First came American Horror Story: Murder House, the retroactively low-key portrait of a spooky house and the generations of familial dysfunction at war under its haunted roof. Then came American Horror Story: Asylum, a sugar-blasted opium nightmare set in a crazy house dungeon filled with Nazis, nuns, mutants, resurrected girls impregnated by Evan Peters, Satan, aliens, serial killers, and the severed arm of Adam Levine. Last year saw the dawn of American Horror Story: Coven, a swirling tidal wave of unrepressed bitchery that spent half its running time killing off half its cast twice.
And now comes American Horror Story: Give Sarah Paulson An Emmy, the thrilling tale of an actress nominated three years in a row for a Miniseries/Movie acting trophy. One imagines American Horror Story co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck spitballing about how best to demonstrate the prodigious talents of an actress who spent half of last season playing a freaking blind person. “What if we made her play two conjoined twins?” is probably something Murphy or Falchuck suggested around 3 a.m.–a notion which immediately went up on the Idea Whiteboard. (Other stray bits from that Idea Whiteboard: “Sarah Paulson plays a British person who solves mysteries.” “Sarah Paulson plays Vampire Cleopatra.” “Sarah Paulson plays Maggie Smith playing Temple Grandin.” “Sarah Paulson=Abraham Lincoln?”)
Paulson’s double-star turn as Bette and Dot Tattler provided the entryway and the primary showcase for the debut of the fourth iteration: American Horror Story: Freak Show. The year is 1952; the place is Jupiter, a fairly typical small town in Florida with a typical-for-Florida assortment of deviant serial killers and explorative sexual norms. Bill Palmer the Milkman swung by the old Tattler place to deliver the milk, which is what milkmen did before the Milkman Industry totally sold out to the internet or whatever. Problem: His last delivery was still there on the front doorstep. Second problem: Mrs. Tattler was dead. Third problem: There was some… thing… hiding upstairs.
Said “thing” has four lungs, two hearts, a shared circulatory system, and two very different heads. Dot is tough, skeptical, uptight, judgmental, protective; Bette is sweet, joyful, innocent, maybe a bit loopy, certainly a bit too trusting. We got to know the sisters when they got to know their first visitor. Elsa Mars: The high diva of the freak show circuit, with a voice like Marlene Dietrich pretending to be Marilyn Monroe. Elsa Mars: The Final Variation of Jessica Lange, the actress who stole the first season of American Horror Story right out from under its nominal stars, before becoming the bruised heart and nefarious soul of Asylum and Coven. Like, if every season of American Horror Story takes place in the same universe, then Jessica Lange is God and the Devil and the Big Bang and whatever happens on the far end of time when time collapses into a flat circle. (ASIDE: This season would appear to prove quite definitively that it is a universe, unless Pepper exists in all alternate realities simultaneously. END OF ASIDE.)
Elsa comes on strong. She convinced a local candy striper to let her in to see Bette and Dot. (Said candy striper was played by Grace Gummer, whose Coven iteration led a headstrong batch of witch-feminists in an act of murderous gender vengeance against the Axeman.) Dot had her guard up; Bette was happy to make a new friend. (ASIDE: I apologize in advance if I confuse the two twins at some point. Can you blame me? They share the same circulatory system! END OF ASIDE.) Bette asked Elsa about Betty Grable; Elsa assured Betty that she was the spitting image of Jean Arthur. The twins communicated telepathically; when Bette smoked a cigarette, the smoke came out of Dot’s mouth.
Because this is American Horror Story, talk immediately turned to matters of the flesh. “Has anyone tasted your cherry pie?” asked Elsa. Free-spirited Bette talked about touching herself, but when that happens, Dot closes her eyes and pretends she doesn’t feel anything. “I think she’s lying. I think she likes it,” said Bette. “Oh, shut your disgusting mouth, you slut!” yelled Dot. You could say that the two sisters represent the two very different sides of the 1950s: the veneer of gentility, the repressed chaos lurking underneath. It’s like seeing the mid-20th century culture war, taking place entirely in one two-headed body. Sarah Paulson, everyone!
NEXT: Meanwhile, in Clownville