“American Horror Story: Freak Show”: Venetian Romance

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And by “Venetian” I of course mean Venice, Florida.

While this week’s episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show did little more than set up a few love triangles and give Jessica Lange another set to chew on, it also gave some long-overdue screen time to one of its recurring sideshow characters, Paul the Illustrated Seal (Mat Fraser). Let’s dig in.

Elsa (Lange), in a hideous red Mao jacket, orders the knife-thrower’s wheel to be brought to the big tent, noting to no one in particular, “We are all just spinning on the wheel.” Hey, what goes up must come down. She throws knives at Maggie (Emma Roberts), Jimmy (Evan Peters), and PEPPER (Naomi Grossman)!? She tells the nonexistent audience that she has survived because she has been willing to destroy anyone, anything. Turns out it’s really a dummy on the wheel and she is just hallucinating. Must be Tuesday! Ethel (Kathy Bates) asks what the hell she’s doing, and Elsa says it’s all for the television show. Ethel says everyone’s worried about the twins, and Elsa says the Tattlers are selfish for running out in the new dress she bought for them. She promises that in a few months all the “monsters” will be grateful for what she is doing for them. Also, it’s her birthday week, and Ethel is making her a cake.

At Stately Mott Manor, Dandy (Finn Wittrock) complains about the new maid. Gloria (Frances Conroy) snarks that he should have thought of that before killing the last one. She gives him condoms – under a cloche! – but he says that he would never “violate” those girls, because he loves them: “It took a woman of four eyes and two hearts to find my love and give it back to me!” Gloria shakes her head like a cat with tape on its ear and says he can’t exactly take them to cotillion, and he insists that he’s a freak too, but when he’s with them he feels normal. He brings her the cloche (what, is this a Quickfire Challenge?), saying every mother must give up her son to another woman, and he’s going to be with those girls forever.

OPENING TITLES

Elsa loves Ethel’s gift – Westmore? Some kind of perfume set. [Edit – it’s a Westmore makeup set. Thanks, John!] Paul (Fraser) gives her something… naughty? She purrs, “You cheeky bastard!” Eve (Erika Ervin) gives her a giant blue box, and Ma Petite (Jyoti Amge) is inside, wearing a chunky pink sweater: “I will keep you warm, Miss Elsa!” Oh – she’s a hot water bottle! That’s batshit in the most adorable way imaginable. Ma says they miss the twins. Paul suggests looking for them, but he is interrupted by the sound of someone slamming their face onto a piano keyboard. Elsa tells them to forget about the GD twins, and she demands that they start having fun immediately or she’ll put one of them on the wheel. Some people get so prissy about their birthdays…

Later, Elsa is in bed with Paul and she smokes up. He declines, and she asks him if he’s falling in love with her. He assures her that nobody knows about them and gets out of bed, brandishing his tattooed mudflaps on the way out. Thank you, sir! He tells her he could learn to drive, and she says that when she “has a normal suitor” he could pretend to be her chauffeur. He brings her Ma Petite – still dressed as a water bottle – and leaves them tucked in bed together. This woman has more issues than Harper’s Bazaar.

Paul, meanwhile, has moved on to climbing up Penny the Candystriper’s (Grace Gummer) trellis and romancing her. Busy boy! He says he’s in love with her – and not just casually, like when they made that opium-drenched porno together. There’s banging on the door, and her dad – hey, isn’t that Beecher from Oz?! – breaks in. I am OBSESSED with her curtains. Her dad is not, and he says that he’s kicking her out if she misbehaves anymore. Then he kisses her head. Okay, this is not going in a direction I like. Thankfully, he leaves. (And yes, that was Lee Tergesen.)

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Bette (Sarah Paulson), on the other hand, is THRILLED to be the captive of a psychopath. Ugh, she and Dandy deserve one another. He swans in with tons of food, saying he had “Cook” make one of everything. Including caviar! He spoon-feeds it to Bette. “Heaven!” Dot looks suspicious, but Bette points out that Dandy has thus far been a gentleman. She thinks she’s found her true love.

Dot is less than convinced. She asks Gloria if they can retrieve some of their belongings, and Gloria says they will replace whatever they lost with something better. Dot suspects dark intentions. Dandy reads in the paper that they performed the first surgery separating Siamese twins. Dandy drinks from a tiny pink cup as Dot – sorry, Dorothy – imagines life after losing Bette, which includes romancing Jimmy once Dandy pays to have Bette cut loose: “This gilded cage might finally set me free.” Dot locks her diary. Wait – can’t they, like, read one another’s thoughts? Are they pulling a Sookie on us? Or maybe they can choose which thoughts they transmit to one another?

Paul goes to the pharmacy to buy Venetian Romance perfume, but the guy doesn’t want to sell it to him. Dandy interrupts to complain about some hairbrush that he wants. Paul and Dandy chat, and Paul mentions the Tattler girls, and notices that Dandy is buying two each of a bunch of girls’ things. He calls Paul a pickpocket – Paul laughs it off but the pharmacist kicks him out. He spits on the door: “I’m going to take my business to Woolworth’s – they’ve got ice cream!”

Back at camp, Paul chats with Jimmy and asks why he thinks the twins just wandered off. He mentions Dandy’s odd purchases and suggests that Elsa might have sold them out, and Jimmy slaps him. Ouch! Paul says that Jimmy’s lucky, because he can pass, and he thinks Elsa could sell all of them out. Double ouch!

Dot and Bette read that one of the twins died, and one survived, and Bette thinks it’s God’s will. She says they will always share anything, but Dot is protective of her thoughts. And her diary. Which Dandy wants to read. He says that they should trade secrets, and immediately confesses to killing Twisty… which isn’t even true. Dot doesn’t believe him, and refuses to tell him a secret. He throws a Dandy fit about how they’re not playing by the rules, blah blah.

Back near camp, Stanley (Denis O’Hare) accosts Maggie in the weeds and says he needs a payday: “Fresh catch of the day!” She balks at the idea of giving him Jimmy, but he wants her to lure him out to a nearby barn he is renting. She makes an alternative suggestion, something easier to transport: Ma Petite. They put her in a jar, and fill it with preserving chemicals and drown her in it. OMG. But luckily it’s just another stupid fantasy. Okay, show, enough of this. Stanley tells her she’s ruthless, and she replies, “When I have to be.”

Elsa… sings? It’s Kurt Weill’s “September Song”: “These precious days I’ll spend with you… September, November.” Elsa says the TV viewers could use some culture. Well, thanks for that. Paul tells her to sleep well, and she tries to get him to stay. He says he’s got a lot on his mind, and he wouldn’t want to disappoint her. She accuses, “You reek of Venetian Romance!” He tells her off and demands to know where the twins are, adding that everyone suspects her. They all file in and she calls them all “ungrateful ingrates” and “miserable” and demands who thinks that she had anything to do with the girls’ disappearances. How could they suspect her? Toulouse! She bribed a guard to let you out! Salty and Pepper! “Even your sister didn’t want you anymore!” She throws away her “shabbily made” gifts in the name of another Emmy. Jimmy tells her to calm down, and she begs them to trust her, and Ethel asks how they can prove that they do. Elsa demands the wheel, and nothing less. Jimmy offers, but Paul steps up: “Try not to miss.” “I always miss, darling, that’s the point.”

Eve – in hideous red Mao pajamas – spins the wheel, and Elsa throws the knives. There are some great spinning shots of her as she tells them, “Fate is the master of us all.” The third knife hits him in the guts, and she smiles, and pulls the knife out as soon as he’s brought down, probably so that he’ll bleed out faster. So, to recap: she demanded that they prove that they trust her, only to prove that she cannot be trusted. That went well!

Grace Gummer sounds just like her mother when her father pulls a rifle on her and she grunts, “A GUN?!” She wants the man she loves and a life with excitement, “Not this middle-class hell!” She scurries off.

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A shadow passes over Ma Petite, but it’s just pretty Maggie. In the middle of the night. In the swamp. Ma calls her “beautiful!” Maggie puts her in a jar, “like a butterfly.” Ma Petite flaps her wings inside the jar. It’s… effed. Maggie pulls out a bottle of something awful…

Penny visits the freak show and Eve is surprised that she has come back. She asks for Paul, who is smoking up with Elsa in her tent. Elsa confesses that the spinning wheel might not be right for television, and he accuses her of not bothering to call the doctor. She tells him that he betrayed her. Penny barges in: “Speaking of cheap perfume…”

Ethel frosts a cake for Elsa, and Jimmy chastises her for it. Jimmy says that Elsa’s acting weird, and Eve interrupts to say that Ma Petite is missing. But just outside they come across Maggie with Ma, who say that they got up early to catch fireflies. Maggie tells Jimmy that they should run off to Pensacola (eesh, really? is the swamp not bad enough?), or Orlando (hey wait, wasn’t that last season?) or anywhere. He says there’s something he needs to do first, and she runs to pack her bags. Stanley tells her that her corpse isn’t worth enough for him to kill her, and they’re going back to his plan. “Bring those lobster claws to the museum!” Yeah, we get it.

Gloria brings Dandy RC Cola and snackies, but he doesn’t want to see her and languishes in his bed. He read Dot’s diary, and it has made him upset, but he wants her to read it out loud. “That man boy – yuck.” Dot notes that boring her is not easy to do, being a 30-year shut-in, but he does – and she says she’d rather die than kiss him. Gloria roots for Bette – she offers to give her a mink stole or a tennis bracelet – but Dandy freaks out again. He says his insides are like the Utah desert when she took him there for his tuberculosis, but those girls were a cool draft of glacier water. Now he’s just left with the scorpions inside of him: “The desert knows no mercy.” (I HAVE NO IDEA.) He pulls out a BIG knife, and tells her that he knows his purpose: to bring death. He tucks the knife into his Bonobos.

Gloria scurries around him to answer the door. It’s Jimmy, saying the he is a friend of her son. She replies, “My son has no friends.” Crazy lady has a point. Dandy tells Gloria to let him in: “He’s here for the girls.”

Ethel tells Elsa to have a piece of cake, even though the others have scattered. Elsa tells her that she had a sister, two years older, that died as an infant. She thinks she was meant to heal her parents’ pain, but she just reminded them of what was lost. She had to create a family – they are all her “special ones.” But Ethel is her sister. Elsa yammers on as Ethel lights the candle on her cake and tells her that if she ever finds out she hurt those two girls, she’ll kill her with her own damn accent.

Elsa’s wish: “I just want to be loved.”

SCENE

Notably Dead: Hey, remember when there was a clown running around killing people for some reason?

Notably Absent: Dell Toledo, Desiree Dupree, Regina Ross

Freak of the Week: Clearly, this was Paul’s week to shine. Let’s hope it’s not the last we see of him.

Quote of the Week: I am going to give it not to a line of dialog, but to an acting choice. Frances Conroy has always done freakouts better than just about anyone, and her emphatic head-shake in her first scene was pure visual poetry.

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Blood – 2/10

Poor Paul! But otherwise a pretty PG-13 episode.

Beasts – 0/10

Meeeeeeeeeeep!

Buns – 10/10

Mat Fraser, your contributions to the genre have been noted. Evan who?

Rating

I’m a bit torn. While I appreciate a little old-timey melodrama as much as the next cat, that’s not exactly what keeps me tuning into American Horror Story. I’ve always found the romances on this show to be the least compelling elements, and this week they doubled down with the Dandy/Tattlers/Jimmy and Elsa/Paul/Penny arcs. This felt like a transitional episode, and one where a lot of seams were showing: Why couldn’t Stanley just hang out in the barn and kill someone himself? Just last week he was taking the twins on a picnic and trying to poison them. Where the heck was Desiree, who moved into Ethel’s tent last week? Things felt a bit cobbled together to me. And I’m honestly suffering a little Elsa fatigue to match my Dandy fatigue – both characters have two settings, Babbling Monologue or Murder. And is it wrong to wish that they’d give Lange a character that isn’t completely self-obsessed and sadistic for once?

But I loved that Paul got to do more than look concerned from the sidelines, and bringing Penny back into the fold seems promising. And one thing that the show is nailing this season is getting us to actually care about the characters – who didn’t shriek when they drowned Ma Petite in that jar? And if they had killed off Paul I’d have set something on fire. I’m not a fan of the cheap-shot fantasy death scenes (isn’t fake-killing everyone every week in dream sequences just as bad as killing everyone and bringing them back to life again, like Coven did?), but they do at least provide a gauge as to how much we are becoming invested in these characters.

I’d give it three out of five Pennywises:

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What’d you folks think?

Writer-filmmaker Brian Juergens launched CampBlood.org, the world's first website devoted to horror films from a gay perspective, in 2003.