Thoughts on “American Horror Story: Freakshow”

I will say that the fourth season of American Horror Story is indeed a bit better than the third, but that’s a pretty low bar.  Ultimately, the season suffers from the same problems as the previous ones and even seems to double down on the idea of trying to make us feel sympathetic for unsympathetic characters, which doesn’t work all that well.

As usual, this starts with Jessica Lange’s character, who is essentially the main character (other than Kathy Bates’ bearded lady) and the one that gets a lot of the focus.  Also as usual, she’s given a sexual oriented background and is played for sex appeal a fair bit, which always strikes me as being a bit more than was necessary.  But the big issue here is that she’s the one running the Freakshow, and she talks a lot about caring for her freaks, but from the start she seems more interested in ensuring that she is the headliner as a way to return to making “normal” movies again (despite her herself having prosthetic legs from a sexual misadventure in Wiemar/Nazi Germany, where she had entered into the world of pornography which ended with her being in what is essentially a snuff film).  She gets very jealous of the two-headed lady when it looks like she’ll be more popular a performer and ruin her chance at that.  Later, we find out that the main reason she joined a freak show in the first place was just to escape and to hide from those who might want to kill her, and also because she saw that as indeed the best way to get attention for her to return to the spotlight she craved.  When she finally does achieve that return, she refuses the offer from the freaks to buy the show from her, preferring to sell it to someone who presumably will give her more money but who it’s clear won’t treat the freaks all that well.  It’s only an equivalent or better offer from someone else that gets her to sell it to someone who might actually care about the show.  So throughout the season, her character seems to be paying lip service to caring about the freaks but seems to have a real goal of getting away from them as quickly as she can.

And yet, at the end she seems to have to come to face with the enigmatic freak show character who is some kind of powerful spirit, to essentially claim her soul.  In doing so, she returns to the freak show with the freaks that died in the season, and this seems to be essentially heaven for her.  She’s happy there.  So not only did she get to live out her dream for a number of years, when it comes time to pay the piper she actually gets what she seems to think is a perfect ending (even though that’s inconsistent with her character).  But this is a character that, again, seemed completely self-interested and self-serving, killed off more sympathetic characters, was petty towards the two-headed lady and basically is someone that everyone believed would step over everyone in the freak show if it would get her to Hollywood.  She doesn’t deserve to fulfill her dreams and die in what she seems to consider at least a reasonable facsimile of heaven.  And yet the show ensures that we know that she got that.  It, at least for me, casts a real pall over the ending for a character like that to get such a happy ending when other, more sympathetic characters, didn’t.

There’s also another big failure here.  Last time,  I noted that they wasted a wonderful redemption plot with Emma Roberts’ character.  You could reasonably have argued that that was just my expressing a personal interest or opinion, because other than making her a rape victim early the show didn’t really do anything to make us think that she could be redeemed or wanted to be, and so it didn’t really have a redemption arc at all.  That would be fair, but to be fair to me I also commented about how pulling that off would have made things better.  But, sure, they weren’t trying for a redemption arc so I can’t say that they failed to pull off a redemption arc in that season.  They didn’t really have a redemption arc and its components in the show, so it is indeed more my criticizing them for not putting one in since they had a good setup for it rather than criticizing them for creating one and not following through with it.

But here, they really did put together the elements of this with Emma Roberts’s character.  She starts as the assistant to a hustler who is trying to acquire bodies and body parts of freaks to sell to a freak museum because they can make a fortune doing that.  The plan they have is to infiltrate the freak show and find a way to get ahold of bodies.  As things progress, she is rescued by the son of the bearded lady who has lobster hands from a serial killer, and seems to start to have feelings for him.  Since they aren’t getting their hands on bodies, the huckster decides to try to take them directly, and asks her to seduce the son into that.  She doesn’t want to do that, and so she suggests taking the small, childlike freak instead.  The huckster tells her to bring her to a place where they can kill and bottle her, and when she does the huckster isn’t there and so she has to do that herself … and she can’t, so she returns the freak to the show, betraying her benefactor.  He ends up blackmailing someone else into doing it, and then uses other means to get the son’s hands.

As that progresses, she finally decides to tell one of the others about what was going on, and takes her to the museum to show her what was happening.  Once there, she finds his hands, and faints when she sees it.  At this point, they all know about her involvement, but she is profusely apologetic and seems to be legitimately in love with the son, as she attempts to nurse him back to health and insists that she will make all of this up to them.  We also find out that she only took up with the huckster because she was living on the streets and had skills he could use, so he promised to take care of her and get more money for her.  So far, then, we have a character who didn’t care about the freaks at all when coming in but came to care both about them and to legitimately fall in love with the son, who refused to participate in the evil schemes and ultimately was responsible for them finding out about them, and when ostracized promised to make it up to them in some way.  This sounds pretty much like a redemption arc to me.

And then the show destroys it all at the end.

The new owner is obsessed with magic tricks, and is also seriously deranged.  After being rejected by the two-headed lady, we find out that he killed his former wife and her lover — it’s complicated — and he completely loses it.  He tries to practice his trick and she volunteers to be in it … and he locks it so that she can’t pull her legs in and is actually sawed in half, and killed.  This would be bad enough, but then one of the other less than sympathetic characters — the three-breasted woman — essentially says that she deserved it and the last words she says about her is that they should take her jewelry and dump the body.  So not only is she killed in a very anti-climactic way, not only does her murder not get justice — he confesses to killing his puppet, not her — and not only does she not redeem herself, at the end she’s simply dismissed and tossed out as garbage.  And the show still expects us to think that the callow character who pushed for that is sympathetic — like the first character, she gets a happy ending — despite being cruel and callous to someone who was working to help them and redeem herself and so didn’t deserve it.  The show set up a redemption arc and then completely tossed that out at the end.

Now, you can subvert redemption arcs, sometimes powerfully.  But if you’ve been pulling off a redemption arc and making us feel sympathy for the character, you need to make the failed redemption feel like a tragedy, like something that we should feel sad over.  While it’s a stick figure comic and I don’t really like how the character progression was, “The Order of the Stick” actually did it really well with Miko.  The strip lampshades that not everyone has a chance at redemption, has Soon express regret that she didn’t get the chance to redeem herself, gives Miko some hope and a bit of happiness in noting that she will get to see her only friend again for visits, and has her accept her fate.  None of that happens here.  The show didn’t even have the son even express some regret that she never got the chance to redeem herself as she promised.  So the tone of the scene works against what the audience should be feeling, and so we start to feel that the characters are simply callous.  And we shouldn’t want to feel callous.

It would have been trivial to simply pay off the redemption arc.  But if they didn’t want to do that, all they needed to do was have the three-breasted woman not be quite so dismissive.  All she needed to do was note that there was no way for her to redeem herself and so that by their code she had to die anyway.  Or simply have the freaks all come together, note her contribution, but say that because she betrayed them at the start she has no place there, and so has to leave, and have her tearfully accept that.  And if they really wanted to have this anti-climactic ending to they arc, they still needed to set it up better and, ideally, tie it to an overarching theme.  Or even show the character in her own version of heaven, perhaps even at the freak show at the end.  All it needed was something to make her death not be entirely pointless, both in and out of universe.  And they didn’t.

The show also is the first one to start to make references to what is clearly a shared universe.  In this case, one of the freaks is played by an actress who also appeared in Asylum, and so they use this as a prequel to her ending up there.  I think that going for the shared universe loses the big benefit of the series — that, admittedly, they never really took advantage of — and risks a lot of confusion — which characters are different characters but are just being played by the same actress and which are the same character — but this one is at least an interesting enough one that it works here, and it doesn’t really have any serious consequences, unlike some others later.

The season still puts too many stories and characters into one short season, but things are more interconnected and are better contained so it works better than the other seasons.  Still, discarding the most sympathetic character as garbage and giving the less sympathetic characters happy endings makes it so that I don’t really want to watch this season again.

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One Response to “Thoughts on “American Horror Story: Freakshow””

  1. Thoughts on “American Horror Story: Roanoke” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Lady Gaga of being effectively the lead (she was also arguably the lead in “Asylum” and “Freakshow”, but was overshadowed by Jessica Lange).  Here, she plays the actress playing the wife while Lily […]

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