In its fourth iteration, AHS premieres as the Sarah Paulson Show.

By Darren Franich
Updated October 09, 2014 at 03:32 AM EDT
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American Horror Story

S4 E1
type
  • TV Show
network
  • FX

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

Meanwhile, at nearby Lake Okeechobee, a gal and a fella were fixin’ to make some whoopee. “Come on, I wanna do it,” said the gal. “We can’t afford a baby,” demurred the fella. “Well, I stole two rubbers,” said the gal. The guy ran off to the car… and that was when the freaky clown showed up. He produced some bowling pins… and knocked them out. When the girl woke up, the boy was being torn to pieces. At Comic-Con, AHS producer Tim Minear described this season as Douglas Sirk meets Zodiac, and this sequence felt like an homage to the scene in Zodiac when the killer (or one of the killers) torments a young couple by a lake. (ASIDE: I’ll talk more about Douglas Sirk in future recaps, but everyone should go watch Written on the Wind right now. The key to enjoying Written on the Wind is understanding that everyone onscreen is secretly a gay alcoholic nymphomaniac with Psycho-level Freud pathology. END OF ASIDE.)

Murder is in the air all around this small Florida town. At a local diner, Elsa was reading her copy of The Jupiter-Tequesta Inquirer, with its murderous headlines. She was paying more attention to the entertainment section. She cut out one little news item about Stage Fright, a Hitchcock film starring Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich. Elsa didn’t think too much of Hitchcock’s casting. Elsa seems to have quite a few opinions on Hollywood. That’s nothing new for the iterations of Jessica Lange: Constance was a faded actress; Sister Mary generally disapproved, but allowed the inmates a movie night; Fiona Goode almost certainly partied with Robert Evans at some point in the ’70s.

At the diner, Elsa ran into a colleague: Jimmy Darling, the latest attempt by American Horror Story to utilize the peculiar charisma of Evan Peters to deconstruct straight-male masculinity. Jimmy’s a good looking guy with some strange-looking hands—although, as far as the local frustrated housewives of Jupiter are concerned, Jimmy’s hands are devilish playthings.

The Freak Show premiere moved at a slower pace than past AHS debut episodes; we didn’t even get our proper introduction to the traveling show until halfway through. Bette and Dot decided to join up with Elsa… although only after Elsa put together precisely what happened to old Eudora Tattler. Bette just wanted to go and see Singin’ in the Rain at the Majestic in West Palm—playing in Glorious Technicolor, which was like Instagram for angels. Hard-driving, abusive old Eudora wouldn’t let the girls leave the house. So Bette killed her–a moment of madness that expressed pent-up years of frustration. Dot was horrified, but she was also happy, and she helped cover up the killing–even though that also meant she could strike a vicious blow against her sister.

In a nice bit of crosscutting, we heard Dot and Bette’s very different reactions to entering the Freak Show. “Dear Diary: I have seen my future! It is pink and wrapped in silk!” exclaimed Bette. “Dear diary: My soul plumbs new depths of despair,” moaned Dot.

Is the Freak Show a good place–a sanctuary for those cast-off from society? Or should we take the Hellmouth entrance at face value—is it a place outside of society’s rules, ruled by chaos and emotions better left unexplored? It certainly has an eclectic crew of people. A bearded lady named Ethel appears to be a peacekeeper—”the sasquatch champion of law and order in this hellish sty,” to hear Dot tell it. Ethel’s the Tom Sizemore to Elsa’s Tom Hanks: The enforcer, the voice of wry reason.

NEXT: So what is Freak Show all about?

Ryan Murphy has never worked on a project directly about Hollywood; the closest he ever came, in explicit terms, was the later SoCal-era of Nip/Tuck. And yet, show business is almost always at the center of Murphy’s worldscape. Popular was less a high school show than a show about Hollywood stereotypes struggling to become real high schoolers. Glee is either a fable about the redemptive grace of performing or the corrosive lust for fame. And Hollywood is all over American Horror Story. The first season was a phantom history of showbiz along the margins: Failed actress and the powerful men who use them. Coven was sort of a rejoinder–powerful women and the goofball men they variously use or destroy.

And now Freak Show is, very clearly, a show about show business. “Sometimes I can’t take it,” said Jimmy Darling. “The way they look at us, the way they treat us. It ain’t right.” One of his friends responded: “That’s showbiz.” For the denizen’s of Elsa’s circus, its not their genetic status that makes them second-class citizens; it’s their status as entertainers, people whose job is to be used by the audience for their own entertainment.

We got another look at this side of the show when Candy Striper Grace Gummer emerged from the shadows. “I was drugged! Ravaged!” she declared. Elsa had been feeding her opium–or perhaps Grace Gummer demanded it? Elsa showed her a video of a different kind of freak show–Jimmy and his pals swarming around the candy striper, in what appeared to be an orgy. “I liked it… I liked it,” admitted the candy striper. But she insisted that they were all monsters. Elsa’s retort:

I’ll tell you who the monsters are. The people outside this tent. In your town. In all these little towns. Housewives pinched with bitterness, stupefied with boredom, as they doze off in front of their laundry detergent commercials and dream of strange erotic pleasures. They have no souls. My monsters—the ones you call depraved—they are the beautiful, heroic ones. They offer their oddity to the world.

“Everyone is living the life they choose,” said Elsa. “But you—you, undoubtedly, would be one of those soulless monsters. Perhaps you already are.” So the denizens of the freak shows are entertainers. But Freak Show finds a world in a moment of transition. No one is coming to the show; it was strongly implied that Elsa only earned them another month’s lease on the land by providing sexual favors to the local farmer. “Times are tough,” admitted bearded lady Ethel. “Thanks to Red Skelton and Lucille Ball, folks are getting their jollies at home.” TV is killing off live entertainment—and I wonder if this is an echo of a very current Hollywood fear, as changing media tastes transform movies and even television into primordial entertainment-delivery relics. (Video killed the radio star, and then internet killed the video star; cable killed broadcast, but what happens when streaming kills cable?)

So they needed Bette and Dot to perform. The twins weren’t willing—until Jimmy rescued them from imprisonment by slicing the local detective’s neck open. Bette and Dot both regarded Jimmy like he was their handsome savior from the cover of a romance novel. (A love triangle, with two points of the triangle sharing the same body? Sarah Paulson, everyone!)

This was all prologue, of course, to the most important moment of the episode. Direct from the Cabarets of Pre-War Berlin… the Enchantress who holds sway over all of Nature’s Mistakes: Elsa Mars! And she was singing motherf—ing DAVID BOWIE. Yes, in 1952—the year that the actual David Bowie turned five—Elsa Mars delivered a stirring rendition of “Life on Mars.” It was a moment of glam-period excess, beamed backward into the cultural moment of conformity. “Conformity,” in this case, was represented by the only two people in attendance: Frances Conroy’s Gloria Mott, and her entirely-too-attentive son, a handsome young man with the impossibly Blue-Blooded name Dandy Mott.

The Motts were awestruck by Bette and Dot. They offered to buy them: $10,000, $15,000. “We are a troupe of entertainers, a family,” said Elsa. “You will not split up our family.” Strong words… and it’s not entirely clear they were meant to be taken seriously. Or at least, we should understand that family is a complicated thing. After the show, Jimmy took his fellow freaks out to the forest and declared himself as the show’s Magneto: a man no longer willing to lurk in the shadows. Meanwhile, Elsa had a confession of her own. She didn’t just bring Bette and Dot to the freak show so that their little happy community could be saved. She did it for herself—”so people would come and they would see me, and I would finally become a star. It’s what I’ve always wanted, nothing else. Is it too late for me? Is it wrong?”

This is one of the most devastating scenes that Lange’s ever had in American Horror Story—all the more so coming after Coven, where her Fiona Goode was basically a goddess, a woman who was always at the right place with the right people at the right time. It’s clear that Elsa is very different: someone who dreams of stardom with the passion of an ingenue, yet who also possesses the brutal cynicism of the showbiz lifer. And then there’s the matter of that final reveal: Elsa, removing her twist-ending prosthetic legs.

Freak Show threw several balls into the air in its first hour—the nice girl from the Zodiac scene is being held captive by the clown, alongside a little boy; we haven’t even gotten to Angela Bassett and Michael Chiklis yet. But there was a leisurely sensibility at work in this episode—it felt closer in spirit to the slow-paced first season. I enjoyed this first trip to Jupiter quite a bit. What did you think? Email your thoughts to me at darren_franich@ew.com, and I’ll respond in this week’s edition of the Entertainment Geekly mailbag. Or tweet me @DarrenFranich.

Episode Recaps

American Horror Story

An anthology series that centers on different characters and locations, including a haunted house, an insane asylum, a witch coven, a freak show, and a hotel.

type
  • TV Show
seasons
  • 9
rating
  • TV-MA
creator
  • Ryan Murphy
network
  • FX
stream service

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