And so we come to another season finale of American Horror Story, as Freak Show has finally come to its conclusion. I’ve become something of an American Horror Story apologist among people I know; when the first season started, it seemed everyone was crazy about it, and so was I, but I felt like I was the only person who saw the show for what it was: a trashy, “read-it-by-the-pool” guilty pleasure novel that rips off other, much better novels. But it does it with such gusto and with such a talented ensemble of actors that it can’t help but be entertaining. Occasionally super entertaining even. But still, the show was Melrose Place with monsters; when Dylan McDermott was cry-sturbating in episode one of season one, that pretty much told me what this show was going to be like, and I wasn’t wrong.
Now it seems like everyone has turned on American Horror Story, but I mostly still enjoy the show for its trashy pleasures. These are great actors who are getting to camp it up and just chew scenery, and it’s usually a blast to watch. But even I, American Horror Story apologist that I am, had to admit that by the end of this season the show was really showing its flaws. So many characters were given short shrift, while other lesser characters suddenly became important. Guest stars would come and go with little impact to the overall story, and you have to wonder why they bothered. For example, Kathy Bates was given a great, meaty role as Ethel Darling, the bearded lady, but Angela Bassett’s Desiree Dupree was barely given anything to do all season. (Although when she was used she was amazing. When isn’t she amazing?) Why bring back actors like Gabourey Sidibe and introduce Pattie LaBelle if you’re barely gonna use them?
The finale starts with Dandy Mott, our spoiled, inbred sociopath taking ownership of the Freak Show from Elsa Mars, who has taken off to Hollywood, and instantly starts treating the freaks like his slaves. They all quit on him, leaving him with a freak show with no freaks. So Dandy does what Dandy does, and starts killing all the freaks, one by one, in a bloody shooting rampage. The entire freak massacre across the carnival grounds is actually really well staged and filled with real tension as all the freaks we’ve grown to love begin to fall one by one. At one point, Amazon Eve gets the upper hand on Dandy and beats the crap out of him, and I did an audible “Yeah, kick his ass!” even though I was watching alone. (Sadly, poor Eve doesn’t make it.) When Angela Bassett’s Desiree is hiding in her closet trailer, I actually thought she might die like the rest, because why not? Everyone else was dropping like flies.
Dandy makes the huge mistake of leaving two of the freaks alive, mostly because he couldn’t find them. He marries the twins Bette and Dot in a ridiculous ceremony worthy of a John Waters movie, having left them alive among all the freaks just so he could own her. They play along at first, but then with Jimmy Darling and Desiree’s help they get their proper revenge on Dandy, first by poisoning him and then by drowning him in one of Harry Houdini’s old water tanks while the surviving freaks sit back, eat popcorn, and watch. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy this on a very base level. But let’s be honest, Dandy needed to die like five episodes ago.
After the massacre/revenge scenario, we then cut to Elsa Mars, now in Los Angeles to pursue her very unlikely dreams of Hollywood stardom. Of course, we know from the flash-forward in Episode 10 that Elsa would make her Hollywood dreams come true, but how did it happen? By happenstance, it turns out. After waiting and waiting like a stalker in the lobby of the TV network boss, a junior level exec takes pity on her, and, eventually, gets involved with her and marries her. At some point between 1952-1960, that junior exec is not so junior anymore, and gives his wife a chance at stardom with “The Elsa Mars Hour”.
Elsa got everything she wants — stardom, money, the works. But she’s unfulfilled and in a loveless marriage. Her old love Massimo, played by Danny Huston, has come back to her, only to reveal that he’s dying. The network wants her to perform a Halloween Special, but Elsa refuses, knowing the old Freak Show rule that if you perform on Halloween, the spirit of Edward Mordrake (Wes Bentley) will come and take you to Hell, as he did in episode four this season. But when one of her old porn films from pre-WWII Germany surfaces in the hands of a Hollywood gossip rag, she knows her days are numbered as a star. Why not perform on Halloween, and let Mordrake end her misery?
When Elsa takes to the stage, singing David Bowie’s Heroes, it brings everything full circle back to episode one. Mordrake appears, but realizing Elsa is essentially committing suicide, gives her a different fate than Hell. I’m not entirely sure why — Elsa was pretty awful. She killed her best friend Ethel, and sold the twin to slavery practically, so why does suicide prevent her from going to Hell? The only reason I can think of is that Ryan Murphy already sent Jessica Lange to Hell in last season’s finale, and didn’t want to repeat himself. Elsa deserved it as much as Fiona did on Coven.
Still, when Elsa entered Heaven, and it was the Freak Show back in its glory, with all the freaks alive and well (yes, including beloved freaks like Ma Petit and Meep), I couldn’t help but be happy they were all together again, even if Elsa herself didn’t really deserve it. Even Elsa was shocked she wasn’t in some much worse fate, especially when Ethel (whom she killed) merely said to her, “You said it yourself – stars never pay.” As for the Freak Show survivors, Desiree married her man Theo from The Cosby Show and Jimmy Darling married Bette. (Isn’t he a fugitive wanted for murder? Oh who cares. Clearly not the writers.)
American Horror Story is always a show that starts out strong and fizzles out by the end. This has been true since season one. But for Freak Show it was truer than other seasons it seems. The first four or five episodes were terrific, and then the show’s basic plotline of con man Stanley and his accomplice Maggie plotting to murder the freaks to sell their bodies to the museum of oddities just wasn’t compelling enough to sustain a 13-episode season. There was a lot of filler between those first few episodes and the finale, and even Neil Patrick Harris couldn’t save those episodes (the episode focusing on Pepper, however, was amazing). Still, the end of Freak Show delivered a lot more than I thought it was going to; we got to see the return of Edward Mordrake (with Twisty the Clown in tow, reminding you of when the show was better), and everyone’s story’s came to natural conclusions, even if that conclusion was a bullet in the head.
Showrunner Ryan Murphy has said that next year’s American Horror Story season will redefine the show. It’s supposed to be the first season without Jessica Lange, and it’s hard for me to image the show without her — she IS the show and brings life to otherwise stale episodes. But if they are going to reimagine the series, first thing I’d suggest to Murphy is to cut down the number of episodes to 8 or 9. Penny Dreadful did great with fewer episodes, and unlike AHS, there weren’t any filler episodes. While I was mostly satisfied with how the finale panned out, I think the show really has to re-think itself next season, or expect to lose even more viewers more next year.