"American Horror Story" has always been about one freak show or another; it's just that this season actually takes place in the sideshow. The characters and events from the previous seasons sound like a club that Stefon from "Saturday Night Live" would make up: a murder house with a ghost who wears a rubber suit; a former Nazi scientist who experiments on his patients in an asylum; a beautiful swamp witch who listens to Stevie Nicks and can bring the dead back to life; a Louisiana grand dame who used to torture and kill her slaves and bathe in their blood; a sexy collegiate Frankenstein; a tragic take on E. Jane Cochrane; a psycho psychiatrist with a taste for wearing human skin and drinking breast milk; and So. Much More.
It's breathtaking, invigorating, and utterly bananas. It's frankly insane that it's on a basic cable network. And I love it.
In Ryan Murphy's universe, the real monsters are what pass for normal in the real world, and it's the outliers who receive the most abuse. What better setting than a place where actual "freaks" are put on display for the entertainment and abuse of the '50s suburbanites populating a small town?
Jessica Lange stars as German ex-pat Elsa Mars, the ringleader and housemother who runs a failing sideshow that's just set up shop in Jupiter, FL. The first episode sets about building the world of Jupiter, FL., starting with Elsa's new stars, conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson). Elsa's convinced that they will be the ones to save her sideshow, but there are a few hitches.
Here's where the spoilers start.
The Tattler Twins
First of all, Bette and Dot killed their mother in a fit of pique and are obviously unhinged, albeit in different ways. Bette craves attention and affection; she's girly and obsessed with Hollywood and the movies, so she immediately falls for what Elsa is selling. Dot is protective and downright dour, with a serious religious bent. She's also really uptight, as evidenced by a squirm-inducing interrogation by Elsa about the fact that they have two hearts and one, uh, reproductive system. Bette is more in touch with her sensual nature, but Dot claims to leave their body whenever Bette lets her fingers do the walking. It's pretty hard to share a body with a murderer and a slut! Plus, there's the whole thing with the police suspecting them of not only killing their mother but the other townsfolk who keep turning up dead, in increasingly messy ways.
Jimmy's a young greaser who has a way with the ladies and kind of a bad temper. His fingers are fused together to create claw-like hands, which provide a secondary source of income thanks to the local bored and horny housewives who hire him for his special skills. Jimmy hangs out a lot with Paul the Illustrated Seal (Mat Fraser) and Amazon Eve (Erika Ervin) when he's not putting the make on the ladies. Jimmy's got a lot of reasons to be mad, actually; the residents of Jupiter harass and abuse them. He seems to enjoy the way he earns his extra pocket cash, but he doesn't like having to sneak out the back door like a common criminal. Most importantly, he hates life at the freak show, and he keeps trying to convince his mom Ethel (Kathy Bates) that they should abandon Elsa and do something, anything, else. Ethel, who sports a wild beard and an indeterminate accent, tells him there's nothing else out there for freaks like them, that Elsa's joint is as good as it gets, but Jimmy (Evan Peters) is skeptical.
Jimmy is slowly de-freezing Dot, despite his mother's indelicate warning, "No flipper action!" This is not going to end well. It could end well, but this is "American Horror Story," not "American Happily Ever After Story."
That Freaking Clown
Yeah, so the clown from the previews? Murphy and co-writer Brad Falchuk waste absolutely no time in introducing Twisty, a seriously horrifying clown straight out of your worst John Wayne Gacy nightmares. Twisty (John Carroll Lynch) kidnaps a babely young bobby soxer right after murdering her boyfriend on the banks of Lake Okeechobee, just as they're about to finally do it. Then he kills a nice couple and kidnaps their son. Cut to Twisty's terrible clown van in the woods, covered with rust and vines, where his captives wait in cages. Sometimes Twisty does tricks for them, but he's not very good at it. What he is good at is murder.
I'm not convinced that's even a mask.
The People of Jupiter, FL.
The Tattler twins are at the top of the suspect list for the murder of their mother, the young dude at the lake, and that nice Bachman couple. To be fair, they did murder their mother; well, one of them did, and the other one didn't stop her. But still, when a detective comes sniffing around for the twins, Jimmy stops him – they're family, and they take care of their own, and he's just about had it with people calling them freaks. So he kills the detective and then everyone takes turns stabbing him while Twisty looks on from the shadows. Is Twisty happy? Is he sad? Who can tell?
There's also the matter of Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock) and his mother Gloria (Frances Conroy). He's a rich brat who actually makes his mother move over one seat in an entirely empty theater (which they've rented out) because it's better. "Mother made it toasty for you," Gloria says. Dandy wants to straight up buy Bette and Dot, but they're not for sale. Gloria's final offer is "$15,000 and not a penny more - unless she grows another head." They'll be back.
In addition to whatever creepy World War II secrets Elsa is hiding, she's a histrionic drunk and opium addict who is deluded into thinking she's a star. "I survived the Stasi. I think I can deal with the simpletons of the Jupiter police department," she purrs to Ethel as Pepper (Naomi Grossman) and Salty (Christopher Neiman) give her a manicure. She actually sounds a little bit like Madeline Kahn as Lili Von Shtupp in "Blazing Saddles." Lange's performance is basically made for GIFs, and in a show filled with one-liners, her obsession with Marlene Dietrich provides one for the ages. Alas, it is not fit for print.
Murphy teased that Lange will be singing Lana Del Rey in a future episode. In case you thought he might be joking, Lange performs David Bowie's "Life on Mars?" for the sideshow's big blowout performance, and she's dressed in a powder blue suit and matching eye makeup. It looks awfully familiar.
- Eagle-eyed viewers will note his trailer is inscribed "Lobster Boy," a nod to the famous Grady Stiles. If Jimmy has more in common with the late Stiles than his claw-like hands, everyone is in big trouble.
- What the heck kind of accent does Kathy Bates have? It sounds like "Fargo" crossed with Martian.
- We'll probably see more of the candy striper who came to hang out with Elsa's crew, even though she left in a huff after Elsa showed her the very blue movie that she unwittingly starred in while she was high on Elsa's opium.
- There are the oblique nods to Tod Browning's "Freaks," like when Elsa tells the twins, "You're one of us," but the dialogue is peppered with references to movies like "Gaslight," "Stage Fright," "The Garden of Allah," and "Singin' in the Rain." Elsa's obsession with Marlene Dietrich provides the crème de la crème of one-liners: "They paid her $200,000 to take a hot s**t on that movie!"
- The credits are fantastic, and if they're supposed to offer clues to what the upcoming episodes entail, well, yikes. If you like the credits, you'll love the Quay Brothers, whose stop-motion films were obviously a point of inspiration for Kyle Cooper and his company Prologue. Or, you know, Mark Romanek's video for Nine Inch Nails's song "Closer," which itself copped a lot of tricks from the Quay bros. and assorted awesomely freaky artists.
- "No flipper action" is actually a line that a human being said out loud on television.
- Jessica Lange has the most fabulous costumes. Note the seamed stockings, the furry stole, the handbag embroidered with the freak show entrance, the lingerie!
- Just think, we haven't even met everyone... See you next week!