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Jan 16 2015

American Horror Story: Freak Show – “Show Stoppers” Retrospective. It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over.

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Desire and Company are about to serve up some justice...Freak Show style.

Desiree and company are about to serve up some justice…Freak Show style.

Season 4, Episode 12

Airdate: Wednesday, January 14, 2015, 9/8c on FX

Rating:

 

WARNING: SPOILERS

 

American Horror Story: Freak Show (AHS: Freak Show) has had many defining moments this year, but none as significant as in the latest episode, “Show Stoppers.” As the penultimate episode for the season, “Show Stoppers” is a major turning point for the dear “monsters” in Elsa’s (Jessica Lange) Cabinet of Curiosities. The episode also marks the time we say goodbye—or good riddance—to some key characters whose impact will definitely be felt during next week’s season finale. Then, there’s the matter of the Freak Show itself. Last we saw the creepy Chester (Neil Patrick Harris), Elsa put him in charge. The fallout from Dell’s (Michael Chiklis) actions leads to a bloody path of justice. Yet, despite some very well scripted scenes, “Show Stoppers” has some glaring flaws. The most notable is the frantic pace in which the episode moves in order to tie up too many loose ends.

One of Us! One of Us!

A rainy night opens “Show Stoppers” and Stanley (Denis O’Hare) is at the Freak Show for a party to celebrate Elsa’s plans to leave for Hollywood. Unbeknownst to the dear old creeper, there are more sinister things at play. With the whole troupe gathered together under the tent looking quite calm after Desiree’s (Angela Bassett) return, I knew something was wrong. Actually, I knew instantly that Stanley’s schemes were finally catching up with him when Elsa mentions the 1932 Tod Browning movie Freaks. As a film fanatic, it’s a treat to see the tie-in between the movie and AHS: Freak Show. Seeing how some social mores change and shift over time from the 1930s to the 1950s is interesting; I love how the real “freaks” in AHS: Freak Show are the ones who, on the surface, appear “normal.”  After “Magical Thinking,” I expected there would be a heavy price to pay for the deaths of Ma Petite (Jyoti Amge) and Ethel the Bearded Lady (Kathy Bates). But I didn’t expect to see homage paid to Freaks, where a traveling show much like Elsa’s finds nefarious characters in its midst.

As the party winds down, Desiree does the honors of giving Stanley, who finds himself the center of attention, a gift from Elsa. In the box, floating in a jar, is the head of Lillian Hemmings (Celia Weston), the curator of the morbidity museum. So, remember when Maggie (Emma Roberts) fainted in “Orphans” after discovering Jimmy’s hands on display? Yeah, turns out it may have been part of the plan all along between Maggie and Desiree.

As Stanley’s crimes come to light, he faces his worst nightmare. First, he is tortured by being strapped onto Elsa’s wheel of death (nice reappearance). Then, the real horror starts when director Loni Peristere takes a page right out of the movie Freaks when the whole troupe chases him out into the middle of the rainy night where it looks like they slice and dice him. The scene cuts off with Stanley’s screams as “Show Stoppers” transitions immediately to its opening credits. Starting the episode with such terrifying suspense is a great touch.

I have to admit Stanley’s demise wasn’t satisfying for me. He is a character we have grown to hate, and two scenes didn’t seem to cut it for me. Sure, the last one is gruesome and disturbing but it would have been nice to see a tiny bit of insight to his psyche. That doesn’t happen so maybe that’s part of why I find Stanley’s punishment kind of hollow.

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

For Penny and Paul, a couple that plots murder together, stays together?

For Penny and Paul, a couple that plots murder together, stays together?

The romantic elements of “Show Stoppers” — from Chester’s passionate relationship with the twins, Dot and Bette Tattler (Sarah Paulson), to the end of Jimmy’s (Evan Peters) association with Maggie — take center stage. However, the most touching story line comes from the people I least expect—Elsa and Massimo Dolcefino (Danny Huston), the man who gave her a new life by crafting a new pair of legs for her. In total contrast to “Show Stoppers’” grim story lines, Massimo’s entrance brings a humanity to Elsa that’s refreshing to witness. I absolutely love their first scene and the way it is staged with brilliant light piercing through the darkness within the tent. It’s interesting how Elsa starts out the scene complaining about the spotlight being wrong during rehearsals, and then changes her tune after Massimo enters the tent with the natural light creating the perfect spotlight on them. As the music swells, Lange and Huston are amazing at setting the mood of the scene with their performances. The exchange of looks Elsa and Massimo share in that moment speaks volumes with very little words.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Elsa’s complex love life is the craziest love triangle I have seen in a long time. Dandy (Finn Wittrock), on his best behavior, returns supposedly just to visit Bette and Dot because he misses them. But his ulterior motive surfaces when he offers disturbing news about Chester’s past. Wittrock really adds a spark to this episode that is otherwise riddled with violence and darkness. When Bette and Dot refuse to believe Dandy, he delivers one of my favorite lines: “Mother always told me never argue with a woman when she’s angry.”

Meanwhile, Chester is in crisis mode when his doll Marjorie (Jamie Brewer) proves to be more than he can handle. The happier Chester feels about his relationship with Bette and Dot, the more his guilt from past crimes manifests in unsettling hallucinations. I thought clowns were creepy but nope, this whole crazy ventriloquist story line is far worse. Watching Chester’s relationship with Marjorie is like watching a twisted version of Psycho. And in true Hitchcock-esque form, Chester winds up hurting the one he loves most while leaving a trail of dead bodies in his wake. For Maggie, this ends badly but what’s more shocking is the indifference by the other “freaks.” Although Maggie certainly had to pay for her involvement with Stanley, she doesn’t deserve what Chester does to her.

Desiree: “She had it coming…”

Paul (Mat Fraser): “What do we do now?”

Desiree: “Steal her jewelry and bury the bitch.”

Harris does a great job with the script he’s given but the way he portrays Chester’s breakdown in front the troupe comes across as almost standard, lacking the nuance seen in “Magical Thinking.” Peristere’s direction of the scene focuses on Harris’ overall body language rather than his facial expressions, which—intentional or not—provide a colder, distant tone. I would like to have seen the transition between Chester’s hallucination and the moment he realizes what he has done to Maggie from Chester’s POV. What leaves me in suspense is wondering when Chester can accept responsibility for what he has done to his ex-wife and lover without referencing Marjorie.

Battle Royale, Freak Show Style

Let’s just say the death toll escalates pretty quickly without much time to process it. The core characters who essentially bite the dust have been around since the beginning. You would think their deaths would have been portrayed with more depth. The problem, as I see it, with “Show Stoppers” is the pacing. It feels like the episode is hitting the beats (action points) of its main story lines more for continuity and not so much for quality. For example, when Maggie starts screaming, no one comes out right away. I don’t know what is going on but have so many people been killed at Elsa’s Freak Show, there isn’t a person close enough to barge into the tent? Then, Paul’s reaction to Chester as he insists his magic trick actually works is disturbing. The scene is a huge moment for Chester’s character development because his secrets and insanity are exposed for all to see at the Freak Show. It deserves some time for viewers to process. Instead, as soon as Maggie’s last scene is over, the episode quickly moves on without looking back. Throughout “Show Stoppers,” it feels like the troupe’s sole mission is to cross off all the people from this hit list. Stanley? Check. Maggie? Check.

But the real show stopper isn’t Chester’s ultimate descent into madness; it’s the way Dandy finally gets what he wants from Elsa. When Elsa heeds Bette and Dot’s advice to leave the show, she calls in a last minute favor that surely will make the season finale one you won’t forget.

Overall

I enjoyed a lot of the backstories and the mini moments where we peak into Jimmy’s past, as well as Elsa’s relationships. As “Show Stoppers” comes to a close, I couldn’t help but think of the scene from “Orphans” where we see the home movie of Pepper’s wedding. The happiness and the bond the whole troupe shares with one another is uplifting. Seeing the current state of Elsa’s “monsters” breaks my heart a little. But if there is another redeeming aspect of “Show Stoppers,” it is Jimmy’s acceptance of his freak side.

Overall, I think giving the Freak Show a new owner will be a great catalyst to settle some old scores in the season finale, making it, once again, an episode everyone will talk about for a while.

Tune in to AHS: Freak Show on Wednesdays at 9/8c, only on FX.

What did you think of “Show Stoppers?” Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter @conallen.

Follow the series on its official site: American Horror Story: Freak Show.

Follow American Horror Story: Freak Show on Twitter @AHSFX.

Like American Horror Story on Facebook.

Photos: ©2014 FX Network. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

© 2015, Connie Allen. All rights reserved.

Connie Allen

I'm a writer, cinephile, avid reader, and pop culture enthusiast. I love historical dramas, and fantasy/sci-fi series. Currently living in SoCal.

About the author

Connie Allen

I'm a writer, cinephile, avid reader, and pop culture enthusiast. I love historical dramas, and fantasy/sci-fi series. Currently living in SoCal.

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