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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: “Show Stoppers”

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The influence of Tod Browning’s 1932 cult classic film Freaks has been apparent throughout American Horror Story: Freak Show. (And throughout the entire modern conception of freak shows in general.) Both stories include a bearded lady giving birth; both stories include conjoined twins who feel sexual pleasure simultaneously; both stories revolve around the theme that the feared and discriminated-against “freaks” are good people while the “normals” are real monsters.

And in this episode, the connection becomes explicit as Elsa’s troupe cite the film as the inspiration for some very deserved revenge they exact upon those that exploit them. “Show Stoppers” opens with a dinner scene very reminiscent of the one in Browning’s film. They are toasting the show’s new owner, Chester, as well as saying farewell to Elsa, who is leaving soon for Hollywood. Stanley seems to be keeping this long con up, despite the benefit to him being unclear at this point.

I was just about to think about how gullible everyone still is, when it became apparent that no one at the table, least of all Elsa, still believes Stanley’s deceit. They tell him they’ll watch Freaks later, and as they describe the fate that befell the movie’s villain Cleopatra, it’s clear that they’re really talking about Stanley. They bring him a “gift” – it’s the head of the director of the American Morbidity Museum. Still not sure how Desiree and Maggie got to Philadelphia and back so fast (and carrying parts of two corpses, no less), but okay.

They torture Stanley, Elsa performs her knife-throwing routine on him, and they chase him outside – the image of him crawling around in mud under the trailers is yet another callback to Freaks. He admits his deception, and also yells about Elsa killing Ethel – a shocking claim that, while true, seems to be taken surprisingly seriously given his destroyed reputation at this point.

One person not participating in the festivities is Jimmy, who is lying in agony as he deals with his newly amputated hands. He’s also despondent about the death of his “father” Dell. Elsa says “just because you grew up without a father doesn’t mean you can romanticize him now that he’s gone.”

Elsa has arranged for the same “carpenter” who created her wooden legs, Massimo (Danny Huston), to craft new hands for Jimmy – this involves Elsa revealing her closely-guarded secret to Jimmy for the first time. Massimo starts talking, randomly, about the people who cut off her legs. All we saw previously is that it was as part of a botched snuff film in interwar Berlin, when sex was chaos and the world appeared in high-contrast black-and-white.

So how would Massimo know who these people were? Uh, don’t worry about that part. What’s important is that the culprits weren’t just your average death porn auteurs. They were also Nazis, of course. And not just any Nazis – they were under the direction of none other than Dr. Hans Gruper, who would go on to be Dr. Arthur Arden at Briarcliff Manor, in American Horror Story: Asylum.

Call me Scrooge if you like, but like the season’s earlier Sister Mary Eunice cameo, I loathed this. The Arden connection has no further significance – it’s nothing but a pointless, meta easter egg. The implied message that there has always been a grand master plan uniting the AHS universe could not be less convincing. If you missed my previous rant on this subject, I’ll recap it briefly by saying that if the powers that be think they need to rely on this kind of gimmickry to keep interest up, that’s a very troubling sign indeed.

Anyway, rant over, because I did actually like this episode overall. Chester and Bette and Dot are still having sex, and still doing it with Marjorie creepily watching. The twins ask if Chester can put her away for once, and he obliges.

Marjorie – who is now appearing in human form to Chester more and more – is unsurprisingly furious about this later. She threatens him by calling him a murderer, and he replies that it was really her who killed his wife and her lover. (Of course Chester’s thoughts could be unreliable, but his version of events was borne out by the flashback the audience saw.) “That’s impossible,” Marjorie says, with a cat-who-ate-the-canary grin. “I’m a doll.” My notes on this part read “PLEASE let her be real.”

This experience seems to have shaken Chester, who takes a surprisingly authoritarian tone during the troupe’s first meeting with him as leader. The Tattler sisters, who have read a file given to them by (of all people) Dandy that spells out Chester’s murder rap, say they no longer want to be his assistants. Chester is mad and says he really wanted to saw them in half in a way that makes you seriously consider if he meant it in the non-magic trick way.

Maggie jumps up, offering to take the twins’ place. “I know how the trick works!” she says happily and obliviously. Once she’s in place, Chester handcuffs her feet together. She protests that she can’t pull her legs back to deploy the dummy feet. Chester begins to saw. She screams, insisting that, sure enough, this is the real deal. All part of the act, right?

Nope. Chester separates the two halfs of the box, and in a disgusting and subversively anticlimactic moment, blood and organs spill calmly out. This is no warped vision of Chester’s – everyone sees it as they make their way out from backstage. Wow.

As one might expect, everyone is initially shocked and repulsed. But the feeling certainly doesn’t last for long. Paul asks, “what do we do now?” Desiree’s reply: “Steal her jewelry and bury the bitch.” Really? So much for redemption for Maggie, who after all did blow the whistle on Stanley, and with the close cooperation of Desiree no less.

Eve visits Jimmy to tell him the news. I can’t believe Maggie died when her relationship with Jimmy, which unfortunately dominated her character’s story, was at its absolute lowest point – Jimmy continued to destroy his previously golden reputation when he painfully refers to her, in this episode, as a “deceitful little slut.” This is probably not what Evan Peters and Emma Roberts, who are engaged IRL, hoped for when their characters’ relationship was conceived.

Eve also tells Jimmy that “Elsa is next” – that’s how seriously everyone has taken Stanley’s accusation. I don’t really disagree that Elsa deserves that fate (in the murderous context of the AHS universe, anyway). But it rings false to believe that the troupe would turn on her that quickly, given the manipulatively maternal relationship she’s been shown to have developed with most of them.

Bette and Dot are apparently the only ones who have mercy (despite knowing Elsa shorter than almost everyone else). They come to Elsa’s tent late at night to inform her of the plot. Elsa marvels that the twins would save her; Dot responds, “now we’re even.” Shortly thereafter Desiree leads the killing party into Elsa’s tent, but she’s already gone.

The next shot is of Elsa sitting in a car that’s being hammered by rain. The door opens and in comes … Dandy. He gives her a wad of money and then leaves. Turns out, in a final act of showing that caring about the freak show performers is not truly one of her priorities, Elsa has agreed to sell the whole thing to Dandy. (Yes, she just sold it to Chester in the previous episode as well. No, I don’t understand how that works. If I’m missing something here, please let me know.)

Either way, Chester probably isn’t going to be participating in the freak show again any time soon. After he kills Maggie, he runs to his trailer to find Marjorie, who he perceived as laughing throughout the entire act. He stabs her over and over, and she appears to bleed. Later he stumbles into a police station, carrying Marjorie in a blanket. He says he wants to report a murder that he committed, and has got the body right here. This is the big reveal – will opening the bundle reveal just a puppet, or something more human?

Turns out: puppet. Yawn. So Chester was basically just crazy and hallucinated everything regarding Marjorie. If I wanted to be really charitable, I could suggest that this doesn’t present airtight evidence that Marjorie wasn’t alive before. But my experience with evil, normally-inanimate humanoid objects has taught me that they generally don’t get killed like humans do. Nor do they die with nothing regarding their supernatural state having been revealed. So I guess I’m still waiting for AHS to bring back something, anything, with a supernatural angle to it.

Dandy arrives at the freak show grounds to survey his new property. He’s wearing a suit that looks like someone’s Halloween costume idea of a circus ringmaster. He stands alone onstage, and pretends to hear adulation from the crowd – a callback to a long-discarded Dandy trait, his supposed desire to be an actor. When he ventures backstage he encounters Stanley, who we see has been made into a dismembered, birdlike creature – just like Cleopatra in Freaks.

The final scene shows Massimo, who is still doing his thing with Jimmy. Does he not realize that Elsa is gone? He presents the wooden hands he’s crafted – and Jimmy is pleased to see that they are, just like his discarded real hands, in the ectrodactylic “lobster” shape.

Random thoughts

– So, where actually are Jimmy’s hands? We know Stanley wanted them to sell to the American Morbidity Museum, but now he’s incapacitated, and the Museum itself is surely in disarray with its leader also dead. I’m sure there’d be little hope of re-attaching them, but chances are they’re somewhere on the freak show grounds where Stanley was storing them, right?
– Penny the Astounding Lizard Girl still has a completely bald strip running through the center of her head. I don’t think her father had access to laser hair removal technology in 1952, so I’m not seeing how that worked. Unless she just likes it enough to maintain it herself, I guess.
– Did anyone else notice every commercial break starting with an eerily long black screen? The FX logo was still onscreen so I know it was part of the show, not just dead space. It was weirdly unsettling and by the end of the broadcast I was scrutinizing it for some kind of hidden message.
– A very popular theory was that the conspicuously unseen therapist who Gloria talked to in “Blood Bath” would turn out to be Danny Huston’s “carpenter” character. That seems unlikely now, so who was that? There’s only one more episode to answer that and every other question (clown Elsa explanation, please!).

Dan Wohl used to blog about baseball for a living, now works for a tech company, and hosted a horror-themed radio show called “The Graveyard Smash” during college. He lives with his girlfriend in Burlingame, California, a town which utilizes the American Horror Story font for signage at its public library. You can find him on Twitter at @Dan_Wohl.

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