The day after the American Horror Story: Freak Show finale, I woke up feeling grumpy. I’d had a sound night’s sleep and should have felt refreshed in the morning. Instead, I just felt out of sorts. It wasn’t until an hour later that I realized that the FINALE was the source of my sour mood. I wasn’t glum that the season had ended; rather, I was still feeling the aftershocks of my irritation over the sloppy, nonsensical, and dull conclusion to Freak Show, a disdain so strong it followed me through the depths of my slumbers and out into the morning light.
“Curtain Call” functioned like a microcosm of AHS: Freak Show as a whole: it began with such promise and then fell to pieces. The episode opens with Paul and Eve, now accompanied by Penny, hanging a new banner, this time advertising Dandy, the “Charismatic Crooner.” Dandy petulantly rehearses his performance; c’mon, light-board operator, you use the BLUE light for “Night and Day,” because “blue” equals “night”! I relished the prospect of Dandy dipping into the Cole Porter songbook (recall he knows the whole thing by heart); he likewise is eager to debut his act, so, once Paul and company return, he presses them to find out just how many tickets have been sold for that night. The answer is “zero”; after all, they just hung the banners a half hour ago. Dandy loses his temper, immediately blaming the freaks for being passé, and threatens to modify them into new, more enticing versions of themselves. When he pokes Penny in the forehead, suggesting she needs a pair of horns, Paul steps in; in a flash, Eve has clocked Dandy, everyone has quit, and Paul has spit in Dandy’s face. This, despite the fact that in the opening scene, he encourages Penny to grin and bear Dandy’s eccentricities, as, frankly, none of them have anywhere else to go; the freak show is a dying art form, and this is their last stop. I understand Paul’s desire to defend Penny, but the incredibly rapid shift in attitude from obligatory deference to I-don’t-give-a-shit antagonism rang hollow. This was one of many “let’s speed this bit along so we can spend more time with Elsa” moments, which was a shame since Dandy’s storyline was substantially more interesting.
Alas, we never have the chance to hear Dandy croon because he makes a last-minute set change, switching from Cole Porter to mass murder. Brandishing a golden gun and whistling what I believe is “March of The Wooden Soldiers” from The Nutcracker Suite, he stalks the compound and picks off each freak, one by one, starting with Paul. As Entertainment Weekly’s Darren Franich points out, given the fact that some of the most interesting characters this season were the supporting players in the freak show troupe, their deaths seemed rather unceremonious (although at least Amazon Eve had the chance to fight back before being shot). But it was a tense and upsetting scene, in some ways reminiscent of Tate’s shooting spree in Season 1. Only Desiree manages to hide from Dandy and survives to reunite with Jimmy, who finds his friends’ bodies laid out in a horrific tableau.
The twins make it out alive, too; Dandy has bound and gagged them and spirits them away to his mansion. The following scene is a whirlwind of “Huh?” Dandy marries Bette in a ceremony held in the playroom; before consummating the marriage, Bette convinces Dandy to partake in an exquisite French feast, prepared by the new maid she and Dot have hired. At the dining room table, she and Bette occupy Gloria’s former seat (hey, remember Gloria?), while Dandy expresses hopes for a three-headed baby (regular babies are boring, but freak babies are a different story). Dandy swigs his champagne and suddenly feels a bit woozy. And here comes Desiree dressed as a maid and Jimmy dressed as a butler, and immediately it’s clear that Dandy has been duped and drugged (and Bette shoots him in the arm, to boot, when he lunges with a knife at Desiree). A confusing flashback to an earlier picnic unnecessarily demonstrates how Jimmy managed to get into the house; Vulture’s Brian Moylan hilariously makes the observation that even though plot holes abound in this season, at least we know how Jimmy got into the house. Back to the present moment, Dandy reads a placard announcing his debut “performance” before passing out.
Aside: with the opening banner-hanging scene and the previous dinner-table conversation between Dandy and the Tattlers, we are reminded of earlier, better episodes. I doubt this was an intentional distraction on the part of Ryan Murphy, but from time to time I fell prey to the fleeting notion that “Curtain Call” was better than it actually was because of the nostalgia it elicited in me for the Freak Show of October. I then I felt duped like Dandy. Dandy-duped!
When Dandy regains consciousness, he finds himself back at the freak show, stripped to his briefs, his injured arm chained to the bottom of a Houdini-style glass tank. There’s no escape as Jimmy, Desiree, and the twins fill the tank with water and then sit in a row and watch him drown (they even enjoy some popcorn). Finn Wittrock really sells his final moments, transitioning from incredulity (“I can’t die. I’m immortal.”) to bargaining (“I’ll pay you lots of money!”) to desperation and pleading and, finally, to childlike rebellion (“I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you!”). You know Dandy deserves his fate, but there’s something so pathetic about Dandy’s panic while he screams and ineffectively throws himself against the glass, that as the water rises, you might feel a glimmer of sympathy. And while Desiree and company may have enjoyed the “show,” I felt glum when the deed was done; Dandy was one of the highlights of the season, and with his death occurring roughly halfway through the finale, what could be left?
Another thing—aside from the dispensing of Finn Wittrock—that bothered me about this scene was the mixed message it sent about what it is to be a freak. Desiree taunts Dandy, telling him that even if his face is movie-star beautiful, inside he’s the biggest freak of them all. So being a freak is a bad thing? Then Jimmy declares that freaks take care of each other, and “the freaks shall inherit the earth.” So being a freak is a good thing? This confusion has plagued AHS throughout the season, and this dialogue was the cherry on top of a melted, messy sundae. While underscoring that physical beauty does not necessarily correspond to morality is a plus, the show’s lack of distinction between “freakery” and “monstrosity,” and correspondingly, between characters’ “essence” and the roles they play, is a huge problem. It didn’t have to be so confusing: the performers with extraordinary bodies in Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities are freaks, while the characters like Twisty, Dandy, Stanley, and (as we will address below) Elsa herself are monsters. The categories aren’t mutually exclusive—after all, the freaks do commit some monstrous acts in the name of protecting their community—but they are definitely not interchangeable.
The remainder of “Curtain Call” is dedicated to Elsa’s trials and tribulations in Hollywood. Although she spends a week waiting to see Henry Gable, the head of the World Broadcasting Company, chain-smoking and generally annoying the receptionist with her persistence, her luck turns around when she meets Michael Beck, the junior vice president of casting (Beck is played by Neil Patrick Harris’s husband, David Burtka, looking very much like a 1950s version of Jason Ritter). He rescues Elsa from an altercation with security and confesses his own German heritage. Cut to: 1960, and Elsa’s a great big shining star! So much so, in fact, that she is getting a literal star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—the very first one, in fact—for her work on the Elsa Mars Variety Hour (and a number of Christmas albums with Germglish titles). I’d have liked a gander at one of Elsa’s shows, but, instead, we are given a commercial shoot for coffee, featuring Elsa and her husband, Mr. Beck. And at this point, we learn that for all of Elsa’s (inexplicably great) success, she is unhappy. She finds coffee commercials demeaning, she certainly does not want to risk doing a Halloween show, and she and her husband cheat on each other when they aren’t engaging in bondage games. Massimo visits, only to tell her that he is dying, and then Henry Gable informs her that that bitch Hedda Hopper has dug up Elsa’s almost-snuff film, and by the way, that freak show Elsa ran? Yeah, everyone is dead, their bodies found in a mass grave. Michael instantaneously decides to leave Elsa, and since her whole life and career have gone down the pooper in one afternoon, Elsa proclaims that she will do the Halloween show after all. So the film and the freak show and Hedda Hopper are deal-breakers for Elsa’s contract, but the Halloween show is a go? Maybe Mr. Gable knows, as Elsa does, that performing on Halloween is bound to summon Edward Mordrake; that’s one way to get Elsa off the studio’s hands.
I hesitated to devote even this much space to the “catching up with Elsa” section of “Curtain Call” because, frankly, it was a real yawn. The worst insult Paul could level at Dandy was that he was boring, and it’s equally damning for the same to be true of a show that’s supposed to be so edgy, crazy, and shocking. How do you make a program about a freak show boring? Eliminate the freak show and focus on a character that never engendered much sympathy or exhibited much depth. We hurtled through Dandy’s scenes so we could watch Elsa’s coffee commercial and listen to Massimo’s story about building fake towns for nuclear bombs to destroy? And not only was this portion of the episode dull; it was also ludicrous. AHS is basically telling us Elsa is the most famous celebrity in Hollywood. Is all this Elsa’s fever dream? Is she under the influence of hallucinogens? No, I think we truly are supposed to buy her rocket-like ascent to stardom, despite all the reasons (as Brian Moylan mentions) that her fame is unlikely. The only worthwhile moment is Elsa’s realization that she has consistently sabotaged her desire to be loved, and that every step she has taken since wishing on Ethel’s birthday cake has taken her further from that goal. If there is anything at least slightly tragic about Elsa it’s that, seemingly despite herself, she destroyed the love she already had at the freak show with her myopic drive to become a star.
Yet, while all that gives some dimension to Elsa, it doesn’t excuse her actions; as I mentioned before, in some ways she’s as much of a monster as AHS’s more obvious villains. She killed Ethel, knifed Paul in the stomach, provided Stanley proximity to a smorgasbord of freaks, left Pepper with her drunken lout of a sister, sold her “family” to Chester, and then did herself one better by re-selling her freak show to an even bigger psychopath, Dandy. Who went on to kill just about everyone. Intentionally or inadvertently, purely out of ego and ambition, she brought mayhem and death to a community of people she claimed to love. Thus, the conclusion of Elsa’s story is an utterly confounding cop-out that flies in the face of the message of cosmic justice that, up until this point, the season had been touting.
Elsa dons a white, double-breasted suit (as you do for a Halloween special) and proceeds to sing David Bowie’s “Heroes” (as you do on a Halloween special). Why is she singing “Heroes”??? I’d have picked maybe “Ashes to Ashes” or “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).” Aside from the fact that “Heroes” makes no sense in the context of Elsa’s show, it’s thematically discordant with THE show, American Horror Story. Elsa’s no hero, and, if “we can be heroes,” she’s part of no “we.” The audience learns, via montage, that Desiree and Angus have married and have children; Dot and Jimmy are also married and Dot/Bette serves Jimmy dinner on a TV tray before revealing to the camera that they are pregnant. These former freaks have certainly adopted a conventional lifestyle. I’m OK with Future Desiree; she repeatedly established her wish for a family and white picket fence. But I would have been much happier had Dot and Bette decided they only needed each other and opened their own bed and breakfast or something. And Jimmy is just some schlub waiting in the living room for his supper? Why didn’t he end up a leader of some kind, maybe a civil rights advocate or politician? Maybe we are supposed to feel good that the survivors of Dandy’s massacre are seemingly thriving in the 1960s, but the take-away is that happiness = “normality.” So how does that make any of the characters “heroes”? David Bowie’s song is an anthem for the fleeting triumph of the outsider, but AHS’s outsiders only seem to triumph when they become mainstream. This is a missed opportunity for Ryan Murphy to laud a more unique, counter-culture outcome for Bette, Dot, and Jimmy, and it feels like lazy writing.
One way in which “Heroes” is successful: Elsa does manage to entice Edward Mordrake and his posse to LA from the underworld. My friend Cat accurately noted that while Mordrake’s arrival at Halloween was amply spooky, his “pimping” down the Hollywood Walk of Fame and into the television studio was laughable. Twisty accompanies Mordrake but is further neutered/divested of his creepiness, telling Elsa in his yokel voice that death hurts but only for a minute. Mordrake agrees to kill her—after all, she assures him that she’s the “biggest freak of them all” (see my previous comments regarding Dandy’s death)—but tells her that she doesn’t belong with him. Hold up: isn’t the story that Mordrake selects one freak to drag back down to hell? He’s not a mercy killer or a “good guy.” So why is he letting Elsa off the hook?
I firmly believe it’s so Ryan Murphy could give Jessica Lange the actor—not Elsa the character—a heartwarming send-off and happy ending. How else to explain the fact that, in the afterlife, Elsa is returned to her freak show and reunited with her troupe, including Ma Petite, Paul and Penny (married, naturally), and Ethel, who welcomes her with open arms, forgiving her for that nasty business where Elsa chucked a knife through Ethel’s eye. Elsa is as flabbergasted as the audience, wondering aloud how it can be that, after all of the heinous things she has done, she achieves her heart’s desire in the great beyond. Ethel’s response, basically, is that she isn’t accountable because she was just playing the role assigned to her (providing the analogy that cops wouldn’t arrest the actor playing Othello for the onstage murder of Desdemona, as this is clearly the same situation). By that rationale, no one on Freak Show should suffer any divine punishment for simply playing his or her predestined role, and everyone should get to enjoy their own version of heaven (in contrast to everyone who dies in Coven being sent to their own personal hell). Has Dell set up house with Andy, proudly and publicly proclaiming their love? Is Stanley pulling off a never-ending series of cons, surrounded by a bevvy of young, handsome male prostitutes? Is Dandy bathing in blood and eating caramel corn from St. Petersburg and singing Cole Porter songs to rave critical reviews? Are any of these scenarios any more ridiculous than Elsa’s being embraced by her “monsters” AND achieving fame in a very sweet hereafter, performing “Life on Mars” to a packed house of adoring fans?
Thus ends American Horror Story: Freak Show. I have leveled a good deal of criticism at this season as a whole and “Curtain Call” in particular, since watching AHS: Freak Show has been a frustrating experience. Ryan Murphy and his writers had such rich material with which to work, but their vision of the plot, characters, and themes weaved in and out of clarity. The greater the expectations for a show, the greater the disappointment when something goes amiss. I should know better than to be too optimistic when it comes to American Horror Story, but the premise and cast held such promise, I became hopeful despite myself. This season wasn’t a disaster of Coven proportions, but a lot of talent and narrative possibilities were squandered on the way to an absurd finale.
Still, there were some positive aspects of this season for which I’m grateful:
Returning actors: Although every one of her incarnations has been a variation on a single theme (relentless woman with deep-seated vulnerability), Jessica Lange has always been impeccable; I wasn’t fond of Elsa as a character, but there is no question that Jessica Lange played her to the hilt. Still, this season’s MVP has to be Sarah Paulson. Bette and Dot were utterly distinct and the most fully realized characters on the show. And Sarah Paulson played them both.
New talent: Finn Wittrock and Mat Fraser were revelations. Here’s hoping both of their stars continue to rise—and that Mat Fraser is cast in roles that have nothing to do with his phocomelia.
The casting of disabled actors: The message of “what is a freak?” may have been garbled, but kudos to Ryan Murphy for casting actors—Mat Fraser, Rose Siggins, Erika Ervin, Drew Rin Varick, Chrissy Metz, and Jyoti Amge–with atypical physiques. Granted, they were underused, but their visibility, and Freak Show’s celebration of “deformity”—with Elsa’s freaks depicted as sensuous, sexual beings—hopefully expanded viewers’ ideas of “normality.”
Guest stars: This season saw an assortment of interesting guests; some made barely-more-than cameos (Patti LaBelle, David Burtka), while others contributed more substantial performances (Matt Bomer, Neil Patrick Harris). AHS has its failings, but casting is never one of them.
The outdoor setting: Never before has a season of AHS brought us so many exterior shots, and Jupiter, Florida (as played by New Orleans, Louisiana) did seem like another planet with its impossibly vivid colors.
Sound design: Used too inconsistently, the anachronistic music was something of a flop. But that electronic, froggy “wah-wah” sound that permeated the season left an indelible impression. And high marks for the use of tracks from Pere Ubu’s Carnival of Souls for Edward Mordrake’s flashback and for Twisty’s sad wind-up-box motif.
Hardly any supernatural forces: Freak Show was the least supernatural of all four seasons of American Horror Story. With the exception of Edward Mordrake and Elsa in the afterlife, no ghosts made an appearance, nor were there aliens, witches, resurrected corpses, possessed nuns, or voodoo priestesses. Magic can be fun, but it’s also nice—and in some ways more unsettling—to see American horror just as firmly rooted in terrible human behavior.
The opening credits: AHS has always killed it when it comes to each season’s disturbingly atmospheric opening credits. Freak Show’s were the best yet: a cornucopia of creepy stop-motion animation, accompanied by a new version of the “theme song,” featuring the tinkle of a macabre music box. My favorite character from the credits: the stilt-walker in striped pants, steadfastly pulling the “American Horror Story” wagon. That guy always made me smile.
Twisty: Before revealing his tragic story to Edward Mordrake, Twisty the Clown really was the stuff of nightmares: silent, dirty, grotesque, prone to tantrums, and lethal. John Carroll Lynch was the most compelling guest star of all, capturing Twisty’s weariness, rage, and ultimately, pathos—all while barely saying a word.
Season 5 of American Horror Story probably will be shrouded in secrecy for months to come: What will be the theme? Will it be set in the past or in modern times? Will Jessica Lange reverse her decision to leave the show and return for another season? However, the bigger question for me is: will Ryan Murphy and his team be able to harness their undeniable creativity and carry a through line from the beginning to the end of an entire season? Series whose stories carry forward from one season to the next often follow a pre-written “bible”; surely AHS can do that for a single season. Maybe Ryan Murphy needs to hire a watchdog that isn’t afraid to tell him the truth when a plot point or a character’s arc doesn’t make sense; maybe he might take some tips from fans and recappers. I know I’ll be returning for Season 5, for, even though AHS often lets me down, it’s still unlike anything else on TV. All I wish is that it would live up to its promise. And that I could have Elsa’s wardrobe, my own King and I puppet show, and a slice of meatloaf.