It’s baaaack! FX’s “American Horror Story” has returned for its fourth installment of gut-wrenching horror with what promises to be its freakiest season yet. “American Horror Story: Freak Show” premiered on Oct. 8 with a familiar cast of faces including Jessica Lange (“American Horror Story: Coven”), Evan Peters (“X-Men: Days of Future Past”) and Sarah Paulson (“12 Years a Slave”) – only this time, their characters are set in the early 50s and are part of a traveling act that showcases the world’s greatest freaks.
But should they be called freaks? While it’s even labeled explicitly as a “Freak Show” in the title, the episode seems to harbor a much deeper meaning rather than being just a showcase of physical oddities. Each new character has a place in this “circus” of sorts, a luxury they are not afforded in daily life. Beyond the gore and the blood, we see themes of acceptance and inclusion, points that will hopefully last throughout the season.
Cue the opening credits with an eerie carnival melody ringing out over the macabre AHS theme music filled with flashes of killer clowns (more on that later) and bizarre creatures. The tone is set. The show begins with a bloody bang as an innocent milkman enters a home and happens upon a dead body and AHS’ first brutal murder of the season. But that wasn’t the end of the poor milkman’s surprises. Searching through the house for help, he opens up a door, behind which is hiding one hell of a secret: conjoined twins. The two-headed “monster” (Paulson) wasn’t well received at such a time, when anyone out of the ordinary was immediately persecuted. ‘Twas the era of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” as Sloan Wilson so aptly coined it, and every man and every woman did the same thing everyday: The man worked and came home while the woman cooked and cleaned. That’s the time y’all should blame for those stereotypical gender roles. Needless to say, there wasn’t a lot of leeway for creativity or expression. So, when a two-headed abomination comes out of the woodworks in the world of AHS, only one woman is prepared to handle it: Lange’s Fraulein Elsa Mars.
Mars is the leader of her very own circus troupe; she gives them a home in the hopes that her “collection” will help launch her to stardom. She’s the mother hen, telling her chicks that they are equally worthy of love, regardless of their differences. Mars, however, hides her own struggles with acceptance — from herself and from others. She later reveals her “abnormality” — prosthetic limbs (which today would not be considered as such). Her desperation is never more obvious than when she sings a strange cabaret rendition of “Life on Mars,” envisioning herself a star, while in reality performing to a near-empty house. Was that almost too strange for AHS? Was that really her singing? If it was, you go, Glen Coco.
Peculiar singing aside, life here was definitely on Mars. The eclectic crew included Jimmy Darling (Peters) with disproportionately large “scissor hands,” which he uses to pleasure women, the bearded woman Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates, “American Horror Story: Coven”), Ma Petite, (Jyoti Amge, who holds the Guinness World Record for the smallest woman in the world) and, for those of you who watched “Asylum,” Pepper (Naomi Grossman) is back! Together, this odd bunch will stand up for one another, with no one to turn to but themselves. And they’ll need each other, as prevailing themes of the season will be everyone versus the outcasts, and especially the law versus the outlaws. But don’t expect a policeman to stand in this gang’s way. They’re quick to pick up a knife and shovel, disposing of any threat that stands in their path.
Speaking of knives … we can’t forget about that killer clown. Yes, everyone’s worst nightmare has come true. With its freakishly extended smile (with perfect teeth, I might add) and human skin skullcap (is Bloodyface back?), this clown is the epitome of childhood night terrors, stabbing his victims repeatedly and taking others hostage for some more fun and games. This clown makes the Joker’s gimmicks seem like child’s play. Maybe he has mommy issues like Bloodyface? Regardless, we’ll soon find out more about the clown’s motives and whether or not he will join the circus.
Now that the first episode is out of the way, it is apparent that creators Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy carry on their tradition of blending the extreme with the common in their newest spectacle. They never fail to produce a message, evoking compassion and sympathy for all those who are somehow “different.” Really, they mean to say that Elsa’s circus crew is just “freaks like us…” and they all also happen to be vicious murderers. But hey, they stick together! Ultimately the remaining question is: Will this be another success like the spectacular first season and admirable follow-up, or will it crash and burn like last year’s “Coven?” The upcoming previews hold some promise with more gore and horror to come. Let’s just hope it’s enough.