Dell (Michael Chiklis) needed some time in the spotlight and in American Horror Story: Freak Show episode 7 he finally gets it, but it doesn’t do him much good at all. The show’s been playing the same game with the character since the moment he arrived at Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Dell does terrible things, but then we get a quick glimpse of him looking sad and remorseful and are expected to believe the guy’s got a heart. No more. Dell wasn’t really in a position to carry an episode to begin with, but he gets away with it because the characters around him are so strong that his effect on them still has great value. But, when it comes to Dell as an individual, at this point, he’s a lost cause. There’s just no coming back from what he does at the end of “Test of Strength.” The writers might as well stop playing the back-and-forth game and just turn him into a full-blown villain.
It was a smart move for Stanley to go after Dell. Why should he and Maggie do the dirty work on their own when it’s as easy as blackmailing the resident strong man with a serious temper to do it for them? Points for Stanley, but it’s almost all downhill from there for Dell.
It’d be one thing if Dell stood outside of Eve’s trailer, made a move to go in, had second thoughts and walked off, but he actually tries to murder her. Meep’s death is Dell’s fault to a degree, but Dell didn’t kill Meep with his own bare hands. Seeing him take that approach with Eve makes him irredeemable. Fortunately we do get a wicked fight scene out of the failed murder and Eve becomes, for lack of better terms, a stronger character than ever, but the incident brings Dell to an all-time low.
But of course, this is American Horror Story: Freak Show we’re talking about here and if we’ve learned anything from Elsa’s behavior since day one, it’s that the show’s got absolutely no problem having a character do something despicable and then rewarding them with a chance to redeem themselves. Dell almost seized the opportunity at the bar. His conversation with Jimmy was powerful enough to make you believe that this murderer might be able to pull himself together for his son’s sake, but that’s not what we get and mere seconds later, Dell’s picking up a brick with the intention of bashing Jimmy over the head with it. And the writers don’t even stop there. After that, Dell has second thoughts and we play the same game again. The guys hug it out, you think there’s a chance Dell could become a standup dad and then we see him stumbling back into camp a drunken, appalling mess professing the Toledo family code; “The first minute you let a woman tell you what to do is the first minute you hand your balls to them.”
I really thought it couldn’t get worse than that, but then Dell commits the ultimate offense, he kills Ma Petite for Stanley. I’m a horror nut and rarely have a problem watching victims die horrible deaths, but I’m also well aware that there’s a line that should not be crossed. The dream sequence in “Bullseye” during which Maggie’s the one to kill Ma Petite so Stanley can ship her off to the Morbidity Museum proved that killing her was a major no-no. The reason the scene played well in “Bullseye” was because it didn’t actually happen. While Maggie’s committing the act, you’re cringing and thinking, “No, no, no,” and then when it’s revealed that she didn’t actually do it, you’re free to have some fun with the idea and think something along the lines of, “That was nuts!” However, there’s no fun to be had with someone really killing her. When Ma Petite’s in peril, it’s extremely upsetting and distressing. There’s nothing more to it than that. Even as someone who does get a sick thrill out of all the crazy and creative ways this show has killed off main players, I don’t want to take any part in that. Unfortunately, it’s over and done with. Ma Petite is gone and there’s no way Dell will ever get off my sh*t list.
However, just because Dell’s a lost cause doesn’t mean “Test of Strength” was a total failure. In fact, the Dell disaster further proves how well Freak Show is handling all of the other characters. Even Elsa manages to show signs of becoming a more cohesive, aware character because it seems as though the show’s finally committing to a purely manipulative version of Elsa. Rather than feeling jerked around like when Edward Mordrake spares her life and then she just goes right back to stepping all over her monsters for the sake of her Hollywood delusion, here she’s got a clear-cut believable goal and she just goes for it and it clashes beautifully with what Bette and Dot are up to.
It’s nice to see the girls actually do something. They have made some pretty big decisions in previous episodes, but for the most part, it’s never really felt like they could seriously shake things up at the freak show – until now. Between the back-and-forth between Bette and Dot, Dot’s secret exchange with Elsa and the plan Dot’s got brewing on her own, their situation has become wildly dynamic and will no doubt be a blast to try to track in the next few episodes.
As for Jimmy, the possibility of seeing him follow in his father’s footsteps is upsetting, but it’s well worth noting that the conversations between him and Dell mark some of Evan Peters’ best work of the series. I’m more inclined to blame the writing than Chiklis’ performance, but if you were considering giving Dell a second chance during the bar scene, it’s probably because Peters is earning the sympathy for him. You want Jimmy to get what he wants and have some sort of relationship with dear old dad, so when it does seem as though there’s a shot of that happening, you go for it, even though almost all of Dell’s behavior this season suggests it’ll never happen.
And then of course there’s poor Penny (Grace Gummer) the candy striper. It seemed a little strange that her father (Lee Tergesen) would go as far as to tattoo her face and split her tongue after giving that whole speech about maintaining his reputation, but I’m willing to look past it because what’s to come for her and Paul has loads of potential. Clearly it’s tough enough for folks who have been labeled freaks all their lives to withstand the ridicule; I can’t even begin to imagine what Penny will have to go through.
Episode Rating: B
(Dell Rating: C)
Odds and Ends:
- “I’m sorry, but I choose my sister. Always.” – Bette
- Season Prediction: The writers will try to redeem Dell yet again by having him come to realize that Dandy killed his beloved Andy and then having Dell save the day by destroying Dandy.
- “Who’s the strong man now?” – Eve
- “The only way to survive in this disgusting godforsaken world is to take control. Ain’t nobody gonna take care of our people but us.” – Ethel
- So Bette wants to be a comedian, huh? And “I want caviar for breakfast, and I wanna dye my hair blonde … and 20% of the box office off the top.”
- Hopefully we get to find out why there’s one random strong man in the Toledo Lobster Clan.
- “Wow! Congratulations, huh? Must have taken real courage to finally proclaim your progeny after 24 years.” – Elsa
- No more floating head note-reading, okay? Thanks.
- How can Dot possibly write a secret letter without Bette knowing?