American Horror Story: Freak Show is definitely going out with a bang, just not as big of a bang as it could have. Episode 12, “Show Stoppers,” rocks quite the build and has a number of especially powerful scenes, but the previous episodes don’t give them the foundation needed to go beyond shock value and function as meaningful conclusions to the various subplots and character journeys. However, even though the opportunity to turn the season into a satisfying, cohesive experience is long gone, the show continues to entertain with “Show Stoppers” paving the way towards what could be an exciting finish.
“Show Stoppers” gets off to a downright brilliant start by having Elsa and her monsters give Stanley what he deserves. Initially, all is well at Elsa’s goodbye dinner until, ever so slowly, the freaks start dropping hints at what the party is really about – putting an end to Stanley. The pace of the scene gives you just enough time to realize something’s off, wonder how Stanley will handle it and rattle your nerves before revealing that there’s absolutely no way he’s making it out of there in one piece. If you’ve seen the 1932 film Freaks, the connections are pretty on the nose, but it’s well worth the eerie imagery, especially the shots of the troupe converging on Stanley beneath the caravan.
With that villain out of the way, it’s on to the next, Chester. He was a vibrant character who was loads of fun to track but, as suspected, he was too much for just two episodes to handle. Someone like this either needed to be introduced early on or not at all. He had so many interesting things going on. There’s his relationship with Marjorie, his dark and violent past, his romance with the twins and the fact that he just bought himself a freak show. American Horror Story does touch on all of them just enough, but all four issues certainly had more layers well worth tapping into before letting Chester have his meltdown.
Sadly, Maggie gets the short end of the stick when Chester loses it. She’s one of the main characters of the show, but her death was much more about serving him. She’s had one of the better arcs throughout the season and it’s been great watching her go from Stanley’s evil sidekick to someone who genuinely wants to become a better person, so to see her wind up the victim in such an over-the-top, brutal kill makes it feel like it was all for nothing. And the fact that nobody seems rattled by her death certainly doesn’t help either. Yes, people had their issues with Maggie, but she’s a person and the show made such a point of her mission to become a better one. Seeing her die so helplessly and then hearing Desiree say, “Steal her jewelry and bury the b*tch,” is actually quite upsetting.
And that’s a big problem with what a lot of the freaks are up to this episode. I’ve brought this issue up in past reviews, but it’s well worth addressing again here. At the beginning of the season, Freak Show sold itself as a show about a group of outsiders just trying to fit in, but after everything that’s happened, who could blame the locals for wanting to run them out of town? Sure, Stanley did despicable things and Elsa’s responsible for killing Ethel, but it’s disappointing to see such likable characters ignore all the conviction established in earlier episodes and just butcher anyone who threatens them without giving it a second thought.
Per usual, Dandy’s behavior is the only thing that feels spot on through and through. We haven’t seen much of him in the last few episodes, but the show gets away with it because he’s already made such an indelible impression. Whereas Freak Show wavers back and forth between turning its heroes into villains and then back again, Dandy’s had a much more defined arc with far more forward momentum. We started with the unhinged little boy who threw tantrums, then he embraced his inner darkness and now he’s learning to control it. Dandy isn’t just some violent psychopath anymore. He’s also a master manipulator and it makes him an even greater threat.
It’s also well worth noting that a good deal of the character’s success is due to Wittrock. Whether he’s in smiley, smooth-talking mode or on the verge of lashing out, Wittrock has such great control over the character that he keeps him consistent, but while going big with Dandy’s tremendous range. If anyone from Freak Show makes their way into the fifth season of AHS - and I’m sure they will – Wittrock better be on that list.
As for Elsa, as much as I want to see the freaks come together and become a family, this needed to happen to her. In fact, I wish it happened sooner. I’ve been thinking that Ethel is more of a mother figure than Elsa for many, many episodes now. It’s nice to finally hear someone say it out loud, but the moment would have been far more powerful had it been more in line with the audience’s perception of the characters. But regardless, it works within the context of the episode and it also leads to an especially genuine, heartfelt response from Elsa. She’s done some awful things over the course of the show, but when she asks, “But where will I go,” you can’t help but to feel for her and that winds up justifying her decision to sell Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities to Dandy. Again, it’s a pretty despicable thing to do to the people she once considered her family, but in this case, the decision isn’t sparked by a delusional dream to move to Hollywood and become a star. She’s trying to survive.
“Show Stoppers” wraps up with one of the most poignant moments of the entire season. There’s definitely a chance you saw the claw-shaped wooden hand thing coming, but it’s still a beautiful way to show Jimmy embracing who he is, and that’s all I’ve really wanted all season. American Horror Story: Freak Show has been packed with missed opportunities and while it’s way too late to make up for them and deliver a believable, meaningful conclusion for all the key characters, “Show Stoppers” does suggest that the show could wrap with a mildly satisfying yet highly entertaining finish. (Much like every episode of the season, I guess.)
Episode Rating: B+
Odds and Ends:
- “I’m afraid that’s all it is, just a dream.” Finally! If only Elsa had said this sooner.
- Too bad we never really got to know (or see) what Stanley was so proud of down there.
- “Didn’t anyone hear what that creep Spencer said last night? It finally makes sense. Elsa killed Ethel.” A brilliant revelation from Legless Suzy. It’s about time someone figured it out!
- “We know what we do when people come after one of our own. There’s only one way to secure our future, make sure Elsa doesn’t have one.” – Paul
- Why is Jimmy so stubborn and unforgiving? I hope he mourns Maggie at some point in the season finale, one, so we know he’s got a heart and, two, so she doesn’t go out feeling like a throwaway character.
- I love me some Danny Huston, but Massimo’s story is all over the place. After being tortured, he wasn’t capable of loving anymore, but he still tried to find Elsa? Why even bother?
- Did anyone catch the name of Massimo’s captor? Hans Gruper, aka Dr. Arthur Arden from American Horror Story: Asylum! Although this time around he was played by James Cromwell’s son, John Cromwell.
- Why didn’t anyone try to help Maggie when Chester was sawing her in half?
- Stanley as the new Meep? I can get behind that. (Although all that shot made me think of was Tusk. Ugh.)
- That last shot of Jimmy looking dead into the camera makes for one fantastic finish.