‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ Episode 1 Review: “Monsters Among Us”

By October 9, 2014
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One thing that isn’t covered too often on TV is the concept of the post-Depression era traveling carnival. HBO did a pretty good job of it in their short-lived series “Carnivale,” while NBC did a pretty poor job of it in the final season of “Heroes.” Now it looks like sword swallowers and carnival barkers are about to return to TV as the new installment of the Ryan Murphy/Brad Falchuk series “American Horror Story” is finally here. Last night saw the premiere of “American Horror Story: Freak Show” and if this episode is telling us anything, it’s that this may be the best iteration of the horror anthology series yet.

The story takes place in the town of Jupiter, Florida, circa 1952. We open on the discovery of a body, which we soon find out is the dead mother of twin sisters Bette and Dot Tattler. Wounded, they are taken to a hospital where all the doctors and nurses are dumbfounded. You see, Bette and Dot are Siamese Twins (played wonderfully by Sarah Paulson). They share a reproductive system yet also have two hearts, three kidneys, two spines, two heads…you get the picture.

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The two are soon visited by Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange), the owner of the traveling circus show known as “Fraulein Elsa’s Cabaret Of Curiosities.” She is immediately mesmerized by the sisters and we quickly see the vast personality differences that exist between Bette and Dot. Elsa develops a plan to save her ailing “Cabaret” by bringing in the two sisters as her newest attraction. With a little convincing (by pulling a confession from the sisters that they were indeed the guilty party in their poor mother’s murder), the Tattler sisters soon find their new home to be in the tented community of the Freak Show in question.

And since this year’s installment is called “Freak Show,” I suppose now would be the perfect time to introduce you to the characters that live in these tents: Jimmie Darling aka “Lobster Boy” (Evan Peters) is the young, handsome leader of the group – or so it seems. He mostly looks normal until you get a view of his hands, which are literally skin flippers. While they may be off-putting to some, it seems a house full of under-pleasured housewives have found another interesting use for his extra long and conjoined fingers.

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His mother is Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates), and she seems to be the law enforcement of the group. She’s Elsa’s right hand…woman? I ask this because she sports one hell of a healthy beard here. Ethel is a far cry from Bates’ performance as “Madam LaLaurie” on “AHS: Coven” which further showcases the actress’ unique range. Also introduced in this episode are Gloria Mott (Frances Conroy) and her spoiled son Dandy Mott (played by newcomer Finn Witrock). They come to the show for one thing: to flat out buy Bette and Dot. Anything to keep young Dandy entertained!

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During the show in question, Elsa Mars comes onto the stage in a full powder blue suit, matching blue eyeshadow and proceeds to sing David Bowie’s “Life On Mars.” It’s a magical (and weird) moment where we see all the players in the community doing their part to entertain the (two person) crowd. But, what was most weird to me is the choice of music. “Life On Mars” wasn’t released to the world until 1971. However, when watching the official music video for the track, I’m left to wonder if Ryan Murphy threw this in as some sort of inside joke or simple homage to Ziggy Stardust himself. You tell me?

While the plot of Elsa taking the sisters into the fold is the majority of the story here, there is one other very terrifying, nightmare-inducing, “sweet Baby Jesus make it stop” kind of thing: it’s a clown, okay? A goddamn clown. The official name for this plethora of everything awful is Twisty the Clown (played by John Carrol Lynch). Full disclosure: I have a wee bit of a clown phobia. But still, Ryan Murphy has succeeded at putting one of the most terrifying clown characters on screen that I may have ever seen. (Sorry, Pennywise.)

Twisty looks like he is wearing half a clown mask and seems to have someone else’s skin covering most of his head. I’m not sure if he is capable of blinking, and he’s really into murder. The really brutal stabby kind of murder where he keeps un-blinking eye contact with you the whole time he’s taking your life away. If that’s not bad enough, the bastard takes children and keeps them captive in his lair which happens to be an old rusty school bus in the middle of who-knows-where! There’s been a lack of images available online regarding this character and probably for good reason, so I’ll just share this poorly lit image of the beast in case you wish to still be surprised.

You’re welcome.

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“Monsters Among Us” begins with the horrid act of murder and ends with it, too. A detective tracks Bette and Dot to the Cabaret and attempts to take them away to jail for the murder of their mother. Jimmie quickly intervenes and attempts to bargain with the police officer. Some slanderous remarks about the performers in the tent being monsters push Lobster Boy over the edge rather quickly, resulting in a dead cop.

One thing that quickly stands out to me about “American Horror Story: Freak Show” is that this looks to be the first installment in the mini-series that does not rely on anything supernatural within the story. Take away the circus, the tents and the flashy spectacle, and what we have left is a community of misunderstood people just wanting acceptance, love, respect, and the ability to live a normal life. That struggle for acceptance is universal and seems to be what will drive this season forward. Well, that and the murderous clown that is now haunting my dreams!

Do you think Jimmie’s actions will cause major conflict with his mother Ethel? Will Bette and Dot save the show (and Elsa) after all? What are your thoughts on last night’s episode? Let me know in the comments below!

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Aside from throwing words onto your screen here, he has written for the likes of FEARnet, Examiner, Dread Central and MTV Movies Blog. And yes, he was Percy on VR Troopers.