Tonight American Horror Story: Freak Show kicks off a whole new American Horror Story season and a whole new spooky storyline. Will we be as scared of freaks as we were witches, asylums and ghosts?
In this season former German cabaret singer Elsa Mars, played by Jessica Lange, brings her flagging freak show to Jupiter, Florida in 1952. Not only aren’t the locals all happy to have them in their midst, but there are mysterious murders and disappearances as well.
Freaks include conjoined twins Bette and Dot (Sarah Paulson), Lobster Boy Jimmy (Evan Peters), Bearded Lady Ethel (Kathy Bates), Strongman Dell Toledo (Michael Chiklis), and Desiree Dupree (Angela Bassett), who has three boobs. Plus there’s the murderous Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch), who is just as twisted on the inside as he is on the outside.
The episode begins with a diary entry read by conjoined twin Dot, talking about how the shadows that had sheltered her were gone and now she’s subjected to the blinding light of scrutiny and is about to enter the gates of Hell. It’s read over a shot of her face as she enters the freak show and shot so to only show her head.
Then we cut to Jupiter, Florida, 1952 and the incident that blew away her shadows. A milk truck pulls up in front of a secluded southern house. The milkman walks to the porch and finds three days worth of spoiled milk near the door. Concerned, the milkman goes inside to check on the Mrs. Tattler inside.
The house is creepy, dark and quiet. There is a half-eaten meal on the kitchen table. And behind the table is Mrs. Tattler, dead and lying in a pool of blood.
The milkman hears noises and goes upstairs with a rolling pin for protection. There’s a horrible grinding sound coming from one of the doors. He opens it and screams.
There’s a jump cut to a POV shot of a woman being rolled down a narrow hospital hallway and into an operating room accompanied by a huge medical team. The doors close behind them, but then a nurse exits and vomits into a trash can.
We cut to a doctor is x-raying the woman. You can see she has two spines, and the doc also says she has three kidneys, one bladder, four lungs, two hearts, and a shared circulatory system. This is all portrayed with music and facial expressions that make something that would just be a daytime TV oddity now seem like the most horrifying thing ever discovered.
A nurse is reading a candy striper, Penny, a newspaper article that explains that Bette and Dot were found at the crime scene where Mrs. Tattler’s body was discovered and that they might be “a relation.” That’s what scared the milkman.
Penny says if she gave birth to a monster like that she’d drown it in the bathtub, which horrifies the nurse.
At the same time Elsa walks down the halls, a determined look on her face and a bag with a distinctive devil logo on it in her hand. She arrives at the nurse station and asks Penny for help finding her “ailing aunt.” Penny notices her cigarette and tells her she’s not supposed to smoke in that wing, but she says “It’s good for you, it’s Lucky Strike,” and offers Penny a drag, which she takes. Hey, it was 1952.
It becomes clear that Elsa is interested in the extraordinary thing in the hospital and in exploiting Penny’s dissatisfaction with humdrum small town life. She flatters Penny and offers her a card for “Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities,” telling her that only by entering can she learn its secrets.
The next shot is Elsa in Penny’s candy striper uniform, bringing a cart with flowers and balloons to the “monster.” In Bette and Dots’ room we first see them in silhouette through a closed bed curtain, then Elsa pulls it back back and yep, two heads. Both are scared.
“Pretty girls you are,” Elsa says, and offers Bette and Dot a balloon each.
“And so fortunate to have a sister,” she says, and the screen blurs out as she advances.
In this first recap I have to note the title sequence here, created by a company called Prologue, which is amazing, truly creepy stop-motion animation featuring freaks and clowns. Wonderful stuff that, except for a couple of clearly CGI cheats, is evocative of the work of great Czech stop-motion animator Jan Švankmajer. A lot more than I expected to see here.
Back in the hospital room, Elsa makes her pitch. The sisters can communicate telepathically and are skeptical as she butters them up as she did with Penny. The sisters have different personalities. The one on the left side of the body, Bette, is very receptive to Elsa and interested in show business and movie stars. The one on the right, Dot, slaps Elsa’s hand away when she tries to compliment her looks.
Elsa works the sisters like an expert carnie, with a bit of an icky sexual harassment element. She gives Bette a drag on her cigarette and Dot coughs out the smoke. She asks about boyfriends. She says they have two hearts but only one reproductive system and asks if anyone has tasted their “cherry pie.” The Dot thinks she’s a “psycho pervert” but Bette thinks she’s “down to earth is all.”
Elsa asks about masturbation. Bette says she does it, and says Dot pretends she doesn’t like it but that she’s lying and secretly does.
“Shut your disgusting mouth, you slut,” Dot screams, and runs out Elsa out of the room. Elsa leaves but says she “never gives up on a friend.”
On a picnic blanket at Lake Okeechobee on the outskirts of Jupiter, two young people, Bonnie and Troy, are getting it on in a solitary spot. The girl is very take charge, guiding the guy’s hand. He stops and says they can’t afford the baby, but she says she “stole two rubbers from Druckers” and shows him the evidence. The guy says he has something for her in his car and runs to get it. Those are the kind you marry.
Before the romantic scene can continue, a horrible, dirty clown straight out of your nightmares comes walking up to the girl. It’s Twisty! He’s filthy and he has an inhumanly huge toothy grin fixed on his face. His face sort of looks like he had one face and someone tore it off and there was another face underneath.
Anyone in real life presented with this visage would go mad trying to figure out whether to crap their pants or cry first, but Bonnie is only mildly nervous, as if evil clowns approach her all the time. The clown offers flowers and then start a juggling act, but Troy returns, engagement ring in hand, and is angry. The girl thought Troy had hired the clown, I guess to try to set the record for creepiest proposal ever.
The clown knocks both lovers out with the juggling pins. Bonnie wakes to see the clown stabbing Troy to death. She screams and runs but he chases her down.
Elsa is in a diner, where everyone is reading a story in the paper about the gruesome farmhouse murder. Elsa, however, is clipping a tiny review for Stage Fright, “(Marlene) Dietrich’s new film.” Stage Fright came out in 1950, but I guess it’s possible a local critic was reviewing it as late as 52.
“Clearly Mr. Hitchcock had some kind of mental break when he cast her in this picture,” Elsa cattily tells the waitress. She pastes the review in a scrapbook. Yeah, she apparently has a whole scrapbook full of reviews of Marlene Dietrich movies and articles about the actress. And she gets great pleasure from her failures.
A young man dressed in a leather biker outfit like Marlon Brando in The Wild One enters and starts chatting up the waitress. It’s Jimmy Darling, the freak show’s lobster boy, and he’s wearing some highly suspicious leather mitts to cover up his deformed hands.
Elsa berates him, saying she’s finally found us a home and he’s risking it for some floozy. But the guy just says aren’t wanted there and Elsa is living in a dream.
In the next scene is a flashback where Elsa is removing clothing from a laundry line while holding Ma Petite, who is maybe two feet tall at the most. She’s very kind and gentle with Ma Petite and calls her pretty, then puts her down to talk to her landlord.
The landlord, Haddonfield tells her they have to leave the premises, even though they’ve only used up two months of their year lease, saying no one is coming to see the show. Elsa argues that she’s scouting new acts and that there’s a “change in the air,” but Haddonfield said he needs the field for a tent revival and that his wife doesn’t like the freaks. She turns on the charm and it’s implied that she uses sex to get Haddonfield to offer a reprieve.
Back to the diner and Elsa is asking the Jimmy what happens when the girl sees his deformities. She says he and his mother, the freak show’s bearded lady Ethel Darling, will end up in the state madhouse without the show, but Jimmy says they’ll all end up there anyway and “it’s over.”
“You’re wrong!” Elsa says, leaping up, and says she has a plan. They both leave. Elsa refuses to close out her check, telling the waitress “stars never pay.”
At a small party, some women are talking about their unsatisfying sex lives. One woman, Myrna, says her husband just hasn’t been the same since Korea. Another woman comes out and sends Myrna into a back bedroom, promising she’ll be “so relaxed” after. Jimmy the Lobster Boy is lying on the bed. Myrna gets on and hikes up her long dress and Jimmy puts his lobster claw under and stimulates her. His claw has two large prongs, by the way. Hey, it’s a TV-MA show, folks!
Elsa is back at the hospital working on recruiting Bette and Dot. Dot, recounts the story of the murder and what they saw, which in her version was just her mother Mrs. Tattler being dragged down a hall. Bette, however, says the guy had on black fedora and stunk of Aqua Velva and says he strangled their mother with her own necklaces while she was doing needlepoint, which Elsa points out is both a lie and the plot of Gaslight. Elsa tells them that considering they were found two days after their mother was killed with fresh injuries they need to get their stories straight before the cops show up.
A man and wife are in bed at their home. The man wakes up and leaves the bedroom and we see that, holy crap, Twisty the clown is down the hall, following him unseen.
A flash-forward is intercut with a scene of doctor’s and nurses listening to a report about the couple’s murder on the radio. While the radio talks about how they weren’t found for a week and the scene was a bloodbath, we see Twisty enter the room and stab the woman and kidnap their little boy. The radio also reveals that Bonnie was abducted, too. Dot and Bette also overhear the radio report and look very worried.
We’re in a creepy woods with balloons stuck in the trees. The camera enters an abandoned school bus. Twisty has Bonnie and the boy inside in cages. Bonnie gives him food and assures him someone will find them. Then Twisty comes in. He adds a horrifying windup musical clown doll to the bus’s already insane John Wayne Gacey/circus decor.
Bonnie flatters him and begs him to release them so they can “tell the world” how talented he is. He just laughs a dark, grinding chuckle from the depths of your nightmares and does some evil variations on clown magic tricks. He starts with a long scarf and follows with a balloon animal. When the balloon animal breaks he flies into a rage and attacks the cages. I guess he took up murder because he sucks at clowning.
Bette and Dot are at their home, packing to go on the run, but they’re interrupted by Elsa. Elsa is dressed in a suit with a fur wrap. Except for the fact it has a skirt and not pants it’s exactly the kind of outfit Marlene Dietrich sometimes wore.
She tells the girls they’ll be blamed for the serial murders, and threatens them with “Old Sparky,” the electric chair at Florida State Prison, and the prospect that they may be separated. It scares Bette but it just makes Dot mad.
We get a flashback to what really happened to their mother. They are eating the meal that the milkman found at the start of the show. Bette is begging to be snuck into a theater to see “Singing in the Rain,” but their mother refuses, saying their lives would be ruined if anyone found out about the girls. Bette says their lives now are a prison.
Their mother says she’s too young to remember that they had to leave Alabama in “the dead of night.” Bette gets mad, raves she wants so see it now in “glorious Technicolor.”
Bette’s mother slaps her and Bette responds by picking up a kitchen knife and stabbing her.
Dot defends Bette to Elsa, saying she didn’t know what she was doing. But Elsa says Dot did and could have stopped her. In the flashback Dot does stop her, but only after watching in wonder as Bette gets the first few stabs in.
Elsa says they’re both guilty, and that Dot is probably more guilty, because as we see in a flashback Dot later stabs Bette with a pair of scissors while they are in bed to “punish” herself for allowing Bette to commit the crime.
But Elsa doesn’t want to report the crimes, of course. She tells the girls she only wants to “save them.”
And then we get a closeup of Bette’s face with a diary entry being read as voice-over as she enters the freak show. Her entry is much more upbeat than Dot’s and is about being freed from the shadows. We see their entrance into the freak show, which has a big gate that looks like you’re walking into the devil’s mouth, and the freaks gathered to meet them. Bette’s happy, Dot is sad as they enter the “mouth of Hell.”
The next scenes are diary entries for the sisters. Bette finds the trappings of freak show frame glamorous and is impressed with Elsa’s opulent tent. Dot is in despair and longs for the quiet of the farm and an escape from the “depravity” of the freaks.
We see Bette and Dot head to the dinner tent and are introduced to “Meep the Geek.” Geeks bite the heads off chickens, and that’s what Meep does to greet Bette and Dot. Jimmy apologizes for Meep, however, and both sisters seem to instantly develop a crush on him.
Dot’s diary reveals she especially hates Jimmy’s mother Ethel, the bearded lady whom she describes as Elsa’s “henchwoman.” What we see is that Dot has been punishing Bette by not letting her eat, and that Ethel has been sent to administer their meals and make Dot let her sister eat.
When Dot throws food Ethel calls her an “ungrateful little bitch” for rejecting Elsa’s kindness, and tells her own story about being rescued by Elsa. It plays out a lot like Bette and Dot’s rescue, with Elsa arriving with her devil bag, springing Ethel from a drunk tank and reuniting her with Jimmy.
Dot says they’re “nobody’s trained monkey,” but Ethel says this place is “as good as it gets for folks like us” and they take care of each other. She says the twins are the only hope the show has to turn it around, and Dot finally lets Bette eat.
There are scenes showing some of the freaks, including Jimmy, worrying the show will be raided for harboring Bette and Dot, who are wanted fugitives. Elsa, who is getting her nails done by pinheads, says she survived the Stasi and can deal with dumb cops. Her plan is to tell the cops the twins have been with her for a month and were attacked when they went back to check on their mother.
As Jimmy and some of the other freaks are hanging banners featuring Bette and Dot on a road for the show, a convertible full of young dudes roars by and the dudes throw beer bottles at them. Jimmy is furious.
Ethel and the pinheads are cleaning up and washing dishes in a tent after a meal. Elsa is watching silent films featuring the freaks on a projector. Elsa offers to help, but Ethel tells her to enjoy herself.
Elsa shuts off the movie and Penny enters, in a kimono and lingerie, angrily saying she wants to go back to her church and family and people. Elsa says she’s just had too much opium, but offers to fetch her candy striper uniform and tells her not to talk about what happens at the show.
Penny protests she was “drugged, ravaged” and that she’s going to tell everyone about the “real freak show.” But Elsa sinisterly insists she liked it at the show, that she “loved it.”
Elsa restarts the projector and we can see that what she’s watching is not just a home movie, it’s a porno featuring the freaks and a glazed-looking Penny as the stars.
“Looks to me like we have a woman who was taking her own pleasure for the very first time,” Elsa says, as all kinds of scenes of Penny getting high and a freaky freak orgy play.
“I liked it,” Penny tearfully admits, and Elsa stops the porno.
She still tries to run and tell about the depraved monsters, but Elsa shouts her down, saying the townspeople are the monsters without souls, living meaningless lives. Her “beautiful, heroic” monsters are offering their oddity to world to provide a laugh or fright to people in need of entertainment. She says that Penny perhaps is already one of those soulless monsters.
Ma Petite enters and says the show was bought out, which pleases Elsa. She restarts the porno, and tells Penny it looks like her pipe will stay nice and full “should you hear a siren’s call.”
Jimmy and Ethel are talking about Jimmy’s digital stimulation racket, but Jimmy is tired of living the freak show life. Ethel says they have to stick together with “our people” but Jimmy isn’t buying it. He wants a “normal life.” Elsa tells them if he wants to be a hero go talk to the twins and make them eat, but “no flipper action.”
Jimmy comes upon Bette and Dot lying in bed, being menaced by a man in a suit. It’s a cop, and he says the sign they erected helped him find his two main suspects. He handcuffs them and tells them they’re under arrest. He’s figured out the obvious, that they killed their mother and stabbed themselves later, and he suspects them of Twisty’s crimes as well.
“They’re monsters. Jury’s going to have no problem seeing that,” he says.
Jimmy whistles. All the freaks quickly, silently come to Bette and Dot’s defense. The cop is defiant and makes the mistake of calling the freak show folk freaks. So Jimmy slashes his throat with a straight razor after yelling “Don’t call us freaks!” Yeah, he does not like labels.
Dot is impressed with this and says “you saved us.” Jimmy says “you’re going to save us” and the twins now seem committed to the show.
At the freak show there’s a rich guy, Dandy, who bought out all the seats and his mom. They’re the entire audience for tonight’s performance. Dandy is a spoiled little creep so you won’t feel bad if something awful happens to him.
The freak show starts and Dandy is entranced. We see a backstage shot of Elsa putting on makeup and taking a shot to steady herself before her part in the show.
The show itself is more than just a parade of human oddities. There’s quite a bit of showmanship, it’s a cabaret experience. Dandy and his mother are very shocked by Bette and Dot.
Elsa enters the stage riding a paper rocketship, dressed exactly like Dietrich in a full men’s-style suit this time. She’s heavily made up, including clownlike blue makeup around her eyes, and and sings her heart out on a song.
That song is David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” which came out in 1971, a full 19 years after this story is set. And it’s not a retro 50s-style version, it has an arena arrangement and lighting that would have made heads explode in the 1950s. This is the point where you either turn off the show in disgust or make a decision to go with the fantasy.
In the show the freaks are all playing classical instruments, there’s a shower of glitter, there are contortionists acts and sword swallowing. At one point there’s a flash of Elsa, dressed in a clown costume, watching what seems to be this performance on her projector. A drag queen would probably suggest dialing back the camp a bit.
When the performance ends Elsa has a bit of a panic attack and then the stage lights go black.
We see Dandy backstage offering Bette a cigarette. He literally asks to buy her, not as a prostitute but as human property. He and his mother offer up to $15,000 and both Elsa and Dot and Bette say no.
Elsa is pleased, saying they are “one of us,” which is a reference to the most memorable line in the original freak show movie, Tod Browning’s Freaks, which shocked audiences in 1932 and from which this series takes its inspiration. Check it out, you won’t be disappointed.
Dandy’s mom makes what might be a big mistake and says the most freakish thing of the night was Elsa’s pathetic attempt at singing. It clearly wounds her deeply.
There’s a cut that shows Twisty has found the freak show. He comes into frame riding on a Merry-Go-Round. I admit it, I almost peed a little. It was that terrifying.
The next shot is the freaks, carrying lanterns and the cop’s dead body down a road. They take him into the woods and Jimmy gives a speech about how all the freaks want is a place to feel safe, and that they’ll have to “rise up and take it.” He’s filled with righteous anger and says from this day on if anyone tries to mess with them “they’re going to end up like this pig.”
Then he yells “To the worms!” and all the freaks, including Bette and Dot, pull knives and start chopping up the cop. Twisty watches from nearby, excited and intrigued.
Elsa is drowning her sorrows in opium when Ethel brings her dinner. Ethel’s pleased about the sold out show, but Elsa, high as hell, confesses she didn’t bring the girls to save the show. She brought the girls so people would come and see her sing and she’d finally become a star.
“Is it too late for me?” she asks.
Ethel, loyal if not honest, reassures her that she has a gift and she deserves to be a household name.
Elsa puts “Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart,” it sounds like the 1952 Vera Lynn version, on her record player, sits on her bed and pulls up her skirt. She slowly removes a pair of prosthetics revealing that her legs are missing below the knee and weeps, smearing her makeup. End of episode.
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