Tonight was the finale of Freak Show, the highly rated and acclaimed fourth season of American Horror Story. The successful anthology series has enjoyed a likewise successful four year, which saw many of the show’s cast return in guise as one of the last remaining traveling freak shows in America.
According to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, American Horror Story: Freak Show has wowed audiences and critics alike, receiving an impressive 87% approval rating and an average of 7.7 out of 10 based on 38 reviews at the time of this writing. In keeping with the show’s previous seasons, there’s been plenty of “unabashed weirdness” and a host of bizarre characters committing unsavory and sometimes downright grotesque atrocities to each other to the delight or disgust of fans. Freak Show has seen such oddities as a two-headed woman (played by the exceptional Sarah Paulson), the quintessential bearded lady (Kathy Bates), a dude with lobster claw-like hands (Evan Peters), the Illustrated Seal with tattooed flippers instead of arms (played by real-life “freak” Mat Fraser), and a woman with three boobies (Angela Bassett).
In a bid to enhance the show’s authenticity, producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk cast several real-life “freaks” for the show, and characters like the legless woman and the smallest woman in the world definitely reinforce the distinct atmosphere of the season. Much of the cast of the previous seasons returned, and for the first time in the show’s four seasons we saw characters from other seasons played again in a different season: Asylum‘s Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) and Pepper the “pinhead” (Naomi Grossman — by the way, after seeing her as Pepper it’s impossible to see her as anything else).
**Warning: The following contains spoilers.
Freak Show started off the season very strong. In the first episodes, the villains were introduced and put into place. Maggie Esmerelda (Emma Roberts) infiltrated our beloved clan of freaks under to pretense of being a crystal ball-reading fortune teller, but in reality she was working with her partner Stanley (Denis O’Hare) trying to quietly kill freaks one by one to preserve in big jars and sell to some sort of museum of human oddities. However, it was established fairly early on that Maggie sympathized with the freaks and was trying, in her own limited way, to prevent their untimely deaths, but unfortunately a few freaks fell through the cracks and got canned.
The other main villain of the season, or at least that’s what he appeared to be initially, was Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch). Twisty had a history with freaks; as an autistic or somewhat mentally handicapped clown, he had enjoyed performing for children with a traveling circus, but the freaks of the show were mean to him and after starting rumors that Twisty had been molesting children, Twisty was fired. Eventually he tried, and failed, to kill himself. When Elsa (Jessica Lange) and her “cabinet of curiosities” arrived in Jupiter, FL, Twisty was none too happy about it and killed a bunch of people. However, Twisty was killed by the grim-reaping ghost of Edward Mordrake in the two-part Halloween special, at which point Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock) began to don Twisty’s twisted mask.
I was very pleased with Freak Show up until about halfway through the season, or around the time of the Christmas hiatus. The writing was very strong and very tight up to that point; every element of the plot seemed very deliberate as though the writers and producers knew exactly where they wanted the characters to go, what they wanted to happen, and how they planned for the season to end. Unfortunately, everything began to seem muddled, random, and there was no plot to follow. The characters didn’t even speak about what had occurred in the days and weeks prior; only one death — that of Ma Petite — was really ever brought up after the fact. For everyone else who died, it was sort of “Out of sight, out of mind.”
Another issue I have with the latter episodes of Freak Show is how Dandy was used. I’m of the opinion that Twisty had the most potential as the season’s villain, but I could almost look past their having him killed off when Dandy took Twisty’s place. Unfortunately, that only lasted a couple episodes. After that, Dandy wasn’t much more than a Lex Luther or a Dr. Evil, sitting in his mansion, wealthy and evil and plotting, but otherwise totally removed from the show’s happenings. At one point Dandy had taken Bette and Dot captive, but within an episode or so they were freed and returned to the band of freaks essentially unscathed, then their kidnapping was never mentioned again. In the episodes leading up to the finale, we barely see Dandy at all.
The Musical Performances
Speaking only for myself, I’ve not been a fan of the songs that the characters, specifically Elsa, performed on the show. Don’t get me wrong, I’m usually a huge fan of musical numbers and I quite like the androgynous David Bowie, but the selections have to be meaningful and the performances have to be really good for me to be totally on board. Not only does Jessica Lange sick worse than a cat giving birth to a bowling ball, but I feel like most of the songs the producers chose for the show were just totally wrong and sometimes even painfully out of place.
The first song we’re treated to, David Bowie’s single “Life on Mars?” from his 1971 album Hunky Dory, is performed by Lange as the headlining act of her freak show. It’s our first indication that Elsa may have only collected her freaks so support her own performance, and indeed it becomes clearer throughout the season that Elsa only cares about her own fame and stardom. Lange performs “Life on Mars?” two or three times in the first few episodes, and of the songs that she performs it’s the least catastrophic and out of place. The lyrics are conveniently relevant to the Freak Show theme and although its 60s sound wouldn’t have been heard until almost two decades after the show is purported to take place, it’s vintage enough to now feel awkward.
The next song we’re treated to is Fiona Apple’s 1997 single “Criminal” and is performed by Bette and Dot, the conjoined twins played by Sarah Paulson. Although Sarah Paulson won’t be releasing an album anytime soon, her voice is significantly better than Lange’s voice and wasn’t near as painful to hear. The biggest issue I had with the song is that, to me, if was totally inappropriate for the show’s time period. I’m sure the song’s themes of guilt and redemption are why it was selected since Paulson’s characters had killed their mother and attempted to cover it up, but I almost always hate when a period film or show use contemporary music. It totally destroys authenticity for me.
Lange’s performance of the Lana Del Rey song “Gods and Monsters” was probably the best performance of the season, although that’s not really saying much. The song is somewhat stripped down and doesn’t require Lange to strain her voice trying to nail highs and lows. Plus it’s one of the Lana Del Rey songs that I enjoy. The 1938 Broadway classic “September Song” was Jessica Lange’s third song to be performed this season and was the most appropriate for the period. It was as tonally low as the Lana Del Ret song, but Lange’s rendition was passable.
Evan Peters performed Nirvana’s popular hit “Come As You Are.” The performance was very forgettable, and although the song didn’t stick out like a sore thumb in the way that “Criminal” did, it still didn’t seem appropriate for the period. “Come As You Are” was clearly chosen for its thematic relevance to what Peters’ character Jimmy Darling was experiencing at the time. The final musical performance of the season was in the finale when Lange performed another David Bowie hit, “Heroes”. Again, the song didn’t seem appropriate to the time period, Lange pretty much butchered the song, and in this case I’m not even sure that the song was thematically appropriate. In any case, the only song that I almost enjoyed was “Gods and Monsters”. “Criminal” and “Come As You Are” irked me for being too contemporary, and “Life on Mars?” and “Heroes” were like an assault on my ears.
Freak Show Finale
The finale, a somewhat extended episode called “Curtain Call”, brings to a close to Dandy and Elsa stories after last week’s episode that pretty much tied up everything else. Perhaps I’m alone here, but I found the finale, despite a somewhat exciting start, to be somewhat dull.
Leading up to the finale the main villains had been Stanley and, very briefly and only incidentally, Chester (Neil Patrick Harris). Maggie the phony fortune teller finally came clean about why she and Stanley had suddenly showed up to work at the freak show around the same time that freaks started dying. As you can imagine, Elsa and her freaks and none too pleased with Stanley and his false promises of Hollywood fame for Elsa. They plan a rather theatrical demise for Stanley: The freaks chase and hunt him down, cut off his arms and legs, dress him up like Meep, and turn Stanley into a freak himself.
Meanwhile, Chester the independently wealthy magician and schizophrenic ventriloquist joins the show, pops the twins’ cherry, and then buys the show from Elsa before she takes off to Hollywood to make her dreams come true. However, Chester thinks his doll, Marjorie, is real and killed his wife and her lesbian lover. In fact, Marjorie the Doll is able to convince Chester to saw Maggie in half, for real, while practicing what should have been just an illusion. As Maggie’s innards splatter out of her body and onto the stage, Chester finishes what is both his first and last performance and that’s pretty much the end of him. That left the show up for grabs…
The finale picks up after Dandy buys the show and is trying to insert himself into their routine with his own musical acts, but the freaks aren’t warming up to Dandy. When Dandy starts verbally abusing him, Paul and the others slap him around a bit and knock him to the ground, saying that Dandy doesn’t know anything about freaks or freak shows and how he’ll never be one of them. Then Paul spits on Dandy’s face and says that they all quit.
In response, Dandy goes on a killing spree, killing everyone at the camp. He walks around hunting down every last freak except the twins, Bette and Dot. He takes the twins home and marries them in his play room; however, Bette and Dot had snuck Desi and Jimmy into the house. They drug Dandy, take him back to camp, and put him in a Houdini-esque water tank, where Bette and Dot, Jimmy, and Desi watch him drown as they sit in the audience eating popcorn.
In Hollywood, Elsa incidentally meets the man that will both become her husband and manager, making her the star that I’m sure none of us thought she’d actually become this season. The show jumps ahead to 1960; The Elsa Mars Hour has been a huge success and has seen Elsa singing songs and performing for viewers in a prime time slot, earning her a prestigious star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But we find that her marriage is loveless and unhappy, and Elsa — who apparently cannot be pleased — is unfulfilled by her career. As if on cue, her manager comes to tell her that the video of her getting her legs chainsawed off, which was made many years before the start of the show and resulted in Elsa having prosthetic legs, has been discovered by the press and is going to ruin her. And that’s not all; the icing on the cake is when he tells her that her past was traced back to Jupiter and the freak show that was massacred just after she left with the bodies being left in a mass grave.
Saddened by the news that she’s lost everyone and now is losing everything, Elsa decides to perform a special Halloween episode of The Elsa Mars House since performing on Halloween will make Edward Mordrake return from the underworld to claim a freak to take back with him. As expected, Eddie comes, stabs Elsa in the chest as she was performing David Bowie’s “Heroes” on her show, and she dies.
In perhaps the most unfortunate bit of writing this season, Elsa dies only to then find herself in some sort of freak show nirvana. And it’s not just any freak show; it’s her freak show, with all her old freaks. It’s Elsa’s version of heaven, and in Elsa’s heaven they perform a perfect show every single night to a packed audience.
And that’s a wrap on the fourth season of American Horror Story, Freak Show.
I’m in a love-hate relationship with Freak Show. I loved the look of this season. It was incredibly stylish and atmospheric, had believable and occasionally layered characters, and the writing started off very strong. However, it was almost as if they used all their best ideas and material for the very early episodes and lost their way toward the middle. After the holiday hiatus, it was almost like the show no longer even had a plot; it was just deaths and the brief interludes in between that weren’t very significant or memorable.
Don’t get me wrong: Freak Show was still very entertaining. I was never bored and most episodes had moments that were shocking, gruesome, unsettling, or entertaining in some other way. But considering the how great and strong it started, it’s incredibly disappointing that Freak Show lost so much steam and ended in such a lackluster, even tacky way.
Ending the fourth season this way is nearly identical to the way that the Murder House story of the first season ended — the ghost-collecting house adds the Harmon family to its collection, reuniting them in the afterlife the same way that Elsa and her freaks are reunited in the freak show that never ends. I hope that doesn’t mean we should expect a lot of recycled plot devices in the future. With a show that has an entire different setting, story, and new characters every single season, there’s really no excuse for recycling story lines. Being an anthology series gives American Horror Story an advantage; the show can’t, or rather shouldn’t, ever stagnate since they’re able to change consistently and do new things in new places with new characters.
In a rather poignant review of the finale episode “Curtain Call,” the character of Dandy Mott is described as being the personification of American Horror Story‘s principles and core characteristics. Watch the scene where Dandy kills Andy (Matt Bomer) the man-hooker after taking him back to Twisty’s love shack and tell me you disagree. Both Dandy and the show as a whole have “an eye for spectacle, a deluded sense of panache, and an unhesitating enthusiasm for the kill” as well as “poor impulse control.” I wholeheartedly agree with the assessment, especially that bit about impulsive control. Freak Show — and the other seasons, except perhaps Coven, which seemed more planned and calculated to me — suffered from very poor impulse control, leading to wanton kills without any sense of consequence or significance. That doesn’t always have to be a bad thing though. Sometimes sudden, unexpected killings that seemingly have no rhyme or reason can be fun and entertaining. However, it gets tired and loses shock value when that’s how the entire cast of characters are killed off as a way to wrap up a season real quick.
Most of the characters that were killed off had no lasting impact on the characters or plot of the season; even the death that was most devastating to the characters, the death of the tiny woman Ma Petite, was only mentioned in later episodes due to her being Elsa’s favorite freak. Ma Petite’s murderer, Dell, met his demise as a direct consequence of killing her, but even his death was sudden, had no effect on the plot, and was not mentioned in any of the few episodes that remained at that point. Although frivolous killing can still be very entertaining, in retrospect it’s very disappointing when you can look back on the early episodes in comparison and realize that the season got progressively weaker as it progressed. I’d go so far to say that the plot stalled almost completely by the last couple episodes, which consisted of nothing but the elimination of the last few freaks.
Allegedly, this season was Jessica Lange’s swan song as she is leaving the show after four years. I was never much of a Jessica Lange fan although I thought she was great as Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams way back when, but there’s no denying that she has been sensational as the mysteriously melodramatic Constance in the show’s inaugural year, tortured torturer Sister Jude in Asylum, Coven‘s hedonistic and glamorous Fiona Goode, and the single-minded German circus master Elsa Mars. It’s truly been the Jessica Lange show for the past four years. Although many had hoped she would change her mind, a recent tweet from Ryan Murphy suggests that she’s really done for good.
American Horror Story has always featured very strong female leads. In fact, most of the cast has always been female. Finn Wittrock has definitely be the breakout star of the season, so I’d wager we’ll probably be seeing more of him in upcoming seasons. With Lange leaving the show, I would imagine that Sarah Paulson, who also gives incredible performances in her very diverse roles, will be staying. Then again, Paulson will also be appearing in another Murphy creation and Horror Story spin-off/companion series American Crime Story, which is reported to be the true crime anthology analogue to its parent series but will focus on a different notorious, infamous crimes that has taken place in the US each season. The first season of American Crime Story is subtitled The People vs. O.J. Simpson and will star Cuba Gooding, Jr. as the titular O.J. with Paulson, John Travolta (who’s also co-producing), and David Schwimmer portraying O.J.’s lawyer Robert Kardashian.
Ryan Murphy will not just be producing one show, or two shows next year. There’s actually a third show in development as well. Scream Queens is yet another anthology series, but will combine Glee‘s comedy with Horror Story‘s horror to be a hybridized horror-comedy series. The show will film its ten episodes this spring to air on Fox (to replace Glee, currently airing its sixth and final season) this fall. According to reports, each season of Scream Queens will have two females as the leads and an ensemble supporting cast. The first season, which will take place on a college campus and feature a campus serial killer, has Glee alumni Lea Michele, Emma Roberts, Jamie Lee Curtis, Joe Manganiello, Keke Palmer, and Abigail Breslin as the main cast and singer Ariana Grande in a recurring role. It’ll be interesting to see how Murphy is able to juggle running three separate series and to see how similar or different they’ll be. However, if anyone can pull it off, it’s Ryan Murphy.
For now, Coven remains my favorite season of American Horror Story. I’m definitely going to re-watch the last episode a couple more times to look for hints about the fifth season. Feel free to comment with your theories as to next season’s theme.