Dandy puts on a show. Elsa gets her moment in the spotlight. Halloween happens again.

By Darren Franich
Updated January 22, 2015 at 06:44 AM EST
Sam Lothridge/FX

American Horror Story

S4 E13
  • TV Show
  • FX

There’s no real angle on understanding American Horror Story: Freak Show. You find yourself looking back on everything that happened. You pin every plot point to a corkboard; you try to decode it, connect it, Beautiful Mind it into coherence. There was a museum of freak corpses floating in jars, and there was Wes Bentley as a two-faced undead aristocrat, and Kathy Bates’ accent, and Angela Bassett was a three-breasted hermaphrodite who wasn’t actually a hermaphrodite, and Emma Roberts spent a whole season just hanging out, waiting to get cut in half, and occasionally people sang David Bowie. Matthew Bomer and Neil Patrick Harris, Danny Huston and Gabourey Sidibe. And Malcolm-Jamal Warner???

The mascot of this season—the star, really—was our boy Dandy. Dandy Mott never made any sense, but the sheer incoherence of his character arc was a marvel to watch. He was like a chaingun shot through a megaphone ricocheting off a Taiko drum. In the first fifteen minutes of the American Horror Story finale, here is what Dandy does:

– Take over the Freak Show, which it turns out was always his lifelong dream this week.

– Immediately declare that he is the new star of the show and that his performance will be “Charismatic Crooning!” even though, as far as I can remember, Dandy hasn’t ever really sung on this show? Am I misremembering?

– Rule over the Freak Show with an iron fist, and all of the freaks just take Dandy’s craziness because they can’t quit because there’s nowhere else to go.

– Immediately get overthrown by the freaks, who decide that, actually, they don’t want to take Dandy’s craziness anymore, so they all quit, because apparently there is somewhere else to go after all.

– Put on a very dapper suit and pick up his golden gun and kill everyone in the freak show who isn’t played by a famous person.

– Get married to Bette and Dot two seconds after he massacres everyone they love, and promise them that they will live a wild life of adventure going on safaris and raising little freak children and not doing anything involved in show business, because Dandy got over show business at some point in the last five minutes.

– Act incredibly surprised when Bette and Dot tell him that, all in all, they’d prefer not to be married to the man who massacred everyone they loved.

– Say “I can’t die! I’m immortal!” which was sort of a plotline at some point.

– Dies.

None of this made any sense. I guess that the scene of Dandy killing everyone inside of the Freak Show was “shocking,” but not as much as the show thought. The big secret about this season of American Horror Story is that, for the most part, the most compelling characters were the characters who weren’t played by the series regulars. I’m thinking especially of Paul, played by the sad-eyed Matt Fraser, and Eve, a towering presence played with a wink by Erika Ervin. So didn’t it feel a bit weird when the show unceremoniously killed them off to make way for the stars?

There was something disingenuous at the core of this finale, I think. As Dandy died, Desiree intoned: “You may look like a motion picture dreamboat, but you’re the biggest freak of them all.” As Elsa died, she said: “I am the biggest freak of all!” Freak Show wanted its point to be that freaks are normal and normal people are freaks. This is a nice thought, and it’s certainly a good lesson that every parent should teach their high schoolers.

But in the end, there wasn’t much freaky about Freak Show. Jimmy and the twins live in happy domestic bliss, and Desiree and Malcolm-Jamal Warner live in happy domestic bliss. Elsa not only gets to achieve all her dreams of Hollywood celebrity, she also gets to realize that Hollywood is a totally fake place—and then spends eternity with her real friends back at the freak show. You remember, the freak show that she sold to a homicidal insane man who murdered one of the freaks, the freak show that she then re-sold to a different homicidal insane man who murdered all of the freaks.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

The End of the Show

Dandy is upset about the freaks making fun of him. So he puts on his finest suit and blows all their heads off. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. Eve puts up a fight, but not for long. End of the freak show. Dandy leaves with the Tattler sisters. Some hours later, Jimmy and his new hands walks to the dining tent. After taking a few bites, Jimmy looks around. Say, where is everybody? He runs into Elsa’s tent. She’s been gone for at least a week, but apparently nobody told Jimmy that. Nobody ever tells Jimmy anything. Remember when Jimmy’s dad showed up and became the new vice-president of the freak show and then was secretly gay and then killed Ma Petite and then freed Jimmy from imprisonment in a daring heist and then got shot in the head? Chiklis?

Anyhow, at stately Mott Manor, Dandy marries the twins in what I can only assume is only the second craziest wedding ceremony in Mott Family History. (The first-craziest is when Dandy’s great-grandfather Dando Mott married his own mother, Candy Mott, thus creating an oh-so-rare family-tree-inside-of-another-family-tree. The wedding was officiated by Ulysses S. Grant, who was played by Elton John.)

Dandy is so happy to be married! It’s what he’s always wanted this week! Bette promises to love and cherish him, and Dot promises to just go away whenever things are getting carnal. “I can get very nasty if my manhood is compromised,” says Dandy. “A stallion expects a certain respect from his mares!” Tee-hee, the Tatters titter. That’s Our Dandy!

NEXT: Not so Dandy now.

Dandy doesn’t notice that the new maid has three breasts, nor does he notice that the champagne is putting him to sleep. He’s just so excited about a three-headed daughter! But then Desiree shows up. He’s horrified! How, oh how, could the Tattler sisters fool him? “My sister is truly a great actress,” says Dot. “Bette Davis couldn’t have given a more convincing performance.”

Say, have you ever seen All About Eve? It’s this movie, one of the greatest movies ever made, so funny, so sharp, so sad and cynical but never mawkish nor cheap, and also All About Eve does this crazy thing where the character motivations are coherent.

Anyhow, Desiree and the Tattlers and Jimmy punish Dandy by throwing him into Hardeen’s water tank. Angela Bassett has had so little to do this season and she did it all so great. There was a moment while Dandy drowned where the camera framed her in a close-up, and she ate a single kernel of popcorn and she made it look like the most erotically sensual event that has ever happened. Can Angela Bassett take over from Jessica Lange as the soul-mascot of American Horror Story?

Mr. Elsa Goes To Hollywood

Elsa arrives in Hollywood, but the head of beloved fake network ABCBSN refuses to see her. But Elsa’s got moxie. She waits all day until the receptionist leaves, and then she slaps the receptionist when the receptionist dares to compare Elsa to Marlene Dietrich. Have you ever seen any Marlene Dietrich movies? Here’s a sample:

Up walks Michael Beck, a Dapper Dan-looking vice-president. Michael and Elsa bond immediately over German surnames.

FLASH FORWARD TO 1960: Elsa is now one of the biggest stars on television and Michael is her husband-manager and she’s getting what appears to be the first star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She seems to be some sort of hybrid Lucille Ball/Jack Benny/Ed Sullivan/Twenty-Years-Early-Carol Burnett. Also, she’s a recording star. “Du Bist My Baby” is tearing up the pop charts! She has two spaniels, one named Showbiz and one named Box Office, even though she’s in television which doesn’t have box office so that doesn’t quite make sense but shut up baby Hollywood!

Longtime fans of American Horror Story might note that this ending vaguely recalls the flashforward finale of Asylum, which also climaxed with a deep time jump. And longtime fans of American Horror Story might feel like, in some ways, the show was returning to its roots. Murder House was set in a real-person corner of Los Angeles, but it was a corner that was just close enough to Hollywood for everyone to have broken showbiz dreams. In Murder House, Lange played a never-was actress. And now, four years later and decades earlier, Jessica Lange was playing a superstar.

But longtime fans of American Horror Story could be forgiven for thinking that—with half an hour left to go—the fourth volume of American Horror Story suddenly whiplashed into a completely different volume of American Horror Story. All of a sudden, Elsa was in a colorful new backdrop, with a new supporting cast, having new adventures every week in more sexy and exciting ways. She films an advertisement for coffee! She screams at her lame husband! She wears western outfits that seem directly inspired by Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, which is a really crazy movie that has a bunch of crazy characters who all have coherent motivations!

Massimo the Italian Danny Huston shows up and mentions that he spent the last few years building villages in the middle of nowhere so the government can blow them up with atomic bombs, which is maybe an indication that next season will be about atomic bombs or maybe an indication that the writers needed Danny Huston to say something and someone in the writers’ room said “When were nuclear bombs invented?” and that was Danny Huston’s character arc for the season, boom.

I kid. I love Danny Huston! I love Jessica Lange! I love them together! And at this point, the Freak Show finale basically stopped being the Freak Show finale and started being the finale of American Horror Story: Jessica Lange. And so I would like to pause my playful zinging of this batcrap crazypants cucamonga insane-o-balls season of American Horror Story, and take a moment to appreciate what American Horror Story did.

NEXT: Take That, Gwyneth Paltrow!

Jessica Lange had a hell of a career before Ryan Murphy came knocking. Tootsie and Francis, Blue Sky and All That Jazz. She is mesmerizing in Julie Taymor’s willfully weird Titus, which in hindsight looks like American Horror Story: Shakespeare. She slapped fellow Murphy-verse citizen Gwyneth Paltrow in Hush, a movie which in hindsight looks like something that could only have existed as a joke on Arrested Development or in the 1990s:

It’s not that Lange didn’t do anything in the 2000s. She’s great in one scene of Broken Flowers (opposite fellow Murphy-verse citizen Chloe Sevigny!) She won an Emmy for Grey Gardens. She probably would’ve kept on doing great work no matter what. But then Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk cast her in a recurring role in the first season of American Horror Story, and she walked away with the entire season. I don’t think you can ever underrate her contribution: She elevated cheese into high camp into some kind of wonderful. I think Lange’s best season was Asylum, Boston accent and all. Her Sister Jude is a complete character, a monster and a victim, and the show manages to glorify her journey without sanctifying it.

Most people probably lean more towards Coven, and Fiona Goode. It’s hard to argue, really. American Horror Story basically gave Jessica Lange, Actress Over Fifty, the opportunity to play a Superhero Sexpot Feminist Avenger who was also a sultry-devious Femme Fatale straight out of an old noir movie; for good measure, Lange managed to Out-Maleficent Angelina. All that, and the show gave her a nicely underplayed romance with ideal scene partner Danny Huston. Coven is Meth Lange, sultry southern accent and three death scenes and a general sense that the whole show only really existed so Lange could sashay through doorways and shut down everything with a withering one-liner. All this on a popular TV show. All this and an Emmy, and then another one.

And then Elsa Mars. Who had a fun German accent! And what a delightful time Lange appeared to be having! Nothing Elsa did this season made much sense—maybe that was Freak Show‘s ultimate motif—but there is something quite lovely and sad in her speech to Massimo:

“I have always been cursed. First, by having my dreams ripped away. Now, by having them all come true…Eight years ago, my best friend made me a birthday cake. That night, when she and I sat over my candle, my birthday wish was plain and simple: I just wanted to be loved. And every step I have taken since then has taken me one step further from that wish coming true.”

This feels like the final statement of Jessica Lange-ness in American Horror Story. There is something that ties all her characters together: A fascinating mixture of ambition and self-immolation. The iterations of Jessica Lange are destroyed by their desires—but perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they want to be destroyed by their desires. It’s very Hellraiser, very ecstasy-in-agony, very S&M—but also very human and poignant, when it’s said out loud by Jessica Lange with that desperate smile.

So Elsa sees Massimo and tells him that she wants to run away from him. No need to compare this to Fiona and the Axeman; this might as well be the epilogue to that story arc, as if Fiona’s final piece of magic was to send their brains back to the past, so that they could have a quiet farewell. And so Elsa gets a visit from the head of the network, who tells her that Hedda Hopper is going to write a story about how someone just found an 8MM fetish porn film wherein the most popular TV star in America gets her legs chopped off by a chainsaw. “You’re fired!” says the head of the network. “I’m divorcing you!” says her husband. “Okay, I’ll do the Halloween show,” says Elsa. “Okay!” says everybody.

So Jessica Lange walks out onstage and sings David Bowie, and all the freaks played by famous people who aren’t related to Julia Roberts watch her on TV, and then Wes Bentley shows up with that clown you loved and kills Elsa, and then Elsa wakes up back at Xavier’s School for the Gifted and finds out that Jean Grey is still alive and Biff is washing her new Toyota truck and Skynet never took over the world.

Elsa is confused, because she expected to pay for all her sins. Ethel says: “Can you imagine the police showing up at the old Globe and arresting the guy playing Othello for murdering Desdemona?” Except Ethel actually says: “Ken yew im-mya-jen the poo-lees shyewing up at the Old Glue-ba, are-yest-ting the guy plee-ing Yo-thell-yo f’r myer-drrrr-ring Dizz-derm-merna?”

“Stars never pay,” says Ethel. Which I think is supposed to be happy? But isn’t that actually a horrifying thought? There is a surprising bit of ambiguity here at the end of Freak Show, although it’s ambiguous whether the show thinks it’s ambiguity. Is it possible that American Horror Story takes place in a universe so devoid of any cosmic morality that stars really don’t ever pay? That the only people who suffer are the little people—that a good guy like Paul can get his head blown off, but Elsa really can go to Hollywood and live all her big dreams?

So we leave Elsa, preparing to sing David Bowie in the Great Beyond. So we leave Freak Show, a season of television that cut Emma Roberts in half and intercoursed Neil Patrick Harris upon a two-faced Sarah Paulson and which just generally (Finn Witt)rocked the casbah. I’m reminded of something Roger Ebert once wrote about Marilyn Monroe: “I don’t know what she symbolized, but she sure did.”

I don’t know what Freak Show was, but it sure was.


Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

Thoughts about Freak Show? Email me at darren_franich, and I’ll respond in next week’s edition of the Entertainment Geekly mailbag.

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.

  • TV Show
  • 9
  • TV-MA
  • Ryan Murphy
  • FX
stream service