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The messy American Horror Story: Freak Show was at its best when it was at its saddest

American Horror Story: Freak Show was a total mess, but it was also often terrifically sad.
American Horror Story: Freak Show was a total mess, but it was also often terrifically sad.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The fourth season of American Horror Story, dubbed Freak Show, was even more of a mess than usual.

The show overloaded on guest stars, introducing characters who would hang around for a scene or two, then prove ultimately unnecessary for the narrative. Storylines were introduced and almost immediately abandoned. Individually, they always felt like they had absolutely nothing to do with each other, beyond being in vague proximity, thanks to the setting. Whatever momentum the plot built up was lost in an endless array of brutal murders and serial killer shenanigans. At times, it felt as if the season had been constructed entirely to win an Emmy for prosthetic makeup design.

American Horror Story has always been built atop a structure that relies on Big! Shocking! Moments! rather than anything like coherent storytelling. Even the show's best season — its second — was stuffed to the gills with elements that ultimately didn't go anywhere and were there, instead, to provide the occasional goofy thrill.

That's likely why the show has proved to be a long series of diminishing returns, with the two seasons since the second feeling more and more like they're chasing something the show's writers no longer have any idea how to find. The show's ratings reflect this, too — after a record opening for this season, the series has tumbled to less than half of that number in its recent episodes.

Yet I can't write off Freak Show entirely. In one big aspect, it's got a leg up on the previous three seasons of AHS, and that aspect suggests territory the show might explore fruitfully in the future. See, this is the saddest season of American Horror Story yet.

Here's why.

1) This is a show about the end of Utopia

Yeah, the freak show run by Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) is filled with murder and recrimination in the season's early episodes, but it's also a place where people, generally, take care of each other. Elsa might be a self-centered, fame-obsessed character, but she also seems to possess some genuine feeling for her little tribe, mostly orphans, whom she's turned into an ad hoc family.

The season's final three episodes, however, are about how that family tears apart when Elsa gives in to her desire for fame and sells off the show, first to a man doing the bidding of a ventriloquist's dummy (Neil Patrick Harris, in the season's most random guest star turn), then to the season's "Big Bad," a young, rich serial murderer named Dandy (Finn Wittrock).

In those final three hours, Freak Show utterly falls apart on a storytelling level, but somehow finds a soul. The cast is whittled down to just a few survivors. Elsa, too, is taken (by a ghost to a kind of carny heaven, because this is still this show). There are problems all over the place, but it's also about what happens when the best time of your life is brought to a violent, bloody end.

Creators and showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk leave behind storytelling logic and simply go for an elegiac feel. It works much better than it should.

2) This is also a show about how screwed you are if you're not rich

Throughout the season, the show makes no bones about the fact that Dandy is the real danger, the real "freak," but the residents of Jupiter, Florida, can't see this because he comes in a conventionally attractive package and can throw lots of money around to anyone who dares question him.

When he's nearly arrested in a late episode, he buys the police officer off. Then he has said police officer shoot the lower-class black woman who accused him, justly, of his crimes. It's as cynical and horrific a moment as the show has been able to conjure, somehow turning one of the series' chief weaknesses (the way all characters' motivations change on a dime) into a strangely cutting bit of sociopolitical commentary.

It's not the sort of thing the series does very often, or could even pull off more than once or twice. But in Dandy, Murphy and Falchuk finally found some sort of political metaphor that worked for them, at least a little bit.

3) The actors were way better than the material

Michael Chiklis gives one of the best performances the show has seen as Dell Toledo, a rage-prone strongman who also happens to be gay. Angela Bassett is terrific as his wife, Desiree, an intersex woman with three breasts. Sarah Paulson somehow got around the technical challenge of playing two heads sharing a body — and made both of those heads distinct characters.

Murphy and Falchuk tend to write in flat, declarative sentences, making sure to even circle their subtext in red pen, so you won't miss it. But with actors like these around, to underplay the melancholy, the show managed to find its feet more often than not.

One exception to all of this was Lange, who was fine as Elsa, but has felt as if she's been stuck in a rut of Murphy's devising for a while now. She's made noise about leaving the show after this season, and I hope she takes a breather. If this season had been about Dell and Desiree, it would have been much stronger.

4) The show digs into how it feels to be marginalized

The season's 1950s setting isn't accidental for a whole host of reasons — including its ability to balance the story on the precipice of television's dominance over American culture. But it works best when Murphy and Falchuk use it as a way to underline how the perfect American life we imagine from the era is simply impossible for these characters, because of their race, or their sexuality, or their physical build.

Murphy has always been interested in outsiders and the way people will do anything they can to feel like they "belong," no matter how nebulous that goal might be. And Freak Show had all of his usual problems of paying lip service to representing said outsiders, while simultaneously exploiting them. (This was particularly true for the character of Ma Petite, played by Jyoti Amge, the world's smallest living woman.)

But there's also something to how the series captured the way these people had to band together, at the edges of society, because society simply wasn't built for them. Returning to the freak show, especially after spending time in Dandy's mansion, was a weekly reminder of how poorly we often treat those who deviate from the norm in even the slightest of ways.

5) Everybody gets closure

In most cases, the closure the characters get isn't earned. But much of the show's sadness stems from how hard the writers work to give the characters who survive the season a closure that will bring them the peace and happiness they've been looking for. Yes, that might seem like a happy ending, but when you consider how much the rest of the show has underlined the impossibility of, say, two women sharing the same body settling down in the suburbs, it makes that happiness all the more bittersweet.

Sadness is probably not the killer app that American Horror Story has been looking for. Given how unmotivated much of it seemed — and how many viewers tuned out — the show might make a hard turn into goofiness again next year (as it did when Asylum gave way to Coven, still the show's weakest season).

But I still found myself impressed by these small, still notes of sorrow around the edges of this messy season of TV. There would be worse ways to go forward than embracing the sense of loss and grief that lurks within so much horror and turning it into the series' driving force.

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