Step right up! Step right up! Here it is folks, the moment you've all been waiting for – the big finale to the greatest (or, at the very least, goriest) show on earth! That's right, "American Horror Story: Freak Show," the somewhat uneven fourth season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's ingenious horror anthology, came to a close last night with an episode entitled "Curtain Call." It was a profoundly disturbing hour-and-17-minutes (hey, Ryan Murphy doesn't play by anyone's rules) but, in the series' constant need to shock and surprise, ended with a bittersweet tone that had us holding back tears. Yes, seriously. Shall we begin?
Dandy's Cabinet of Curiosities
After last week's episode ended with Elsa selling the freak show to that dastardly Dandy, it was anybody's guess as to how that would play out. And it did play out somewhat surprisingly – after Dandy complained about not selling enough tickets, the freaks revolted, first by kicking the preppy villain into the dirt and then by collectively quitting. The best moment from this dust-up was when Paul the Illustrated Seal, looking down at Dandy, spits in his face and says, "You're boring."
Of course, after that creepy title sequence (one last time!), we get a brief flash to Hollywood, where Elsa is toiling (unsuccessfully) to break into show business, and then back to the freak show. Dandy is putting on his make-up for opening night, even though nobody is scheduled to show up... and then he picks up his shiny gold revolver, stalks into the campgrounds and starts murdering everyone. The calmness (he's whistling) and exactitude of his massacre was what left us particularly chilly, although the sheer length of the killing stretched credibility (after all, his revolver has, what, six shots, and he was able to kill almost every freak?) The only freaks to get away unscathed were Bette and Dot, Desiree, and Jimmy, who shows up late to the camp with his new wooden hands and lets out a blood-curdling "Nooooooooo!"
So let us please take a moment to mourn Amazon Eve, Paul the Illustrated Seal, Legless Suzi, Toulouse, Penny (what was her freak name? Penny the Illustrated Lizard, I'd imagine), Ima Wiggles, and some other random freaks and carnie folk whose names I don't know.
The Wet Wedding
If "Game of Thrones" can have The Red Wedding and The Purple Wedding, then certainly "American Horror Story: Freak Show" deserves The Wet Wedding. After a shock cut to Bette and Dot marrying Dandy (who is positively aglow at the prospect of "freak babies"), we settle into a scene of domestic bliss: Dandy and Bette and Dot sharing dinner. The tables, of course, are soon turned. They've poisoned Dandy ("You put something in my bubbly") and Desiree shows up (as a maid) with Jimmy (as a butler – nice callback to the end of "American Horror Story: Coven") to get their revenge.
As Jimmy says, his mother would have wanted Dandy's murder to be "theatrical." So, of course, they chain Dandy inside Houdini's Escape Tank and fill it with water. Dandy is assured of his role, until the bitter end. "You can't punish a man for fulfilling his purpose," he cries out. Then the three (four?) of them sit down to watch Dandy drown. The shot of Angela Bassett eating popcorn while watching him suffocate is what will keep me warm on these cold winter nights. But the best was the exchange following his demise:
Jimmy: "Heck of a show."
Desiree: "That boy is a star."
From Dandy's spectacular death, we jump forward in time and across the country, to Hollywood, 1960. Old timey newsreel footage introduces us to Elsa's new life, as the "Queen of Friday Night," an entertainer who has put out three-best selling records and is about to get her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The young executive who took pity on her in the previous segment (David Burtka, who in real life is "Freak Show" guest star Neil Patrick Harris' husband) is now her husband and agent. She has everything!
When we catch up with Elsa, she is filming a coffee commercial that she deems misogynistic. She screams at everyone, including her husband (who a brief flash shows us is very into BDSM). She retreats to her sunny estate, where she meets up with Massimo, who has spent his time since crafting Jimmy's hands, working for the United States government. He's been building houses that they explode with atomic bombs. "Took us ages to build these towns and they blew it up," he says mournfully. He then confides that he has cancer and has been given a month to live, "And then I will be gone."
Elsa says that she is "bored and alone," even with all the fame and success, and then thinks back to when Ethel made her a birthday cake. It was a lovely moment that spoke to the heart of the show: the relationship between Ethel and Elsa. If "American Horror Story: Freak Show" has been an extended metaphor for outsiders and the way that different families can be formed, then Elsa and Ethel was the family's loving same sex parents, each having a hand in the maturation and development of the family and its various members. The fact that Elsa ended up killing Ethel, the one person who understood and loved her wholeheartedly, is painful and you can tell that Elsa is in constant torment over what she had done.
When Elsa gets back to the house, her husband and the head of the network inform her that an investigative journalist has uncovered the snuff films from her past (including the film where some sickos chainsawed her legs off). This same journalist has also discovered her freak show-owning past. The head of the network cruelly tells her that, "They're all dead... It was some kind of massacre." Elsa erupts into tears. The suit shoots back: "There's a morals clause in your contract."
That's when Elsa sees a way out: she will perform on Halloween. This, of course, was a callback to the "Edward Mordrake" two-part Halloween episode, built around a superstition that if you perform on Halloween, an ancient freak named Edward Mordrake (Wes Bentley, once again) will come and judge you for your sins and likely take you to the netherworld. That's what happened to Twisty the Clown and that is what will happen to Elsa (she is sure of it).
One Last Show
Elsa is once again in her white suit, as she sings another David Bowie number ("Heroes" this time). We briefly flash around to the other survivors of Dandy's assault: Desiree has children (yay!) and is shacked up with Angus Jefferson (double yay!). The family is walking by an electronics store and Desiree peers in, mesmerized by Elsa's live performance. Angus walks up and says that the television they have at home is just fine. Desiree looks at him, beaming, and says, "Everything we got at home is just fine." (Now I'm getting choked up again!) Then we are in a home, with Jimmy sitting down to watch the show. Then a figure emerges, obscured at first, and then appearing to be pregnant – it's Bette and Dot! Dot looks at the television and then turns it off, "We've seen this show before."
On stage, an otherworldly fog creeps into the studio (a technician cries, "The mist doesn't come up until the goblin skit!") Soon enough, Edward Mordrake is there, along with Twisty and a whole host of ghoulish freaks. Elsa is ready. Mordrake will kill Elsa, but, as he says, "Your place is not with us."
Instead, Elsa is whisked away to a netherworld version of her own freak show. Everyone she lost is there (Ma Petite!) and, most crucially, she's reunited with Ethel. Their exchange was incredibly touching and profound (so much so that I didn't write any of it down), but the basic gist was that Elsa was absolved from her sins and will get to perform, to a packed house, each and every night. "Stars never pay," Ethel said, quoting Elsa. As Elsa got ready, the familiar strains of "Life on Mars" started to play. She rolled out on stage on her makeshift rocket ship. The audience rose to their feet. Elsa, and Jessica Lange, is aglow. And right as she's about to open her mouth to sing, the screen cuts to black.
This will supposedly be Jessica Lange's last outing for "American Horror Story," and if that's true then she certainly went out on a bang. Since season 2 the show has been a love letter to the actress, inked in the loop-de-loop calligraphy of Ryan Murphy. And this was the wonderfully decadent send-off. Overall, the season had its ups and downs. It was rocky, for sure, but maintained an essential level of quality akin to the first season (and unlike the first season, it didn't botch the finale). The varying levels of excellence reaffirmed my love for season two's dark and emotionally unsettling "Asylum;" what a bleak and nasty bit of business that was.
As far as I saw, there weren't any clues to what the next season could pertain to. The top hat on the coffee cup remains the singular bit of evidence for where the show will be headed. (Has anyone ever hypothesized that it could possibly feature the American exploits of Jack the Ripper following his adventures in England?) I always thought that at some point there would be a season set in the American Southwest, what with its rich, largely Native American mythology and incidents like the nuclear bomb development and testing, and I of course wonder if the story Massimo told was a tip of the hat to that possibility. Who knows.
It's a shame that "American Horror Story" lost one of its most pivotal creative collaborators this season – Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who directed every third episode of "Coven" and helped develop the series' rococo visual style. This year he only directed a single episode, and his lovely flourishes would have really made this episode sing. (There are a couple of nice moments but overall this was pretty flatly photographed.) Gomez-Rejon's relationship with Murphy became stressed after creative differences on the Murphy-produced remake of "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" that Gomez-Rejon directed. (The director has a movie at Sundance this year, too.) Hopefully cooler heads will prevail and Gomez-Rejon and Murphy will kiss and make-up for next season... Whatever it may be.