A few weeks ago, in my recap for “Edward Mordrake: Part II,” I pleaded with Ryan Murphy to give Paul a bigger role in American Horror Story. And with “Bullseye,” my wish came true! This makes me think I have discovered a mechanism for all wish fulfillment: address Ryan Murphy in a recap and tell him what I want. So … Ryan Murphy, I would like, please: a vacation home in Hanalei; a white convertible Cabriolet; and dinner with John Cameron Mitchell. Oh, and a pony for Ma Petite.
Mat Fraser deserved an episode where Paul is center-stage, so to speak, and I am so relieved that he wasn’t featured in “Bullseye” only to die at the end. At least, I’m assuming he survives because he seems to be active in the previews for next week. A knife to the stomach is nasty business, especially without medical treatment and only opium to dull the pain (seriously, even if everyone believed Elsa contacted the doctor—does she even have a phone? Maggie and Jimmy had to drive to a pay phone a few episodes ago, but maybe she has special access to the landlord’s?—at some point, wouldn’t someone follow up when the doctor hadn’t shown?). But perhaps Penny’s arrival saves the day; perhaps she has the good sense to contact a doctor directly.
Let’s review the romantic entanglements that lead to Paul’s turn on Elsa’s wheel. These dalliances have thus far been kept secrets from both the other characters and the viewers. I can buy that Elsa has been consorting with Paul behind closed doors/tent flaps; Elsa needs all kinds of attention, and Paul is handsome, charming, and, like her, an expat. She effectively manipulates her troupe to do her bidding, and I’m sure she made flattering appeals to Paul’s masculinity in order to get him into bed. Yet Paul is under no illusions that their romance is one for the ages; he knows she will never consider him an equal and hardly seems wounded when she suggests he accompany her to California as her chauffeur (he responds, “I’m flattered that you would even give me a passing thought”). And I doubt Elsa loves Paul; he simply fulfills her sexual needs and bolsters her confidence. Yet, she isn’t about to share him either, especially when he dares slip away and woo another woman behind her back.
The other woman in question is Penny, whom we haven’t seen since Episode 1, when she was forced to watch a movie of the freak sex orgy in which she had partaken, while high on opium. That hardly seems like a promising beginning to a love affair, and as she has been absent from the series, we are left to fill in the blanks when it comes to her relationship with Paul. How long did she stay at the freak show before going home? Did she and Paul have some heart-to-hearts before she left? Did she realize that she and Paul had chemistry and return to visit him? Did he track her down? There is a lot of missing information here, which makes this coupling harder to understand than Paul’s fling with Elsa. And if this, in contrast, is supposed to be meaningful and true, a little relationship development might have made viewers more invested in the story.
As it stands, all we know is that while Penny is eager to make love, Paul first wants her to get to know him “as a man.” Mat Fraser really shines in these intimate moments, but their conversation is cut short, when Penny’s over-protective father barges into the room. Paul manages to hide under the bed, but Penny’s father, knowing how rebellious his daughter can be, is suspicious. Later, when Penny tries to leave the house to visit Paul, Dad (apparently his name is Vince) aims a rifle at her; she calls his bluff when she invites him to shoot her, but I bet he won’t be refraining from violence for long.
In addition to establishing Paul’s desire for an authentic human connection, his relationship with Penny also allows him to cross paths with Dandy. While visiting a corner store to buy Penny a bottle of her favorite perfume, Venetian Romance, he encounters Dandy purchasing pairs of hair brushes, headbands, and compacts. When Paul questions him, Dandy insists that he tried to pick his pockets (Paul indicates his arms and says, “That’s a laugh”). As a result, Paul is kicked out of the store, which is fine by him because he can go instead to Woolworth’s, since “they’ve got ice cream.” He returns to the freak show to share his suspicions with Jimmy: the Tattler sisters are with Dandy, and Elsa took them there. Jimmy refuses to believe him, and in fact slaps him for slandering Elsa; Paul tells him that since Jimmy can pass as “normal,” he can’t see clearly, but “when no one’s pretending, all the bullshit and noise just drops away.” It’s an interesting idea, adeptly articulated: basically, when you know who you are, you can see other people for what they are; Paul implies that Jimmy straddles the line between self-acceptance and self-delusion, and as such, is distracted from the realities of Elsa’s selfish machinations. Paul gets an even bigger reaction when he tells Elsa—who smells Penny’s perfume just as Paul is about dash over to Penny’s house—that everyone believes she’s disposed of the twins. Double betrayal! After Elsa wakes up everyone to scream at them and throw around her birthday presents, she insists they demonstrate their trust in her by climbing aboard the spinning wheel; Paul steps up, as he knows he is responsible for setting this screed in motion and doesn’t want anyone else (like Jimmy) to pay the price. That’s pretty darn noble. And he challenges Elsa to do her worst with one look, which is pretty darn brave. Paul is giving Jimmy a run for his money as AHS’s most benevolent, ballsy, and likeable character.
Once Elsa strikes Paul with her knife, Jimmy reverses his position on Elsa’s innate goodness, and hightails it over to the Motts to find Bette and Dot. The storyline involving Dandy and the girls is another head-scratcher, where I feel like some important details have been omitted. Did Elsa sell them or just shove them through the doorway and run away? What was their reaction? What was Dandy’s reaction? How much time has passed? How did Bette and Dandy “fall in love”? When did Dandy decide to marry the twins? I know he initially wanted to buy them and, indeed, he has set them up in his house as one of his many toys (and in the play room, no less), but there’s a quite a leap from “novelty” to “love.” (Maybe there is a lost episode floating around somewhere that answers these questions and my previous ones about Paul and Penny, perhaps an installment of Love, American Horror Story Style.) Bette and Dot don’t seem to mind their new surroundings; Bette is smitten, and even though Dot obstinately refuses to share a secret with Dandy (sending him into a tizzy), she quickly sees that his wealth could be the means to a Bette-ectomy. Unfortunately, she makes nasty comments about Dandy in her diary, which—to hilarious effect—Gloria is forced to read aloud. Dandy is shattered (even though, as Gloria notes, Bette still adores him), and spews forth a litany of bitterness, comparing his soul to a desert, lifeless except for the scorpions. Dandy concludes that he is a bringer of death, and has just slipped a knife into his waistband when Jimmy arrives. Finn Wittrock is amazing in every scene, and I enjoyed seeing Dandy’s “softer” side as he woos Bette and Dot with caviar and headbands. But as much as I also like seeing him slip into his squinty-eyed, slack-jawed tantrum mode, I think Dandy’s breakdown would have been more effective had it occurred *before* Andy’s murder; in the last episode, he already seemed to embrace his fate as a murderer, so it seems odd that here he would reverse course, find love, and then once again decide that his only outlet is to kill.
To the contrary, Maggie finds that murder is not in her wheelhouse. With the twins gone, Stanley’s impatience is growing; he needs a freak—or at least a part of freak—to sell to the Morbidity Museum, and fast. He has his sights set on Jimmy’s lobster claws, so Maggie scrambles to provide him an alternative, and suggests Ma Petite instead. As Stanley imagines it, Maggie can bring her to the Murder Barn, stick her in a glass jar, and drown her in formaldehyde. And as an added bonus: no blood! Maggie comes dangerously close to executing the plan, but backs out; just as the freaks, who have been wringing their hands and waiting hours and hours for Paul’s doctor to arrive, begin to worry that now Ma Petite has disappeared, she and Maggie return from their morning firefly (?) hunt.
Now a word about Ma Petite. I understand that her fellow freaks would be prone to picking her up and carrying her around, and maybe she has accepted that she is destined to pop out of pumpkins and boxes and be coddled by Elsa (even though gifting her as a human hot water bottle seems a bit much). But the show itself infantilizes her in her characterization. Maggie wakes her up, and Ma Petite immediately allows her to scoop her into her arms, like a toddler. She hugs Maggie and giggles. Then Maggie takes her to the barn and plunks her in the glass jar, and Ma Petite doesn’t bat an eye, just pretends to be a butterfly. What grown woman would do that? I understand that Jyoti Amage may not be an experienced actor, but surely AHS could have her register some doubt or resistance, rather than have her blindly and utterly trust a stranger carrying her to a deserted barn, where she hopes to see “a pony.” Ryan Murphy is clearly trying to capitalize on the adorable factor, but Ma Petite doesn’t have to act like child in order for her to be appealing.
Luckily, Ma Petite’s adventure with Maggie allows her to avoid Elsa’s hissy fit and intentionally shoddy knife throwing. Jessica Lange delivers her hurt and outrage with great panache and volume, but my favorite Elsa moment occurs once she calms down and joins Ethel for a slice of birthday cake (decorated with black frosting?). When Ethel promises that, if she learns that Elsa had anything to do with the twins’ disappearance, she will kill Elsa with her bare hands, Elsa’s reaction is surprising and touching. She doesn’t deny her wrongdoing or take offense at the suggestion; rather she nods and smiles, with tears in her eyes. In that moment, she is a little girl, vulnerable and desiring acceptance from the woman she has just likened to her sister. And then she makes her birthday wish: to be loved. At this moment, I felt the greatest sympathy for Elsa, as her desire for fame is bound to systematically destroy the love she has already earned from her troupe of freaks. She does a lot of damage in this episode, and yet she can’t stop herself. And that’s sad.
I have a prediction. I think that ultimately the tables are going to be turned on Stanley, probably at Maggie’s hands, and HE is going to be the one who ends up in a tank at the American Morbidity Museum. When we first met him, the impressive size of his “sword” was established and hasn’t been mentioned since. But something he says to Maggie struck a chord with me; he tells her that he would kill and sell her except for the fact that her corpse would be un-extraordinary. But his would be (or at least a portion of his anatomy would be). The fact that he is a threat to the freaks also makes me think of the movie Freaks, to which Ryan Murphy frequently nods. Spoiler alert: the villainous Cleopatra gets her comeuppance and is turned into a freak. Stanley may not be exhibited in life, but he surely could be in death. Duhn-duhn-DUHN!
How did Dell and Desiree manage to avoid ponying up a gift for Elsa’s mandatory party? They didn’t even show!
In her desperation to save Jimmy, Maggie suggests they run away together, like, right now. They kiss, and he instantly agrees. Whoa! That’s a far cry from the last episode, when Maggie told Jimmy she wouldn’t be a part of his bright future and avoided his kiss. With all the seemingly AHS lost footage, they should have called this episode “Big Jumps.”
When will Toulouse (Drew Rin Varick) get a line? Elsa pushes him around and references his baby chain gang pickaxe. He has no response? Not even a “Sorry, Miss Elsa”? I hope we get a glimpse at his backstory someday, as we know less about him than any of the other regular freaks.
Elsa calls Bette and Dot a “hydra.” She certainly has a way with words. Less fanciful but no less entertaining is Gloria’s response to Jimmy when he introduces himself as one of Dandy’s friends: “My son has no friends.”