When I originally wrote about the season premiere of American Horror Story: Freak Show, I had no idea how wrong I would actually be about the storyline, about the characters —basically about the entire season.
What I'd imagined would be a shock-and-awe campaign, brimming with fancy and gore, actually turned out quite the opposite. Of the things I remember most vividly about this season, in fact, gore was probably last on my list.
Sure, the clown(s) at the beginning got me — they got a lot of people. The grotesque, the new-to-the-eyes, the mayhem all drew us in. What I hadn't expected, though, was how sharply the season would turn into something packed with more humanity than I've perhaps seen anywhere else this winter.
Many have mused throughout Freak Show how co-creator Ryan Murphy could possibly top last season's Coven, and here we sit, trying to determine whether that goal was achieved. We've also mused about whether or not Jessica Lange could outdo every character she's progressively outdone since the series began. And we marveled at Sarah Paulson's working overtime, geniusly portraying conjoined twins, Bette and Dot.
Now we're faced with the questions: how did we find this season, and where do we go from here?
My opinion is that this season ruled them all, for quality of acting, storyline, complexity of character, and viewers' overall investment in the season. In the grand scheme of things, many were mutilated, dismembered, and shot at close range, but for some reason, I don't remember much of that. What I do remember is Dandy Mott's (Finn Whitrock) evolution from a pandering mama's boy to a calculated killer, the moment Ethel (Kathy Bates) received her terminal diagnosis, and Elsa Mars' (Lange) difficult and disheartening journey to her final destination.
Truth be told, I found last season's Coven a little bit sloppy. There were episodes I felt were hammered out over a writers' table in a matter of hours. Other episodes seemed to simply be filler. Yet, despite all that, I remained curiously disgusted about and intrigued by much of the story. What I did not have last season, though, was any sort of emotional attachment to the characters. Though Bates was hilarious and Lange played the hell out of Fiona Goode, I still wasn't loving any of them. If (and when) one of the characters died (then came back, died again, and was maybe burned or buried alive), I wouldn't have shed as much as a tear.
I liked them, but I didn't care about them.
And it's a hard sell, right? Could we love a bunch people presented as "freaks?" Did we? Did the horror aspect of this show sort of disappear into the vapor when we can see inside the minds and hearts of its characters? The pathos and empathy created for the characters was especially good this season given that the show portrayed people who have been marginalized by physical differences, but is this good for the business of horror in the general?
Maybe the show is evolving into a drama. Would it bother you if it were? I think it would be fine with me if it continues on this journey. After all, in what arena can you successfully shake up complex characters with good old-fashioned horror, the supernatural, and the infinite darkness of the human mind?
I liked Freak Show. In fact, I liked it quite a lot. But I also felt that aspect we crave, that desire to have the wits scared out of us, seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. I paid much less attention to the gore than the characters and story this time around. At this point, I can't say whether that's a credit or a detriment to the series. The construct is more high-minded for sure, but is it in line with the rest of the franchise?
Has American Horror Story evolved? And if so, will the series evolve from here? Will it shed its bloody skin to become more of a drama than a horror story? Would you still watch if it did?
I don't know. I'm thinking I probably would.
American Horror Story Freak Show can be found on FX. The show has been renewed for a fifth season.
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