January 22, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “American Horror Story: Freak Show”


The braintrust behind AMERICAN HORROR STORY, headed by series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, seemed to think their work was done when they came up with the FREAK SHOW subtitle for this season.  Despite the limitless psychopaths on hand and the abundant graphic violence, this was by far the least frightening of Horror Story‘s outings, more melodrama than thriller, and without the wild imagination that has helped previous seasons coast past the show’s always remarkable level of inanity.

Of course, just about everything Ryan Murphy has ever touched could bear the label Freak Show to one self-conscious extent or another, and as in Glee and the other Horror Story sagas, the characters here were treated with his trademark mixture of compassion and salacious, semi-disgusted exploitation.  Although Horror Story is an anthology that tells different stories with different characters every season (notwithstanding the cameo appearance of Lily Rabe’s nun from Asylum this year), after four seasons, certain patterns have become predictable:  Jessica Lange will play a cruel yet emotionally shaky matriarch of sorts (here outfitted with a Teutonic accent and wooden legs as the freak show’s leader, Elsa Mars), Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters will embody the show’s sensitive side (conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler and lobster boy Jimmy Darling, respectively), and most of the cast will end up grotesquely slaughtered along the way.

The latter was particularly front and center in tonight’s Freak Show finale, written by Story Editor John J. Gray and directed by Bradley Buecker.  It featured perhaps the most nihilistic sequence in the entire series, as the season’s chief lunatic, Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock), nonchalantly massacred most of the remaining cast in a manner that brought to mind the mass shootings of recent years.  A scene like that couldn’t help but be powerful, but it didn’t make up for the fact that Dandy lived up to his name all too well through the course of the season, a cartoonishly over-the-top madman who spent virtually every episode brutally murdering everyone around him with no consequences.  Wittrock played the role (as was no doubt intended) in a campy style suggesting that he actually belonged on a bizarro nightmare version of Glee, perhaps as Kurt’s rampaging id.

Nothing dramatically satisfying followed that sequence, which came midway through the finale.  The surviving freaks, including Bette and Dot, Jimmy, and three-breasted Desiree Dupree (Angela Bassett, much more effective as the voodoo queen in last year’s Coven season) took their revenge on Dandy in a rather uninteresting way, letting him drown in a Houdini escape tank.  The action then jumped forward three years, and although we had glimpses of happy endings for those characters (not to digress, but it’s odd how conventional Murphy and company turn when it’s happy ending time, with suburban married bliss for all, including Jimmy wed to a pregnant Bette/Dot), the focus was on Elsa.

Perhaps the lengthy epilogue was intended as a series farewell to Lange, who has indicated that this may be her last season, but it certainly wasn’t scary.  She had, against all possible logic, become a huge TV variety star in the time jump interim, and after being struck down on live TV by returnee freak-reaper Edward Mordrake (Wes Bentley) when she dared to perform on Halloween night, she went to a freak show heaven rather than hell, performing her act before full houses (bizarrely, the only anachronistic note in the entire season had Lange performing songs by David Bowie and Lana Del Rey, among others), and embraced by the bearded lady (Kathy Bates) she’d murdered in life.

Ryan Murphy’s shows always tread a fine line between compellingly crazy and head-slappingly moronic, and without the juice of effective scares, Freak Show landed far too often on the wrong side.  The season felt like a very bad soap much of the time, and mainstays like Lange and Paulson were handicapped by the extremity of their roles, while other promising characters like those played by Bates and Michael Chiklis didn’t live long enough to become truly effective.  There were just too many murderers around (not only Dandy and Elsa, but Denis O’Hare’s ruthless freak collector, John Carroll Lynch’s loony clown and Neil Patrick Harris’s deranged ventriloquist) for any of them to take dramatic charge.

American Horror Story is a major success for FX, and it will no doubt return next year (especially now that the network’s Sons of Anarchy is done).  Some change seems to be coming, though, since Lange may be gone and Sarah Paulson is moving on to Murphy’s new American Crime Story (playing Marcia Clark in the O.J. Simpson saga), and that may be for the best.  Like all horror franchises, from Halloween to Nightmare on Elm Street, this one needs some new blood.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."