By Kayla Samoy
American Horror Story – Season 4, Episode 1 – “Monsters Among Us”
American Horror Story’s fourth season premiere shattered FX records with 10 million total views (when factoring three days of delayed viewing), making it the network’s most watched telecast ever.
The fourth installment of the Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk series (the same creative minds behind Glee) takes us back to 1952 to the violent and depraved world surrounding a carnival full of freaks in seemingly normal and idyllic Jupiter, Florida.
American Horror Story can be described as an anthology series, with each season a stand-alone miniseries with unrelated story lines. As a result, the series makes jumps in location and time with a few recurring cast members taking on different characters every season. No matter where AHS takes us, it promises to be bloody and terrifying.
Unlike in the previous season, Coven – which built up so slowly I failed to finish the season because it wasn’t delivering the weekly horror I’d grown accustomed to expect from AHS – Freak Show immediately jumps into the action. Naturally the season begins with the discovery of a dead body, immediately immersing us in a juxtaposition of images: the friendly milkman stumbling upon a murdered customer in her kitchen and then discovering the first freak of the series – Sarah Paulson’s double-headed character Bette and Dot – hiding upstairs.
Freak Show is Sarah Paulson’s chance to shine – and attract award nominations – through her dynamic portrayal of Siamese twins Dot and Bette, whose only common trait is the fact that they share a body. Dot is grounded, uptight and protective; Bette is playful, naïve and innocent.
Our first glimpse of the impeccable special effects happens in typical horror fashion; a tense build to a final reveal behind a white curtain. Perhaps the second most impressive thing about the premiere – behind Paulson’s contrasting portrayals through subtle glances and lip quivers – is the special effects that give her two heads.
The image is visually arresting, like many of the images you’ll see in Freak Show. Evan Peters’ Jimmy “The Lobster Boy” Darling has severely deformed hands he keeps hidden in mittens during his first scene only to later use his unique appendages to sexually pleasure frustrated housewives and earn some much needed money for him and his mother.
Peters once again has one of the strangest and most explicit sex scenes on the show, though, Grace Gummer – Meryl Streep’s daughter – has a vaguely consent ambiguous opium-fueled orgy that left me feeling uncomfortable.
Kathy Bates plays Jimmy’s mother Ethel the Bearded Lady with frumpy clothes, no make-up, a wild beard and has accent is so ambiguously strange and inconsistent that I’m not always sure of what she’s saying.
The most striking moment of the episode happens at the end, when AHS favorite Jessica Lange peels back the layers to self-centered, manipulative, fame obsessed Elsa Mars. Elsa is the leader of the merry band of misfits. I spent most of the episode hating her scheming, yet I suddenly felt for her when she slowly took off her wooden legs and sat sadly with the realization that her life may never amount to anything more.
Elsa herself is another interesting contradiction, condemning those outside her collection of carnival freaks as being the true monsters, yet desperately craving their attention and needing their approval.
The themes of human worth and acceptance are already showing clearly in the first episode, mainly because Murphy and Falchuk are rather heavy handed and monologue-generous when it comes to Elsa, Jimmy and Ethel. Hopefully they spend the rest of the season showing us these characters’ contradicting views on handling their deformities and freakiness.
The rising presence of these themes will perhaps save Freak Show where it’s previous iterations have struggled; to deliver a cohesive season that doesn’t eventually collapse into a jumbled mess of cheap scares and stray plot lines, a season that manages to say something instead of just delivering a scare.
Despite what appears to be a potential improvement in the season’s cohesiveness, it’s still as outrageously sexual, violent and disturbing as any other AHS season.
The most disturbing aspect of the episode is without a doubt Twisty, a murderous clown with an uncomfortably oversized smile, dirty costume and terrifying stare that is sure to linger in your nightmares. (Even as I write this, I can’t help but glance fearfully at the gaps in the blinds expecting to see the giant clown with an evil grin.) Twisty weaves his way in and out of the episode, wandering around murdering townsfolk or lingering silently in the background. Right now this menace feels rather removed from everything else, so only time will tell if his story will be integrated gracefully into the story of these rejected misfits.
Much of the episode is spent world building so it’s difficult to tell what this season will bring. Here’s hoping Freak Show can take the best aspects of it’s predecessors – Murder House’s creepiness and examination of dysfunctional relationships, Asylum’s outrageously disturbing villains and constant surprises, and Coven’s fast-paced wit and sassy one-liners – and leave behind the jumble storytelling and senseless plots that AHS falls victim to. ♦