I have been hooked on American Horror Story since the very first episode of season one. The unconventional series, which tells a unique story in a new setting each year, often with the same cast of actors, spooked me in the Murder House, scarred me for life in the Asylum, and amused me in the Coven. For its fourth season, which premiered Oct. 8, we are taken to a circus Freak Show, the likes of which we haven’t seen on the boardwalk or beside the big top in decades. The trailers released before the premiere promised a terrifying, creepy and, to borrow from the show’s title, freakish experience. That’s saying something given the horror-riddled basement of season 1 and the mutated monsters of season 2. The premiere episode did not disappoint. If you have not watched the episode, be warned that there are SPOILERS ahead.
It’s Florida in the 1950s, and a freak show is trying to stay afloat while others across the country have fallen out of fashion. Some of the performers try to blend in with regular society, hoping to be treated as ordinary people and not the monsters they appear to be. That’s not easy for people like conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler, played by series regular Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates’ Bearded Lady or the flipper-handed Jimmy Darling, played by Evan Peters, another fan favorite. According to the show’s creator, the theme of the season will be the “freaks” in conflict with the “evil forces” that don’t understand them.
Entitled “Monsters Among Us,” the premiere introduced us the Tattler sisters, who are discovered hidden in a farmhouse after their mother’s murder. When Elsa Mars, the German immigrant running the freak show, hears about them, she tries to convince them to join her troupe. The “Siamese” sisters have very different reactions to the idea, played convincingly by Paulson with the help of some voiceover, diary entries and, I’ve read, long grueling days of filming. But they are convinced to join when other freaks defend them from a sheriff who blames them (rightly so, it turns out) for their mother’s death.
As the freak show fights for its survival, a psycho clown nicknamed Twisty is terrorizing the community where they’ve set up camp. Played by character actor John Carroll Lynch, Twisty is absolutely terrifying from his slipshod makeup to the way he dramatically pulls juggling pins from a bag –before using them to bludgeon a couple he finds canoodling in a field. When he makes a balloon animal for two children he’s holding captive, I wanted to scream too. What the fluffernutter? Who is this guy? What has driven him to this madness? And, later, when we see him watching from a distance as the freak show performers chop up the ill-fated sheriff, I wondered : what is this guy’s end game? What is his plan? It’s going to be fun to find out, if my heart doesn’t stop along the way.
As she has in the three previous seasons, Jessica Lange shines in her role as Elsa, a frustrated starlet who dreams of a shot at fame and, in a scene near the end of the episode, reveals that her connection with the freaks goes beyond seeing them as a money-making venture. Viewers will want to savor every moment that she’s on screen, for it’s no secret that she has decided to move on after this season ends. Creators of the show have promised to give her an over-the-top sendoff.
The other performers in the freak show are an interesting bunch. Peters, as Jimmy Darling, longs for dignity and life beyond being a sideshow attraction. But he also has no trouble using his freakishness when it benefits him. His mother, Ethel, is the bearded lady and fiercely loyal to Elsa and the life the show has provided. The cast includes several performers who have dealt with the “freak” label in real life: Matt Fraser, who portrays Paul the Illustrated Seal, has malformed limbs as a result of phocomelia. Rose Siggins, who plays Legless Suzi, had her legs amputated when she was 2. Jyoti Amge, who plays Ma Petite, is in reality the world’s smallest living woman. These actors bring realism to a show filled with the absurd, and make it easy to empathize with their view that it’s not their deformities, but outsiders’ reaction to them, that is truly monstrous.
That seems to be a perfect segue into talking about Dandy Mott and his mother Gloria, the show’s only spectators one night who offer large sums to buy the Tattler sisters. They seem normal, if very dysfunctional, but their fascination with the freaks as objects to own is unnerving. I’m worried about the role they will play, especially given the teaser for coming episodes.
The premiere built in me a sense of dread, but also anticipation, of what will happen next. I can’t wait to learn the back stories of more of the characters, especially Elsa and Twisty. I’m also eager to see how other cast members such as Emma Roberts, Angela Bassett, Patti LaBelle and, it’s rumored, Neil Patrick Harris will factor into the story.
American Horror Story: Freak Show airs Wednesdays at 10 pm on FX. It is recommended for mature audiences.