Freak Show has done so many things better than previous seasons of American Horror Story: it’s characters feel more believable than they have in the past, the stories are compelling, but most importantly, Freak Show has been able to expertly balance all of its different characters and stories in an impressive way. Well, that was true until “Test of Strength.”
“Test of Strength” feels like a series of barely-connected vignettes, to catch us up on what everyone has been up to. At the halfway point of Freak Show, things are finally starting to feel a bit shoddy. This season has done a great job of keeping characters and their stories out of episodes where they wouldn’t make sense, but “Test of Strength” throws that plan away. We get a glimpse of Dandy, mad that the Tattler sisters have left him, or that Desiree and Ethel’s openminded doctor has supposedly killed himself, but these stories have absolutely no significance to the story we’re seeing in the episode.
The main plot focuses on Dell Toledo, and has just as many strengths as it does weaknesses. Stanley has discovered that Dell is interested in men, and uses this to blackmail Dell into killing one of the freaks for Stanley to sell. The strength of Dell’s story comes from his bonding moments with Jimmy, where they get drunk together and Dell admits to being Jimmy’s father. Even though Dell’s original goal was to kill Jimmy, their moments together are quite touching; they’re accepting who they technically are to each other.
However, the majority of Dell’s story just doesn’t make sense. First off, I’m not entirely sure why Dell is terrified of people finding out that he likes men, especially considering that he came to the Freak Show with Desiree, claiming that with her he got the “best of both worlds,” genitally speaking. He starts off proud about it, but now is so ashamed of it, that he’s willing to kill his own son?
Also, Dell’s murder plans are just plain stupid. Out of all the people in the freak show he could try to murder, why would your first attempt be Amazon Eve, the largest and strongest person in the entire show? When Amazon Eve and Jimmy don’t work out, he goes after Ma Petite, clearly the most vulnerable and easiest to get away with killing. But in the past few episodes, haven’t we seen how Ma Petite basically sleeps in the same room as Elsa, and rarely leaves her side? Especially in the midst of the group’s fear that Dell is an attempted murderer, you’d think Elsa would be more careful with Ma Petite.
The rest of “Test of Strength” is just as strange and disconnected. We’re reminded that Paul is still alive and apparently fine now, and that Penny is planning to leave her father and move to the freak show. But when she threatens this, Penny’s father becomes aggressively monstrous, bringing in his friend Morris to shave Penny’s head, tattoo her face, and fork her tongue. I mean, Penny’s father goes from mildly disappointed to mutilating his only loved one in just one episode.
After a really strong season so far, “Test of Strength” feels like a step back for the show, like the series is falling into the problems of its past seasons. For the first time, Freak Show is dangerously close to being a mess, and if history is any indicator for American Horror Story, the upcoming Christmas episode probably won’t be doing the show any favors either.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.