Acting, Character Motives, and What to Expect on ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’

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In the blissful (but hot again all of a sudden, ew) glory that is mid-October, we’re finally in the midst of another season of American Horror Story. Truly a nightmare before Christmas, it’s a show that many of us wait anxiously for, myself included of course. And with the pretty stellar reputation it has (we’ll forget about the slightly tarnishing third season for a second), there was both a lot to look forward to and a lot to expect. And in my opinion, the first episode did everything in it’s power to deliver, succeeding in almost every way, amidst a few issues that I’ll have to detail more thoroughly in another piece. Because we’re here to play a bit with episode two, aren’t we? And what a delicious and demented episode it was.

Maybe I’m a sucker for complicated and involved multi-plot heavy pieces, but that’s definitely part of why I love Freak Show, and loved Asylum in the past. I love the ability to zero in on so many different characters and their stories, rather than a central character and their troubles. This second episode, titled ‘Massacres and Matinees,’ is where all of these plot lines all really start to flourish. And there are a ton of them. It’s started to become very interesting seeing how each character interacts with another, how each individual world collides with another. I mean, I doubt I was the only one biting my fingernails when Frances Conroy’s obnoxious but sweet debutante stereotype mother Gloria Mott met Twisty the Clown whilst driving, inviting him to entertain her son for a price but also not taking Twisty’s appearance into account whatsoever. And that’s just two people who would have otherwise probably would have never met. Can we talk a little about the strange tension Jessica Lange’s Elsa has with pretty much everyone, even those in her employ she supposedly adores? It made me question her motives in episode one, but then when we got a glimpse of her, uh, ailments I thought I understood her. But that doesn’t really feel like a driving force for her any longer, not really. It certainly wouldn’t explain her giving Bette that knife toward the end of the episode, at least not fully anyway. Truthfully, though, I really enjoy this type of untrustworthy woman that Lange so often plays on this show. I mean, the only reason they probably let her play characters so similar in motive every season is because she’s amazing at it, and that’s not a bad thing for this show. Half the suspense exudes from what she might do next and I hate to bring it up but, it definitely will be something I miss if the show continues without her.

Something I also want to touch on about this episode is the sheer powerhouse that is Finn Wittrock. The performances on the show are a big part of what gives it such a glowing reputation, naturally, and every actor seems better than the last. But this season, we get a newcomer who very much holds his own in a cast that has not only worked together for years now, but that also is host to some of the most famous actors. Wittrock’s Dandy is such a spoiled little man-child and he’s played expertly down to the last detail. Maybe it’s his hair-cut, but he’s so stereotypical and 1950s. And well, it’s not just his hair-cut either. We had gotten a nice glimpse into Gloria and Dandy Mott’s almost oedipal relationship is episode one, when we meet them as the only audience for Elsa Mars’ Bowie moment in the Freak Show. But this episode revealed a new side of Dandy we may not have seen coming. Though I didn’t find his incredibly spoiled nature to be that uncommon, it was interesting to see it justified by his outburst about wanting to be “a thespian.” Personally, though he may be one of the more showy and campy characters, I think Wittrock’s performance allows it to be based in such a reality, and in real feelings, that one can’t help but believe him every step of the way. And by the end of the episode, he’s turned down by the Freak Show to be a performer (did this scene not chill you to the bone? with his tears, he struck me as a small child), possibly murdered a neighbor’s cat, and started an alliance with our favorite terrifying clown. In any other show or movie, it would probably seem trite and fast, amping up his character in this way, but not only does it fit the style of this season and of the show as a whole, but it allows Wittrock to showcase his immense depth as an actor, something that I wasn’t able to really get from his performance in the last Death of a Salesman revival here in New York. I’d wanted so much more of him in that play (and to be fair, he did play the secondary brother) and this almost feels like a continuation, like I’m getting my wish. I’m so thrilled to see where his character ends up; there is so much potential for him in many different aspects, and the choices he makes, that any character in this universe makes, will determine his true moral compass. It truly seems that what American Horror Story: Freak Show is doing is showing us exactly that: our choices are what turn is into freaks, not how we were born.

And of course, questioning these characters so soon in the season makes you wonder what we have in store for the reason of the thrill ride that is another 11 episodes. Honestly, I’m just as intrigued and puzzled as anyone else is, but one thing I’m excited for is this: de-conjoining the conjoined twins. I mentioned above that I couldn’t quite place Elsa’s motive for giving Bette that knife. And really, it could be a multitude of things, like trying to break Bette out of her timid, background singer shell even. But we’re allowed to catch a quick glimpse of Bette and Dot, so expertly portrayed by Sarah Paulson, on an operating table and its hard not to immediately wonder what would happen if they became two separate people – what would happen to their personalities, their physicalities. Would they die? And then there’s the puzzling relationship between Jimmy and his father, Dell Toledo – what should we expect here? Obviously we have a like-father-like-son element at play here, where these men are clearly more alike than they’d have cared to realize. But their tension goes back to infancy and makes me wonder if we should worry with the new strongman and his conniving wife around (Angela Bassett with three breasts may be even more amazing than her fierce Nola voodoo queen with amazing braids). Jimmy himself lends to some worry for me also; that final moment of the episode where he seemingly cracks makes nervous about his fate. We don’t quite know yet if Jimmy has the chutzpah to turn himself in, and after that final moment, I don’t blame him. But if he doesn’t, how long is it until someone puts the pieces together?

There is so much I could cover here but I don’t want to say too much about the episode, don’t want to spoil anyone’s viewing or personal theories too much, so I’ll stop here. And actually, it makes me wish the show was a Netflix original, and we got the season in its entirety right off the bat. There’s something so eloquent and film-like in the way these seasons are constructed; the week-to-week suspense is fun, but to be able to take all of it in in a film way would probably be a lot more fun to dissect. Oh well, let’s hold out for a movie, then? Starring Jessica Lange though, please, if you don’t mind.

Lex Briscuso | News Cult