Fräulein Elsa Mars is a German ex-pat who owns a freak show in the small town of Jupiter in 1952. Elsa’s enterprise isn’t doing so well. Hoping to revive her show she recruits a new “attraction” —conjoined twins Bette and Dot (sharing the same body but with separate heads), sisters committed to a hospital after murdering their abusive mother. We meet other odd “freaks” who work for Elsa, namely Jimmy Darling (a young man with lobster-like hands) and his mother Elsa (the “Bearded Lady”). The “freaks” attempt to revive the show and maintain their community and livelihood in the face of the “other monsters”, the normal yet cruel townsfolk residing outside the circus grounds. Speaking of other monsters, a serial killer-clown is wrecking havoc throughout Jupiter and scaring the crap out of everybody. Will Twisty the evil psychopathic clown derail Elsa’s plans?
Jessica Lange nails her role again as the sassy, empowered alpha-female yearning for a second chance. Her German accent is on point and her unwavering devotion to her freakshow is credible and intriguing. At first, Elsa Mars appears significantly less sinister than her AHS counterparts in “Asylum” and “Coven”. She certainly racks up brownie-points with her whole spiel about “the real monsters” being the supposedly normal people who are harassing her performers. She delivers this speech convincingly to Penny (Grace Gummer), a candy-striper whom Elsa stripped, drugged, and presumably forced to engage in an insane orgy with virtually every member of the freak show. Did I suggest Elsa isn’t as evil as Lange’s characters from past AHS seasons? Whoops. Scratch that.
At the end of the episode, Elsa brilliantly performs a pretty f—– crazy rendition of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars”, dressed like a blue-flavored Marlene Dietrich, with her freaks playing percussion in the background as a flurry of glitter swirls around them. It’s absurd, and mesmerizing, and makes us kind of uncomfortable. In short, it’s everything we ever wanted from an AHS season premier.
Bette and Dot
It’s a lot of fun seeing Sarah Paulson dig into her roles, talking to herself in every manner one can talk to oneself. The show opens with idealistic and happy-go-lucky Bette Tattler walking towards the surreal tent of Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities. From this perspective we can’t tell yet that she’s conjoined with her sister, Dot, the more practical and cynical of the pair. The show relies frequently on a clever split-screen gimmick dividing each character as they speak, verbally, and mentally, ala Brian de Palma’s Carrie.
Really,the entire episode centers on Paulson’s twins after they are discovered, along with their mother’s dead body, by the milkman (read: 1950’s). They have been stabbed and are rushed to the hospital where their appearance is so ghastly a nurse bolts out of the emergency room and dramatically barfs in a trashcan. Poor misunderstood Bette and Dot! Elsa sneaks in, disguised as a candy-striper, and begins recruiting them to join her show. In Lange’s typical “I know you better than you know yourself” way, she evokes the sisters’ bitterness, inter-sibling beef, and even their sexuality, which the show continuously plays off as an ongoing theme, the fine line between revulsion and arousal. Of course Dot is against the idea of joining Elsa’s circus, while Bette, who loves movies and wants to see one in “glorious Technicolor”, can’t wait to hop on board.
Dot and Bette’s introduction to Elsa’s freak show serves as our introduction to AHS’s cast of “oddities”, including the world’s smallest woman Jyoti Amge, as Elsa’s assistant, and Amazon Eve, the world’s tallest model.
The sisters’ new digs are quite swank: a vanity mirror, pretty clothes, satin sheets… the works. Dot has her suspicions that Elsa’s show might be too good to be true. Her reluctance to see everything as hunky dory may prove prescient. Soon enough we find that not only did Bette murder their terribly cruel mother, but Dot actually stabbed her sister afterwards in an attempt murder/suicide. When a cop come to arrest them Jimmy Darling kills him and the sisters are now indebted to their new family. We know this when, at the end of the episode, the sister’s refuse to be “bought” by wealthy mother-and-son “freak” obsessed creepsters, Gloria and Dandy Mott.
Jimmy and Ethel Darling
Evan Peters returns as Jimmy Darling, the similar slightly dangerous 1950’s misunderstood guy from “Asylum”. Jimmy’s deformity involves giant flipper-like hands and he’s literally pimped by his mother to entertain bored housewives. His entire disposition is wracked with resentment and indignation. He’s more visibly upset by a car-full of douche-bag jocks who harass the “freaks” than his co-workers are. He also has a pretty mean streak, as evidenced by his impetuous willingness to slit the throat of a policeman. Mark my words: he’s a loose cannon, this one.
His mother Ethel is the quintessential Bearded Lady, a character who comes off as more intersex than a woman who just happens to be able to grow a beard. Like her ambiguous gender, she also has an ambiguous accent. Coincidence? I think not. All you need to know is Kathy Bates is killing it this season.
Mother and Son Psycho Perverts/ Scary Killer Clown
Ok, so we don’t actually know if Gloria and Dandy Mott (Francis Conroy and Finn Wittrock) are psychos or perverts, but whatever they are, I don’t like them.
During the freak show’s opening act, the wealthy bourgeoisie mother and son sit gleefully in the audience waiting to see the freaks. How fun! The son even brought his binoculars. There is literally no one else in the audience. Their presence gives us the sense that a circus freak show is a dying enterprise, one now reserved for insidious human trafficking entrepreneurs. We will soon find out their real motives, but props to Gloria for delivering one of the best one-liner insults ever to Elsa regarding her singing.
And lastly, of course, there’s Twisty. Channeling David Fincher’s Zodiac, we are first introduced to Twisty as he attacks a handsome young couple making out on the grass by a serene lake. We are reminded of his ruthless, blood-thirsty carnage throughout the episode via a series of newspaper headlines and people basically freaking the f— out. He breaks into a family’s home and kidnaps a young boy. I did NOT like seeing this guy riding a carousal outside Elsa’s show in the darkness, grinning nonchalantly at nothing. And I do NOT like where this is going, in every respect. So damn scary!
In conclusion, what’s not to like? Freak Show can possibly be the best AHS season yet. The opening credits are amazing as always, and there’s plenty of build-up and shocks. I hope in my heart of hearts that Freak Show will prove superior to last year’s Coven. This season is already trying to get deep! Who are the real monsters? The innocent, good-hearted deformed “freaks”, or the black-hearted “normal” people out to destroy them?