American Horror Story is (at least) two shows. On the one hand, it’s a sloppy, bloated mess, which allows for all its strange whims and random ideas. And on the other, it’s an incredibly compelling and exciting series that can surprise you in ways you really didn’t see coming. With “Curtain Call,” the season finale of Freak Show, we get both aspects of American Horror Story—but it ends with the latter, making it hard not to get wrapped up in how fulfilling a conclusion we get.
The first half of “Curtain Call” falls into that problem almost every season of AHS has—that of having too many characters and too many stories at the end of the series. However, I don’t think that this show has ever before eliminated and wrapped up its characters and stories in such a horrifically dark and satisfactory way. It should come as no surprise that the more improvisatory and careless side of AHS comes from Dandy, who, after being told he’s not special but actually boring, and many of his staff quit, he goes on a shooting spree, murdering the superfluous characters. This moment isn’t a fun disposing of characters, but is shocking and terrifying. We’re witnessing a maniac indulging in his violent fantasy, and it’s not an easy watch.
But this sequence does make it all the more satisfying when Dandy finally gets his comeuppance. The surviving freaks—the Tattler sisters, Desiree and Jimmy—use the Tattlers to get into Dandy’s house, drug him, then place him in a Houdini escape tank, where they watch him drown to death. The glass case is a great reference to the glass containers they’ve been put in to be observed by people for years, so the biggest freak of them all gets the biggest and most symbolic send off.
The second half of the episode focuses on Elsa’s journey in Hollywood. At first she fails, then marries a junior vice president of casting and by 1960, she’s got awards on the shelf, she’s the Queen of Friday Night, and has her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Yet with all her success, she’s empty. She misses her friends, she’s surrounded by yes men, she’s married to a man she doesn’t love, and she isn’t satisfied by the work she’s doing. Even worse, the network wants her to do a Halloween show, which she refuses. However, the head of the studio has the snuff film that shows Elsa getting her legs cut off, and knows this will ruin her. And earlier that day Elsa learns that her love Massimo will be dead within a month. She’s got nothing to lose, and she prefers to go out with a bang, so she decides to perform on Halloween, knowingly inviting Edward Mordrake to take her soul with his troupe of freaks.
But that Halloween performance—Oh my god, that performance is incredible. Elsa has never been the best singer, but it’s the power and heart that she puts in her words that gives her performance such great impact. Here she decides to open her show the way that AHS introduced us to the performances of Elsa—with a David Bowie cover. Elsa sings “Heroes” with such conviction and desperation, knowing that this could very well be her final show. Intercut with her performance, we see Desiree catching a glimpse of the show. She’s finally happy, married to Angus T. Jefferson, with two kids. We see Jimmy living happily with the Tattlers; they catch a moment of Elsa’s performance, then turn off the TV in order to spend time with each other, rather than continuing to live in the glow of Elsa’s show. The freaks, indeed, have inherited the earth.
Elsa’s inevitably death is also unexpectedly beautiful. Edward Mordrake admits that Elsa’s place isn’t with his troupe, but instead sends her to a her big top in the afterlife. In her own circus, Ma Petite is there to welcome her, and Ethel Darling accepts her again with open arms. Elsa doesn’t have to pay for her sins, she’s done the best with the cards she was dealt. She no longer has to hope for being a hero for just one day; she can now be a hero for eternity, as she will live on to perform every night to a sold out show in the spotlight she always wanted, with the people she always loved.
Even when American Horror Story is at its most jumbled, it usually can nail the landing of a great finale (except Coven). Near the second half of Freak Show, the series did start to fumble into allowing the show to go in too many directions, with too many characters and too many stories. Especially last week, where we saw the show rushing to a conclusion that seemed to come too soon, and trying to solve its problems by introducing even more characters and ideas with Neil Patrick Harris. But all that can be overlooked with a wonderful conclusion. Freak Show ends on a unexpected, optimistic note, where the darkness in the freaks’ world is not gone. They’ve each found their happiness, and in a truly beautiful way. As a whole, Freak Show is the complete package in a much bigger way than any of the previous seasons, even if it did have many of its own flaws. Freak Show had heart—something that can’t be said of past seasons—and was far more moving a season than this show has ever even attempted before. Freak Show was a beautiful mess that so far, is the pinnacle of American Horror Story.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.