Freak Show Review: American Horror Story Ups the Shock Factor
Let's face it, no one watches American Horror Story if they're not looking to be shocked a little. That's what the show does best, particularly during its wonderfully lurid Murder House chapter. At its best, AHS makes you say, "Um, what?" and then, "Oh, God, why?" and then "YOU GUYS WHAT IS THIS," when you realize they're willing to do absolutely anything allowable on network TV to shock you out of complacency. The Freak Show premiere provided those moments in spades.
Those moments came in two types, however; the ones that disgusted me in good ways and the ones that disgusted me in bad ways. Disgust can be a "good" emotion, in the sense that it can indicate that you're seeing a side of the world you've never seen before, that you're questioning your assumptions, all that good stuff. Then there were the moments that disgusted me in the more conventional sense of the word, where I was just plain wishing it didn't happen.
Let's start with the good: Twisty, as promised, was completely terrifying. His dirtiness, his silence, his smile, it all works. His huge smile, in particular, is satisfyingly unsettling; it's reminiscent of great (read: traumatizing) villains from Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight to The Gentlemen on the sole Emmy-winning episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Frank from Donnie Darko (not technically a villain, but I don't think I'm alone in being scared of him).
The other most shocking moments of the episode were all about sex. Ryan Murphy is nothing if not great at body horror, and considering the season's focus on the characters' bodies, it makes sense that he would use sex to make us squeamish. The most buzzed-about moment of the episode was arguably the "flipper sex," in which it's revealed that Evan Peters's character uses his webbed hands to service buttoned-up, quintessential 50's women. The 50's setting makes this moment and others like it more than gratuitous kink, but a commentary on the hypocrisy of extreme repression. The writers are intent on emphasizing that #WeAreAllFreaks (the official hashtag of the season), or that the "freaks" whom the "normal" people are so quick to vilify and ostracize are actually external manifestations of all of their darkest (and weirdest) desires.
The flipper sex was perfect for illustrating this point, and harkened back to Asylum, AHS's social commentary heyday. But the orgy, while trying to illustrate the same point, was a terrible misstep. A young candy striper comes to the freak show and partakes in opium and a sexual free-for-all with the freaks. She's horrified and tells Freak Show director Elsa that she was sexually violated, but Elsa will have none of it. She says the candy striper is "confused" and that "she loved it." Then, when the girl sees herself enjoying the sex on tape, she decides that she wasn't raped after all. From the themes of the episode, it seemed that we were supposed to think that, to some extent, she was only saying that she was raped because she was prejudiced against the freaks and unhealthily repressing her sexual desires, and that when she sees herself on tape she's coming face-to-face with who she really is: a human and a hypocrite. Unfortunately, this point is completely undercut by the fact that she was high enough to need a video reminder, and therefore definitely raped. AHS has used rape for shock value before, in Asylum, but that, at least, was clearly supposed to be tragic. This was a tragic situation wrapped up in essentially another version of the "Oh no, she really wanted it," rape apology.
Jessica Lange was great as always, but I didn't find the character motivation "I want to be a star" all that compelling (although I suppose Ryan Murphy likes that character arc, judging from Glee). It was much more interesting to me when it was revealed that (spoiler!) she is a "freak" like the rest of them, and that her backwards attempts at helping them come out of solidarity rather than vanity.
Many were upset that the David Bowie song, "Life on Mars" was released in 1971, but it seems that they are being purposely anachronistic with their music choices considering that Elsa will later sing Lana Del Rey. Whether it's a good choice to be purposely anachronistic is another story; it might work, or it might take the viewer out of the period piece of it all.