In Tod Browning’s seminal 1932 horror classic Freaks, the director subverted the expectations of the genre, making the people who terrorized the “freaks” the true monsters, rather than relying on the differences of people that may not have seemed normal to bring terror to the audience. By doing this, Browning gave sympathy to a group that had rarely been given a voice, empowering these characters in a fascinating way.
If there’s a word that I wouldn’t exactly apply to the first three seasons of American Horror Story, it would be “sympathy.” Quite the opposite of what Browning did, creator Ryan Murphy makes his heroes monsters. From the selfish couple at the center of the “Monster House” season, to the backstabbing cattiness of “Coven,” Murphy’s characters aren’t so much sympathetic as they are despicable.
Thankfully with the fourth season of American Horror Story: Freak Show, Murphy seems to have taken a page out of Browning’s book, creating a group of characters that can still be monstrous at times, but are more than just their dark motivations. But as Jessica Lange’s Elsa Mars says in this season’s first episode “Monsters Among Us,” “try your best not to give a regurgitated plot.” What’s so striking about Freak Show is that Murphy could quite easily manipulate the weaknesses of past seasons, and turn them into potential strengths.
In the first three seasons of American Horror Story, Murphy and his team loved to throw weird ideas into the mix, to see what would stick. Coven is a horrible reminder of this, in which it felt like almost any idea was given a green light, with the show left floundering in the final few episodes of the season due to all the stray plots. But with this new environment, Murphy and co. can literally let their freak flag fly, already giving us a cavalcade of oddities, which actually make sense given the show’s surroundings. When the inevitable new cast additions appear, they should be integrated in a much more fluid way than what we’ve seen in the past.
Also in past seasons, the theme has been all over the place. Once again, as an example of the series’ low point, Coven seemed to have an agenda it wanted to impose on the entire season, but eventually it weakened the season, and there was not much of a cohesive idea. Yet Freak Show immediately looks like it knows what message it’s going for, alluding to the duality inside all of us—the good vs. bad battle that resides within. Even the first image of the show is of Sarah Paulson, who plays Ette and Dot Tattler, conjoined twins with two separate heads and two separate viewpoints. One is clearly more practical, while the other moves by the desire of her heart. Murphy might’ve grown, but he’s still a fan of the heavy-handed symbolism.
But that’s okay! Because it actually works here! As we meet the rest of Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities, we see these battling emotions in all of our characters. Elsa Mars is a woman that wants to give these people who are different a place that they can call home and be accepted. Yet later on, we see that she is trying to grow an audience with her cast in order to boost her career. Kathy Bates’ Ethel Darling (the bearded woman) is dedicated to Mars, the woman who saved her life, but loves her too much to be honest about Mars’ lack of talent. Jimmy Darling, played by Evan Peters, is the flipper-handed son of Ethel, who wants to seek out a better path in his life, but also wants to protect the people he desperately wants to leave behind. Already, one episode in, Freak Show imbues its characters with more depth than most American Horror Story characters receive in an entire season.
Elsa Mars’ goal is to bring her show back to its original glory, recruiting new acts that will revive their big top. The first on her new roster are the aforementioned Tattler twins, who are suspected of murder, but escape to join Mars’ new show. The entire city of Jupiter, Florida seems against the show, with cops now searching for the Tattlers, teenagers throwing glass at the freaks, and the owner of the land they reserved for a year asking them to leave nine months early. The Cabinet of Curiosities needs to vamp up its popularity quick, before they are chased out, or arrested, or worse.
Already it’s easy to see that people will be throwing awards at some of the actors on Freak Show, who might actually deserve it this time. The final moments of “Monsters Among Us” features Lange’s Elsa heartbroken, deeply craving popularity, yet knowing that she might not have the legs for it—literally and figuratively, as she pulls off her prosthetic legs. The despair in Lange’s eyes at this realization is tragic, and brings a level of emotion rarely seen in AHS. Bates’ Ethel also has a similarly powerful moment, lying to her friend Elsa, then hugging her with sadness in her eyes, showing that she just can’t bring herself to tell her friend the truth. But Sarah Paulson’s dual performance is fantastic, creating two completely different, yet obviously similar characters, and giving them entirely polar opposite viewpoints, both equally viable.
Now there’s still the crazy moments that made American Horror Story so popular (and maybe even too wacky for its own good). For example, Jimmy Darling uses his flipper hands to pleasure nearby housewives that aren’t getting what they need at home. Elsa’s performance of “Life on Mars?” as the highlight of the Freak Show just feels odd, considering Bowie didn’t release the song for two more decades, but it does bring some of the fun that Lange’s singing gave us when she performed “The Name Game” in Asylum. Plus it’s too weird to not be enjoyable. Strangest though is the reveal that the freaks have been involved in a opium-infused orgy that may be considered rape. The constant use of rape in AHS has always been a problem, but doesn’t feel as egregious as it did in past seasons.
Then there’s the crazed clown murderer that is terrorizing Jupiter. This clown is the first time I’ve actually felt genuinely freaked out by a character in all of American Horror Story lore. Leather-covered gimps and aliens abducting mental patients might not freak me out, but a clown with a painted-on smile, half of the skin on his skull missing, running around stabbing innocent people. Yeah, that’ll get me.
Now to be fair, almost every season of American Horror Story starts off at a high point, only to quickly take a nose dive in quality. In three weeks, I might be saying “But it had such a great start! What went wrong?!” At this point, this is the closest a premiere of American Horror Story has been to something great. Every season has been filled with problems, but “Monsters Among Us” feels like Murphy is starting with a clean slate and fixing the errors of the past. Step on up, cause this Freak Show is off to a great start.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.