returned, schätze! Judging by the first episode, this season promises an exploration not only of the apparent horror of the titular freak show, but also that of the 1950s. In Jupiter, Florida, difference and deviance may be preferable to lifeless, mundane conformity, and all manner of monstrous behavior lurks beneath the cheerful façade of mainstream society.
Elsa Mars and the Tattler Sisters
“Monsters Among Us,” written by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, begins with that quintessential symbol of the good old days, the milkman, making a “D-licious D-livery” to the Tattler house. The idyllic early morning is shattered when Milkman Palmer discovers the dead body of Eudora Tattler, causing him to drop his milk bottles and then, rolling pin in hand, cautiously investigate the footsteps and whispers upstairs. What he finds in the closet horrifies him perhaps more than Eudora’s bloody corpse.
Cut to a hospital, where a new patient is examined; a nurse vomits in a trashcan. As candy-striper Penny (Grace Gummer) and a nurse discuss the awfulness of the hospital’s latest arrival, Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) arrives, decked out in a red dress, a monkey fur, and a German accent. The glamorous stranger appeals to “peppermint angel” Penny’s sense of rebellion by sharing a Lucky Strike and a card for her “Cabinet of Curiosities” reminding her that “life is to be lived,” and when we next see Elsa, she is wearing Penny’s candy-striper uniform and entering the secure ward.
There Elsa discovers Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson), conjoined twins with one body, two heads, and two distinct personalities. Bette seems to be the gentler, more optimistic of the two; she enjoys Elsa’s “direct” speech when she asks the twins about their “cherry pie,” loves Hollywood magazines, and dreams of stardom. Dot is more uptight, distrustful, and sullen. Their different perspectives are cleverly underscored by a split screen, and the CGI allowing Sarah Paulson to have two heads is flawless. Paulson beautifully differentiates the twins, and Bette and Dot never for a moment seem unbelievable.
Elsa, who admits to a “complicated relationship with show business” (her prime motivation in this episode), manipulates the Tattler sisters into joining her freak show. It’s clear to her that despite their story of a break-in that the sisters killed Eudora; specifically, Bette slashed her throat in a fit of pique when her mother forbade them from going to the movies (Bette just wanted to see Singin’ in the Rain in “glorious Technicolor,” we learn in a non-Technicolor flashback). The sisters have fled the hospital, their alibi is weak, and other similar murders have been cropping up in Jupiter. Elsa provides refuge, and as they walk into the devil’s mouth marking the entrance to the freak show (and later write in their diaries), once again we witness their contrasting attitudes: Dot is grim and wishing for a return to the safety of anonymity, while Bette happily embraces her new life, which promises celebrity and, correspondingly, a big tent. Dot desires the shadows, while Bette seeks the spotlight.
Elsa’s reason for recruiting the “Siamese Sisters”? She needs a new headliner because her freak show is in trouble; as bearded lady Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates) concludes, TV is now providing people their entertainment, and they are no longer interested in a “cabinet of curiosities.” While sitting at a diner, clipping out negative Marlene Dietrich reviews for her scrapbook, Elsa catches a member of her troupe, Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters), making time with one of the waitresses. He entices her with his Wild Ones ensemble until Elsa interrupts their conversation; she upbraids him for risking exposure of his hidden deformity in public, and Jimmy retorts that her dream of success is over. In a flashback, we learn that Elsa provides her landlord with sexual favors when he threatens to evict her on account of her lack of cash and his wife’s nightmares (Elsa replies, “My monsters wouldn’t hurt a fly!”). Elsa’s fear and desperation begin to show through her mask of confidence, until she regains her composure and haughtiness, instructing the waitress as she leaves, “Stars never pay.”
Meanwhile, Jimmy has his own means of making extra money. In a scene beginning with overhead shots of green Jell-o and deviled eggs, we see a group of women at a Tupperware party. Their dresses match the pastels of their cupcakes and storage containers, but the pretty, placid surface of the gathering contrasts with the ladies’ stories of sexual frustration and husbands scarred by war. Myrna, dressed in yellow and white polka dots, is told that it’s her “turn”; as she timidly walks down a darkened hall to a back bedroom, we hear one woman explain that Tupperware is a “lifesaver for the American housewife.” The real lifesaver for this American housewife, however, is Jimmy who awaits her on the bed. He reveals his “lobster” hands, inches them under her crinoline skirt, and proudly proceeds to pleasure her. From the boredom of pale pastels, yet another woman discovers Technicolor.
Jimmy is an interesting character. While he is not above using his “gift” for profit (which could be said of any individual performing their difference in a side show), he rails against being called a freak. He speaks to his mother, Ethel, about leaving Elsa and establishing a normal life, but is rebuffed; Ethel feels indebted to Elsa for rescuing her from poverty and the drunk tank (in her memory, Elsa enters the jail cell like a platinum-blonde angel) and, as she tells the twins, feels that the freak show is as good as it gets. Yet, although Jimmy dreams of escape and claims, “our people are a bunch of drunks,” he is still fiercely protective of his fellow performers. By the end of the episode, he kills a detective that has arrested Bette and Dot and rouses the freaks with a speech advocating they make their own right and wrong, proclaiming, “Anyone who messes with us will end up like this pig.” I hope that Jimmy is intentionally conflicted, and that the writing of his character is not simply inconsistent (as much as I admire Ryan Murphy’s creativity, his execution often flags).
We don’t learn much about the other freaks in Elsa’s show in Episode 1. We see banners for these “Living Marvels”—e.g., “Amazon Eve,” “Legless Suzy,” “Lobster Boy,” and “The Pinheads”—and Bette and Dot receive a cursory greeting, during which Meep the Geek bites the head off a live chicken. Ma Petite folds Elsa’s stockings; Salty and Pepper paint her nails. Eve and Paul the Illustrated Seal help Jimmy hang the banner for the “Siamese Sisters”; they also provide back-up during Jimmy’s confrontation with the detective. And most of the freaks accompany Jimmy to dispose of his body. We only get a glimpse of their individual acts at the beginning of Elsa’s performance, and many are involved in the movie that Elsa films of Penny participating in an opium-filled orgy.
This lack of a real introduction to the freaks is problematic. Elsa declares to Penny that her monsters are beautiful and that the actual monsters are the soulless individuals (like the “housewives pinched with bitterness”) on the outside. Clearly the question of “Who are the real monsters?” is central to Murphy and Falchuk, and I believe they want the viewers to side with the freaks. Unfortunately, however, the writers do little in this episode to establish them as sympathetic. While Penny may not have been raped, the freaks seem to take advantage of her in a compromised state. We may applaud how they band together against the cruel cop who calls Bette and Dot monsters, but then we witness them viciously chopping him to bits (even though Elsa states earlier that they wouldn’t hurt a fly). The outside world may be narrow-minded and “soulless,” but Murphy undercuts the message that the freaks are somehow better by having them indulge in monstrous behavior from the get-go.
Admittedly, if the freaks are not given center stage, it is in part, by Elsa’s design. On the night of the Tattlers’ arrival, the house is bought out by Gloria Mott (Frances Conroy) and her coddled son Dandy (Finn Wittrock). Dandy is bored and testy until the freaks appear and Ethel introduces Elsa “straight from the cabarets of pre-war Berlin.” Elsa rides in on a 2D rocket and proceeds to sing David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?”, her powder blue suit and eye shadow mimicking Bowie’s in his video for the song, her voice reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich. The freaks serve as her band, while Salty and Pepper move the “waves” at her feet; she is backed by a contortionist and sword swallower, and, as she twirls on the stage, confetti glitter falls from above. Ryan Murphy cites Baz Luhrmann’s usage of anachronistic music as his inspiration, and “Life on Mars?” really works; the original is amply theatrical and doesn’t sound tied to a specific era, the lyrics nicely apply to Elsa’s struggles with stardom and the constraints of everyday life, and the song complements her Teutonic vocal stylings. But how much of the performance is in Elsa’s head? It’s clear that she sings (Gloria says that the most freakish aspect of the evening was Elsa’s “infernal caterwauling”), but when the song ends, suddenly the glitter and other performers disappear, leaving Elsa confused and upset, resting her head against her microphone.
Later, after Gloria and Dandy’s attempts to purchase Dot and Bette are rejected, Elsa hits the opium pipe and admits to Ethel that she brought the twins to the freak show so that she herself can perform for the audiences they attract. She desperately asks if it is too late for her to become a star; Ethel tells her no, that she will be a household name, but the look on her face belies her reassurances. After she departs, Elsa plays the song “Auf Wiedersehn, Sweetheart” (first heard in the diner scene) and, as she weeps, removes a pair of prosthetic legs; Elsa’s missing her own from the knees down. We are left to wonder what happened, if she herself was ever a freak, and when exactly her career died (if it ever began).
Twisty the Clown
Oh, one other thing is simultaneously occurring in Jupiter: Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch), who wears a half-mask with an exaggerated smile, what seems to be someone else’s scalp, and a filthy clown costume, is brutally killing people. Twisty first appears almost imperceptibly in a long shot displaying the saturated green of Lake Okeechobee, where he interrupts the picnic of two young lovers, Bonnie and Troy. He stabs Troy repeatedly and takes Betty captive, where she shares a cage in an old school bus with young Corey Buchman, whose parents Twisty has also murdered. Twisty tries to entertain his prisoners with a wind-up toy, a rattle, and a balloon animal, but when the balloon pops and Betty and Corey start screaming, Twisty throws a tantrum, hurling balls, breaking glass, and kicking the cage. We later see him riding the side show’s carousel alone, and, notably, observing the freaks’ disposing of the detective’s body. Lynch states that, from a certain perspective, Twisty’s motives are pure, but his end game—and back story—are at the moment hard to predict.
American Horror Story, Episode 1, introduces us to a variety of real and so-called monsters: the freaks, Bette and Dot, the prejudiced townspeople of Jupiter, Twisty, Dandy, and, in her own way, Elsa, who provides compassion and community to her freaks in order to provide herself with an audience. Where they—and the new characters introduced in forthcoming episodes—fall on the spectrum of monstrosity remains to be seen.
- Does Elsa have any ulterior motive for keeping Penny at the freak show? In the orgy film, Jimmy is looking into the camera, gesturing that it be focused on Penny. Is the film merely entertainment for Elsa or an insurance policy against Penny talking about the freak show? Note, too, that Elsa is trying to keep her hooked on opium.
- Some people believe that Elsa first drugged Penny when she offered her the Lucky Strike. Was that your opinion? I thought she was simply attempting to ingratiate herself.
- Is there a love affair in Elsa’s past? Her tears during the final scene could be solely prompted by her failed dreams and missing legs, but as they correspond with the line, “I’ll wait for you,” I wondered what else might be going on.
- During the line “but the film is a saddening bore” in “Life on Mars?” we see a few moments of Elsa, dressed like a cross between a sad clown and Norma Desmond, watching a film. Is this a flashback, a flashforward, or something in Elsa’s head?
- Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” is on deck for next week, with Dot singing, “I’ve been a bad, bad girl.” Will other anachronistic songs fare as well as “Life on Mars?”
- What is Twisty’s stabby device? At first I thought it was a pair of scissors, but a friend and I watched his attack on Troy frame by horrible frame and determined that he’s holding something made of iron with two loops on the handle that meet in the center (the shape is like that of a crude heart). Our best guess is that it is a tent stake.
- Why did only Bonnie have food? Remember, she offers a bit to Corey through the cage, telling him, “You should eat, too.”
- If you put up balloons and dolls’ heads around your rusty old bus, doesn’t it signal, “Murder Clown Lives Here”?