I hate clowns. They scare me to death and truth be told I was considering not watching this season of American Horror Story: Freak Show just because of the trailer featuring what can only be dressed as the King of Clown Hell. However, I put aside my personal phobia of clowns to take in the season premiere of FX’s American Horror Story: Freak Show on October 8, 2014. Titled “Monsters Among Us,” episode one set up the unique and unusual cast of characters who will populate the show’s Freak Show. From a bearded woman to a man with lobster hands to the spectacular special effect that is Bette and Dot Tattler (the two-headed woman), AHS: Freak Show‘s colorful characters have already lured me in and not even the crazy clown with the psychotic grin will keep me from checking out the rest of the season.
The show’s darker in tone this year than season three’s American Horror Story: Coven and the Freak Show setting of a small Florida town in the 1950s creates the perfect atmosphere for the show’s nightmarish events to take place. And, in a surprising twist, it’s not the fact that people with unusual abilities/disabilities entertain crowds in a circus tent that seems to be at the heart of Freak Show and instead the series premiere revealed murders outside the confines of the carnival will be a focus of the show.
The Spoiler-Filled Recap:
There’s no way to recap a show without giving away spoilers, so read no further if you haven’t yet watched the first episode. There, you’ve been warned. Also, the easiest way to recap this episode is to break it down by character, rather than scene by scene:
– Bette and Dot Tattler (played by Sarah Paulson): Easily the most visually stunning character in Freak Show, Siamese twins Bette and Dot share one bladder, three kidneys, four lungs, two hearts with a shared circulatory system, have a split spine, and two heads. But while they share the same body, they have separate and distinct personalities.
They’re introduced while being rushed to the hospital operating room after they were discovered stabbed in the same house where their mother lay murdered. Prying eyes are kept away from the secure hospital wing where Bette and Dot recuperate from a stab wound to Bette’s chest, and even hospital personnel grow faint at the sight of the two-headed woman. Only Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange), masquerading as a candy stripper after convincing a real hospital volunteer (played by Grace Gummer) to toss off her candy stripper duties and head to the carnival, is enchanted by Bette and Dot. And she’s enchanted because she’s on the hunt for new acts for her freak show and Bette and Dot would pull in big audiences.
Bette and Dot, who can communicate with each other without speaking, are suspects in the murder of their mother as she was dead for two days before they were injured and rushed to the hospital. Bette, who is friendly, likable, and ruled by her emotions, is actually the one who stabbed their mother because she wouldn’t let them leave the house to take in a show. Dot is angry, distrustful, and logical, and is responsible for stabbing her sister to make it look like they were also victims. Elsa convinces the Siamese twins their only hope for a life of freedom is by signing on to the Freak Show. Because they want to avoid being thrown in jail and the possibility of a death sentence, they flee the hospital with Elsa.
Bette enthusiastically embraces their new life while Dot believes it’s a soul-sucking experience. She refuses to allow her sister to eat, and the hunger strike prompts a visit from the bearded lady.
– The Bearded Lady and Lobster Boy (played by Kathy Bates and Evan Peters): Ethel Darling (The Bearded Lady) is Elsa’s right-hand woman, totally dedicated to Elsa’s vision and to making sure the carnival is profitable enough to carry on with its shows. She’s supportive of Elsa in all ways, enforces the rules, and makes sure the freaks are well taken care of. Ethel believes the Freak Show is “as good as it gets for folks like us,” as she tells Bette and Dot to convince them to eat.
Lobster Boy, whose real name is Jimmy Darling, has malformed hands but women find him charming. In fact, he even makes money on the side by satisfying ladies who can’t get their sexual needs taken care of by their husbands. And in a very disturbing scene, it’s shown exactly how he pleasures the ladies using his misshapen digits. But while Lobster Boy doesn’t mind entertaining the ladies, he does mind when you call he and his carnival cohorts freaks. A police officer who comes to arrest Bette and Dot learns that lesson quickly, although he doesn’t escape with his life to pass his new knowledge along. Lobster Boy kills him and then leads a funeral procession in which he declares there will be no tolerance for anyone who disparages the group.
– Twisty the Clown (played by John Carroll Lynch): If your romantic picnic in a field of grass is ever interrupted by a freaky clown, run. Don’t ask questions, don’t ask him about his clown mask. And whatever you do, if he pulls out bowling pins, don’t stick around to see what he’s going to do with them. A young couple learns these learns the hard way, making headlines with the gruesome death of the male and the abduction of the female.
Twisty follows up the attack on the young couple by slaughtering the parents of a young boy in their home, leaving a scene that can only be described as a bloodbath. The boy, however, is kept alive and placed into a cage alongside the teenage girl. Both are terrorized by the clown who tries to make them laugh one second and throws a tantrum the next. Where he’ll strike next is anyone’s guess, but there is a scene of Twisty seated on one of the carnival’s rides after dark.
– Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange): Elsa’s struggling to keep her carnival alive, collecting new freaks for the entertainment of the Freak Show audience. She takes care of her unusual family, but she’s also off of her rocker, even going as far as to film the freaks participating in an orgy. She also takes to the stage and sings her heart out, believing she’s surrounded by a full orchestra while performing David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” when in reality she’s performing to an audience of two on an empty stage. As the episode pulls to a close, the audience is also treated to the sight of Elsa removing her fake lower legs.
Upcoming episodes will likely reveal just how delusional Elsa is and whether the clown will be joining the happy unconventional family at Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities, but this first episode did a fine job of introducing the key elements of AHS: Freak Show. There were quite a few cringe-worthy moments including the orgy video with the candy stripper learning that she enjoyed being drugged and molested. And any scene with Twisty the Clown was best viewed through the slits in between fingers held snugly over your eyes. If Twisty’s not the most gruesome clown to ever exist in either a TV show or film, he’s right up there in the top three. Making him a murderer on the loose and having that be a major part of this season adds to the fright factor and actually makes the time spent in the Freak Show setting seem not as off-putting as it could have been.
American Horror Show: Freak Show kicked off with a strong episode that left a few key characters yet to be introduced. If the upcoming episodes are equally as riveting, this could be American Horror Story‘s best season yet.
-By Rebecca Murray
Watch “Life on Mars?” with Jessica Lange:
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