The last batch of AHS: Freak Shows have admittedly left me indifferent, often disappointed but not indignant; if someone asked me, “How was last night’s episode?,” my response was regularly a shrug. “Show Stoppers,” however, was a mixed bag. There were some really great things about it, which brought me back to the show’s earlier days, when I was excited about the season; but there were enough not-so-great things that I can’t call it a top-notch episode. For this week’s recap, I decided to separate the wheat from the chaff, focusing first on what worked, and concluding with where “Show Stoppers” fell short.
WHAT I LIKED
Maggie’s death. And not because I thought “bitch had it coming.” I actually warmed to Emma Roberts this season, and it seemed that Maggie had done enough to redeem herself by ratting out Stanley and taking Desiree to the Morbidity Museum; Elsa defends her to Jimmy, and she’s even included in the feast at the beginning of the episode. So I didn’t wish for Maggie’s death. But it genuinely surprised me in a season where effective WTF? moments were rare. Given Chester’s shaky grasp of reality and the fact that characters tend to fantasize when they step on the big tent’s stage, at first it isn’t even clear—at least from the point when he is shown in full magician garb and make-up—whether what seems to be happening is actually happening. Then there is a moment after he begins sawing and Maggie begins screaming where we hear Paul exclaim, “What the bloody ‘ell?” and I was, for some reason, convinced that the freaks would reach Maggie in time and save her. But lights up, and Chester is actually spattered with blood, and Maggie is actually dead. And then he opens the box! I didn’t have adequate time to imagine what that would look like, so when her intestines spilled onto the stage, I was taken aback. And finally, Chester’s pathetic, “Ta…d…” Neil Patrick Harris plays this moment brilliantly, as it perfectly captures Chester’s exhaustion in the aftermath of his unspooling. His breakdown is convincingly frenzied and unsettling, and even though the freaks’ blasé reaction struck me as far-fetched—I mean, c’mon, your new boss just sawed someone in half!—the scene was one of the best in the season.
Chester and Marjorie. Their scenes were shot in a way to viscerally underscore the off-kilter nature of Chester’s psychology. Chester is in tight-close up at the bottom of the screen with Marjorie in the background; later their positions are reversed. The vacillation between wooden Marjorie and human Marjorie intensifies, with at times just a flash of Jamie Brewer’s face (or voice) edited into Chester’s point of view. I’m glad this episode made clear the fact that it was Chester that murdered Lucy and Alice, to remove any doubt, although it seems now that we will never learn how Marjorie came into Chester’s possession. Sadly, given Chester’s loony police-station confession to puppet-cide, I think we’ve seen the last of him. As ridiculous as the moment may be, Chester’s grief over Marjorie’s “demise” is authentic and touching; during his all-too-short AHS stint, NPH always played Chester as fully believing in Marjorie’s existence, which made her power over him all the more tragic. Thanks, Neil Patrick Harris, for selling the desperation. And the crazy.
Bette’s Bett(e)y-Boop expression when she tells Dandy that she and Dot have new beau. Sarah Paulson’s face does like five things in one second. Priceless.
Elsa’s selling her Cabinet of Curiosities to Dandy. Dandy hasn’t been given much to do lately, and clearly the face-off I envisioned between him and Chester isn’t going to happen. He’s been so busy compiling his dossier on Chester, he hasn’t even murdered anyone since “Tupperware Party Massacres.” AHS has shortchanged Dandy by killing off anyone—Dora, Regina, and, most notably, Gloria—who dared contradict him; he’s had no one to bounce off of or react to. No one with whom he can spar, no reason to throw a tantrum. I picture him roaming about his empty mansion, trying on outfits (does a cranberry vest go with cranberry pants? Why, yes it does!), and awaiting reports from his hired gumshoe. That’s not the bratty god of mayhem we’ve grown to know and love. Now that he has taken control of the Elsa’s troupe—another surprising moment but a logical move on Elsa’s part—his character comes full circle, as we recall his Episode-1 visit to the freak show. He has a whole entourage to command and, from the looks of next week’s preview, terrorize.
The Meepification of Stanley. I wasn’t crazy about the freaks’ act of revenge, but I had long been resigned to its inevitability. However, I was convinced that any mutilation would involve Stanley’s much-lauded, 13-inch member, and I was wrong. In a twist on the conclusion of Freaks, Stanley is turned into Meep 2.0; cutting off his hands was a nice bonus.
Jimmy’s New Hands. Speaking of hands, watching Maggie change Jimmy’s bandages and clean his wounds really made me squirm. Thus, the gentleness and elegance of Massimo (Danny Huston) was a much-needed palette-cleanser. Jimmy has suffered for the last half of the season, but at last he receives some kindness, here from Elsa and her (kind-of-beloved) Italian. Massimo’s sketches and presentation of Jimmy’s prosthetics in a box were reminiscent of the moments between Vincent Price and Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands. Had the flashback to Jimmy’s first performance and pep-talk from Ethel not been awkwardly inserted earlier in the episode, I wouldn’t have anticipated the possibility that Jimmy would opt, not for “regular” hands, but wooden “claws.” The flashback gave me an inkling that he would go this route, but, still, it was a nice reminder that choosing to remain a freak is actually an homage to Ethel (and maybe a little to Dell, too).
WHAT I DISLIKED
Massimo’s Flashback. You might argue this flashback is necessary to establish why Elsa is still in touch with him. But he was introduced episodes ago, and more information about their history could have been dropped along the way (and learning about what seems to have been a love affair might have provided Elsa with a little more variety and depth). We wouldn’t even have needed to see any more scenes from the past; Elsa might have just mentioned Massimo’s fate in conversation (and if she lived with him for two years, you would think he’d be important enough to mention more than once). This flashback was really just a device for revealing that Hans Gruper, AKA Dr. Arden from Asylum, was responsible for amputating Elsa’s legs (he just loves cutting off legs!) and subsequently torturing Massimo. Now that Ryan Murphy has revealed that all the seasons of AHS are linked, I predict many more of these “spot-the-connection” games in future seasons. (Did you also catch the mention of The Sign of the Cross, the film Sister Jude shows in “Nor’easter”?). I guess it was momentarily fun to think “That guy looks like James Cromwell … Is that James Cromwell’s son again? … Hey, it’s actually Dr. Arden!” But, otherwise, what’s the point?
Freak Justice. One criticism that has been leveled against Tod Browning’s Freaks is that, if the aim of the movie was to humanize individuals with disabilities, why turn them into band of murderers by the film’s end, crawling through the mud during a nighttime storm, brandishing weapons, and mutilating Cleopatra? While their act of vengeance provides them agency, demonstrating that freaks are not just gullible children who will stand for abuse, they act—and, what’s more, are visually represented—as monsters, which undermines an audience’s ability to identify with them and reinforces the notion that freaks are, in fact, the creatures they portray on stage.
At the beginning of this season of AHS: Freak Show, I criticized the handling of the cop’s death; the freaks demand they not be treated as monsters, while at the same time showing no qualms about chopping up the body of the detective that Jimmy has killed. “Show Stoppers” is similarly replete with images of Elsa’s entourage exacting their brand of freak justice. At the beginning of the episode, they spell out to an unwitting Stanley exactly what is about to happen to him by recapping the plot of Freaks; the night-time chase echoes the climax of Freaks, right down to the freaks crawling under a carriage, assorted weapons in hand. I anticipated this moment, since AHS has quoted Freaks before, and at least non-freaks (like Elsa, Maggie, and some nameless roustabouts) participate in Stanley’s punishment. However, the freaks band together a second time when they decide to kill Elsa. The transition from “Remember Ethel? What a dame!” to “VENGEANCE FOR ETHEL!” gave me whiplash. Nobody hesitates to jump on board with the plan; this kind of knee-jerk reaction to breaking the freak “code” makes everyone seem robotic, simple-minded, and violent, and worse yet, paints the freaks as the monsters they claim not to be. I imagine many viewers applauded the freaks’ moxie and outraged sense of justice, but I think these scenes do the characters a disservice.
In the final tally, my likes outnumber my dislikes, but this isn’t to say I think this season will have a satisfying ending. So many of the characters are dead, so many conflicts already resolved, that I’m not sure what’s left, outside of learning how Elsa makes it to California and what happens to Dandy and the twins. There’s no particular event to which the season has been building, so I can’t look forward to the finale with breathless anticipation, only mild curiosity.
How many corpses are buried on the freak show compound? The first cop was buried, but then dug up and burned. Then Meep died: buried. Ethel: buried. Salty: “cremated.” Dell: presumably buried. Maggie: Buried. Ma Petite: hopefully de-pickled and buried. Penny’s dad: who knows? Elsa is renting the grounds; remember the landlord from Episode 1? His wife wasn’t happy about the freak show’s presence in the first place. I can’t imagine she’ll be too pleased if she discovers the number of bodies on her property.