Contains Spoilers for American Horror Story: Freak Show (episodes 1-5)
With the latest episode of AHS – ‘Pink Cupcakes’ – having just aired, it feels as though Freak Show is a season inspired by the very machine which also makes it. Up until this episode Freak Show was (delightfully, I’d say) as inconsistent and unpredictable as the seasons which have preceded it – bouncing between narratives, tone and key characters with all the whim of a child playing chaotically through an entire box full of toys. Whilst the show has been criticised for it’s failure to follow through with or maintain a consistent tone or storyline throughout each season, I’d say that this is actually one of the shows key touchstones of genius: it can and should do whatever and go wherever it wants. Save consistency for a show like The Good Wife, save cartoon and hyperbole and delirious rule breaking for AHS.
Freak Show is a season happy to continually reference the Golden Era of Hollywood alongside contemporary horror cinema. Whilst Elsa Mars has a performance straight out of Cabaret, Jimmy Darling (aka Lobster Boy) is presented almost as a direct replication of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, and then we have Dandy Mott enjoying scenes directly lifted from both Halloween and American Psycho.
Up until Pink Cupcakes, Freak Show has been using these references as a kitsch wink to it’s knowing audience, but with various elements of this season finally being pulled together the show feels as though it’s actually making a scathing commentary on the Hollywood system, overall, and the determination and exploitation of celebrity.
Sure, having Elsa Mars’ theme be Life on Mars by David Bowie makes perfect, camp sense, but to then also include Bowie’s ‘Fame’ to the mix hints to a little more happening under the surface. Bowie, after all, has spent a fair chunk of his career fascinated by fame and performance himself – from Ziggy Stardust to his obsession with Andy Warhol – his music is enthralled by the fallen superstar, the price of fame, the exploited and the exploiter, the artist, the curator and the muse. And if there was one motif that Pink Cupcakes seemed eager to convince the audience of, it was that of the cost people are willing to pay for fame, exploitation for personal profit and of public performance and appearance.
In many ways, Elsa Mars feels very much like the Andy Warhol of the Freak Show this season, treating the carnival like her very own Factory, collecting a procession of ‘freaks’ and curiosities by which to up her audience for her own personal gain. Like Warhol, she positions herself as the leader of these ‘misfits’ but not especially as one herself (despite being an amputee and having suffered a brutally violating assault to become that way). She’s happy to exploit the ‘oddities’ of others so long as it distracts others from the secret ‘oddity’ of herself – furthermore, she hopes that the appeal of the freaks will someday pull in the right audience member who will be so impressed by her ‘talents’ that she’ll finally receive her long awaited promotion to Hollywood superstardom.
Conjoined twins Dot and Bette also exhibit the kind of relentlessly optimistic and deluded ambitions of the typical Hollywood starlet, the three of them (Elsa included) make them into a sort of Carnival version of Valley of the Dolls – all sharing the same destructive drive of Jennifer, Anne and Neely. All willing to do whatever it takes to see their name in lights, regardless of talent or expense. All so easily seduced by the grandeur of the silver screen that they would no doubt happily sacrifice one another, or parts of themselves (and from the way things are going, probably will do) to be granted the opportunity to become a part of it.
Away from showcasing the brutal determination of ambition, AHS: Freak Show has also been exploring the unpleasant confines of faux-heterosexual performance. Considering that Freak Show is set in 1952 the attitudes towards queerness in the show are to be expected (as faux-fortune teller Maggie Esmerelda said to closet homosexual Stanley in Pink Cupcakes: ‘if there’s one thing this town hates more than freaks, it’s poofs’), but it would be naïve to think that the same attitudes weren’t still alive and well to some degree in contemporary culture, and particularly pop culture.
Just one quick browse through BlindGossip.com (everyone’s favourite rumour and speculation mill which often seems to be years ahead of revealing leaked confessions and public scandals) shows just how many potential men and women remain closeted in Hollywood, even bearding to maintain a heterosexual persona so as to remain ‘relevant’, respected and employable by a system still apparently stuck in the fucking ’50s.
So we have Stanley getting blow jobs off of some rough trade and spilling gay spank mags out of his suitcase (all hush, hush of course, and it feels as though Maggie is not only his business partner but also used as a convenient beard for hiding his sexual persuasion), strong man Dell Toledo revealed as having a secret relationship with a gay hustler (played by a jaw dropping Matt ‘sweet jesus are you fucking kidding me right now’ Bomer) and terrifying Patrick Bateman Jnr Dandy cruising a gay bar for fresh meat of the murderous kind.
Whilst Dandy’s sexuality is certainly left ambiguous, it’s still an odd choice to have him picking a gay bar of all places to pick his prey (also, how would Dandy even know about said establishment? Surely a gay bar in 1952 would be a word of mouth deal only – a secret knock kind of establishment), Stanley and Dell’s are made unquestionable, but stifled. Dell, after all, is still married to a woman (albeit one who possessed what she called a ‘ding-a-ling’ which – disappointingly for Dell – turned out to be an enlarged clitoris rather than a dick) and appears to want to keep it that way, and let’s not forget that he also has a child with the Bearded Woman (never has there been a more literal beard).
Freak Show is a cast of characters who polarise the public persona they showcase, much like that of celebrity. One of the reasons why celebrity gossip is still such big business is because people don’t buy the public facade that they’re sold – they want to see the physical imperfections, the flawed relationships, the diseases, the mistakes, the heartbreaks and the tragedies. None of the characters of Freak Show are what they seem on the surface, and are all one by way revealing the duplicitous agenda at the root of their survival.
You have of course Stanley and Maggie, murderous con artists who become different characters across the country in order make money off unique ‘specimens’, Dandy Motts who for all intents and purposes is great looking and well dressed but is actually a raging psychopath, Dell who is perhaps the most deliberately macho and stereotypically hetero character of the show who is actually a closeted gay man, Elsa who is secretly an amputee and Dot and Bette who might appear conjoined and as one but are individually working on their own divisive agenda against each other.
Celebrity is a celebration of all that is shallow and surface. It begs that we don’t ask the wrong questions or delve deeper than the aesthetic or the performance. Whilst celebrity worships physical perfection and perpetuates the pursuit of it, AHS Freak Show has reversed this to showcase the deformities of humanity – not physical, but through prejudice, hatred, bigotry and exploitation. Be it the cultural homophobia which threatens an individual to keep their sexuality a secret, the porn star who has her prized body parts removed from her by men for the grotesque ‘pleasures’ of a snuff reel, or people being completely dehumanised in exchange for the potential of obtaining any kind of a profit or notoriety from them.
Even a character like Twisty the Clown was revealed to have been tormented to the point of it turning him into monster, having been accused by fellow freak show workers of abusing the children he innocently entertained thereby ruining his reputation and his ability to ‘clown’ for kids before failing to shoot himself in the head (I didn’t expect for Twisty to break my heart, but holy fuck did that do it).
We’re yet to see the exact price Bette and Dot will have to pay for their shot at ‘fame’, or how the ‘freaks’ will be further tricked and exploited by the hands of Stanley and Maggie or indeed that of Elsa. And just what does Dandy want? He’s mentioned his ambitions of being an actor – could his murder spree be an attempt at becoming an angel faced serial killer superstar? It’s definitely one way to get your name in the papers.
For now it feels like a superficial allegory of Hollywood and celebrity culture being threaded throughout the narrative, and this early on it’s impossible to tell what exactly AHS will do with this theme, if anything more at all and where exactly Freak Show will go next, but should it end with the victory of the most outwardly ‘normal’ and morally bankrupt, then don’t be surprised if American Horror Story heads over to Hollywood for it’s season 5 set piece.