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In this first installment of the podcast, Paskin and Lowder dish on atrociously bad accents, Ryan Murphy’s devotion to fame, and the grossest scene of the first episode.
This podcast contains major spoilers so listen after you watch each episode.
Here's the edited transcript of the podcast:
Willa Paskin: Hi and welcome to this Slate Plus exclusive about American Horror Story: Freak Show. Every week we’re going to be dissecting all the good and the gross of the latest episode of Ryan Murphy’s reliably bonkers, reliably disturbing television show, which is entering it’s fourth season. I’m Willa Paskin, I’m Slate’s TV critic, and I’m joined by our assistant editor, Bryan Lowder. Hi, Bryan.
J. Bryan Lowder: Hello Willa.
Paskin: I think going forward we’re going to talk theme more, but since it’s just the first episode and there is so much plot and introduction, I thought maybe we would just talk about the characters and who we liked and who we hated and what we thought worked and what we thought didn’t. We can talk about Jessica Lange’s role in the Ryan Murphy cosmology, we can start talking about Elsa and what you thought of her.
Lowder: What’s not to like about a Marlene Dietrich character? She’s amazing. The accent is a little insane.
Paskin: The accent is bad.
Lowder: It’s really bad. I actually had to pause and listen over and over again a couple of times because it was just so weird and thick.
Paskin: And also when she first showed up, until she said something to Dot and Betet in German, I was like, “What are you even doing? What is this?”
Lowder: That accent was bad, and Kathy Bates also, which we’ll get into in a little bit, her Canadian accent …
Paskin: I found her Canadian accent really convincing, for reasons we can get into.
Lowder: Elsa’s accent was rough. But as a very recognizable archetype character, this, I shouldn’t even say fallen star, but not-ever-quite-successful star but is still reaching for it, it’s classic Murphy, I think. It’s a very gay diva type character and she’s dressed wonderfully and she’s mincing around in just the right way. I enjoyed it so far, just on a surface level at least.
Paskin: I think there’s a couple interesting things about Jessica Lange. I think Sarah Paulson has stolen this show over its four seasons. Sarah Paulson—if you have not watched previous seasons—plays Dot and Bette, the Siamese twins. But she has a very small part in the first season and then became the heroine of the second season, then was the heroine of last season as well. Obviously Jessica Lange is Jessica Lange, but Sarah Paulson has sort of proven herself to be better at this show. So there’s always this sort of tension. I liked that Sarah Paulson actually got the opening and Elsa got the end, but I did also think that one of the things about Elsa that’s so funny—and seems so perfectly Ryan Murphy—is at the end of the episode, she has just performed David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” with terrible eye makeup and looked out into the crowd and realized there’s nobody there.
She’s also very cabaret and realizes that there’s no one there and goes to smoke an opium bowl and just feels distraught and sad about herself. And Kathy Bates, who plays the bearded lady, comes in and tries to comfort her and Elsa goes on this whole thing about how she really wants to be famous and, of course, because this is Ryan Murphy’s universe, the bearded lady is like, “That’s totally fine. You will be famous. You’re so special. It’s in you.” Ryan Murphy is just so, he just believes in fame. It’s almost devotional, like he believes in being seen and putting yourself out there and if you have a talent, sharing it. That’s just like a higher good. So anyone who has those things should do them. Sometimes you’re watching a show about a maybe not talented Marlene Dietrich wannabe and it’s like, “No, it’s cool. Don’t worry, don’t be conflicted that she just wants to be famous.”
Lowder: Well, and that’s coming right on the heels of Kathy Bates character earlier said like, “She’s taking care of us, and she only cares about us” and then basically she admits in that scene that “No, it’s all about me. I’m bringing in even the Sarah Paulson character, which is the two-headed woman, as a way to get people to pay attention to me and hear me sing.” I took that David Bowie scene to be in her head more than real. Did you interpret it that way?
Paskin: I actually thought she was doing it, just because—
Lowder: You thought that whole thing happened?
Paskin: Only because Frances Conroy and her son, whose names I don’t remember or actually know, were in the audience and did something after and there was no show. I just didn’t understand how they could be there if it wasn’t happening. There was also a character who looked exactly like Jessica Lange watching, like Jessica Lange, Norma Desmond, who we hadn’t seen before. Maybe it will become clear to us. Obviously, on one hand, she’s like the matriarch of this freak show, I think. She’s supposed to be our most identifiable characters. And then the other she is running around being merciless and she entraps this young woman into an opium den of pornography and blackmail, and sort of blackmails Dot and Bette into helping her.
Lowder: Well the opium and pornography, we’re in American Horror Story–land. That is an interesting thing because she makes the argument when Penny wants to leave a bit after we’re introduced to her and it’s clear that she’s been there for a while and having this experience, she tells her that, “No, you know, you liked this. You got off on this.” And I think—we don’t know what happened, if she was drugged or not, but—this show is arguing a little bit with this whole freak show thing that as much as we act like we’re abhorred, we’re also attracted and so I thought that was an interesting way in the story of bringing out that dynamic very clearly. It also was blackmail, you’re right, the tape of this.
Paskin: Let’s talk about the Siamese twins, Dot and Bette.
Lowder: I’ve been reading a bit about the cinematography stuff that had happened to make that work, and I thought it was very impressive. It was totally believable, I didn’t notice any weirdness between the two, apparently they filmed one, filmed the other, then filmed a third shot or something like that, and it was very complicated. But it was amazing and I loved that they can hear each other’s thoughts, that they have very different personalities, one is very star struck and one is very cynical, but I think wants love in a different way, she seems to be attracted to Jimmy Darling. I think you’re right that Sarah Paulson, in this character especially, may very well steal the show. I think that’s interesting given that this is Lange’s last season. In some ways it makes sense to fade her out a bit in her character and maybe bring Sarah Paulson—
Paskin: And also, there is Angela Bassett to join us.
Lowder: That is true.
Paskin: And Michael Chiklis, and Emma Roberts. I mean, there’s so many other characters we obviously have no idea at all the insanity that’s ahead of us. I also thought it was cool how they have different perspectives, the split-screen thing. It’s such a literalization of so many of the ideas in this show, and also the freak show thing that you just mentioned, which is one person or one body that has these completely competing parts. One part that is so turned off and repulsed by sex and so uptight that she pretends that when her body is masturbating that she leaves her body, and the other one who’s clearly turned on by all those things and wants to be flattered and wants to be famous.
Lowder: I think it’s fairly clear that one of the themes of the season will be that double consciousness. We’re in the ’50s, and it’s very clear that the show, more than previous seasons, is interested in sex and sexuality—this is a lot of sex already, there was Jimmy Darling’s character pleasuring all the ’50s housewives at a Tupperware party, which was hilarious and showed that there is desire under that very clean surface. I think you’re right, in Sarah Paulson’s character we also have a similar duality.
Paskin: So just about Jimmy and his Wild Bunch outfit and which his rabbit hands, basically …
Lowder: I mean, I’m glad Evan Peters has more of a role. Last season he was Frankenstein, essentially silent more or less most of the time, so it’s good to have him back actually speaking. And it’s a great character, I think he is probably the most normal seeming of the freaks, until he takes off his gloves, anyway. And I feel like there’s going to be a lot of tension with him wanting to maybe try to live a normal life.
Paskin: That scene where Jessican Lange yelled at him at the diner, “Do you think that woman’s going to be into you when she knows what’s wrong with you?” was weird given that he then proceeded to literally pleasure 20 women in a row. I think maybe she wouldn’t mind at all. Also, his character, he ends up murdering the police office who is coming to investigate Dot and Bette, and doing the “They think we’re freaks, we’ll show them that we’re freaks” speech at the end, and that was … This is the fourth season of the show that changes very much, but I think the thing that’s nice about it actually, in the analogous series and especially the repeated cast, is some of these themes and some of these quirks and some of these repetitions become extremely clear. I think one of them is actually Ryan Murphy, since the second season, is making these shows about these people, these underdogs he feels extremely close to. Last season was essentially an It Gets Better allegory and this is starting from that same place, which is like, here are these marginalized people who everyone is giving, like “The monsters are really outside” and “My monsters are beautiful” and they just want to entertain and make people laugh and just very this sort of idea.
Lowder: Across the seasons and especially this one, there’s a very implicit argument that mainstream needs the margins to make sense. It’s like you need the circus on the outside of town, you need the asylum, you need—I don’t know if you need witches, but those two work—and there’s this sense that as much as mainstream society is going to hate these people—and substitute gays, substitute whatever minority group you want into that allegory—as much as mainstream society pretends to hate them, there’s also a need, a definitional need to define yourself against it. Hypocrisy is punished, and we saw that with the detective and I imagine there’s going to be more of that, and maybe the clown is on some sort of righteous rampage, I’m not sure—
Paskin: Did you notice that when they walked into the freak show, Dot and Bette, there is a huge clown head that you walk toward that looks sort of like him.
Lowder: You’re right, it does. It was that crazy entrance.
Paskin: You mentioned Asylum, I thought Coven was really fun, it was very highly rated and people thought it was fun, I thought it was maybe too fun at some point when it wanted to be this slavery narrative and kind of couldn’t commit to it and was actually way more interested in a lot of other ideas, but not slavery particularly. But this season feels grimmer in the way that Asylum felt grimmer, but I think Asylum is by far the best season of this show. On the one hand, while I’m not a huge fan of horror and there were things about this where I was like “Oh, this one’s going to be a little harder to watch,” I did think that tonally, it seemed like there are meatier possibilities here.
Lowder: What Asylum was really great about was taking a lot of these darker questions and juggling them. None of these shows, and I think Ryan Murphy in general, none of his shows I think actually follow though. It’s often that an idea is taken up and then dropped, like you mentioned with the slavery question. But I think Asylum was better at juggling a few things and somewhat resolving them, and it does seem like already in this first episode that there’s a little bit more of something to grab onto. The ’50s are a little bit closer as an era and I think the themes of that era are very accessible to people, so to deal with those, repression and sweeping stuff under the rug, will be much more successful thematically.
Paskin: Let’s talk about what we thought was the grossest—the most horrifying if we’re going to be on-title—thing that happened in this episode.
Lowder: The grossest thing that happened, I’m afraid we’re both going to talk about the clown …
Paskin: Let’s talk about the clown.
Lowder: I think it’s terrifying. I don’t have the clown-phobia, whatever that word is, but in this case, he’s horrific. The mask is insane.
Paskin: Is it even a mask, I’m not sure that it is. He has scars on the top of his head, I’m not sure that it is.
Lowder: But at some point one of the captors is like “Where’s the rest of your mask?”
Paskin: But it’s before she understands that he is a crazy murder.
Lowder: Well, let me ask you this: Do you think he’s actually part of the show, or is he sort of using it as an excuse?
Paskin: I think it might actually just be coincidence. I assume that maybe he’ll have some past with the show, or maybe someone is the show will turn out to be that clown, but it’s also possible that there is no connection.
Lowder: We haven’t yet seen him interact with any of the people.
Paskin: And also, nobody that we’ve seen in the circus could be him. In past seasons, every season there has been this full boogieman character that is just this malicious serial killer. In Asylum it played a bigger part, but sometimes it plays a much smaller part, like I think in the first season it was the pig man …
Lowder: And then the ax-man in the last season.
Paskin: Exactly, that isn’t connected, but it just this true horror figure. So I thought that’s maybe what he was.
Lowder: Yeah, that seems right. The murderer of the detective had a very clear reasoning behind it, but this character is the one who’s just slaying people.
Paskin: The murderer of the mother, also. I think it’s just funny because it’s obviously supposed to be a horror show, but the truth is 85 percent of it at least is not. You could just watch it, a lot of people talk—creepy, horrible things are happening, people are being blackmailed, people are having to do things they don’t want to do or they’re being tortured, I mean lots of bad things can happen or they’re dying, but it’s not gruesome.
Lowder: Well it’s so stylized, it’s so particularly stylized, it’s just such a veneer.
Paskin: But then there’s always just one promise to people who really love horror shows that it’s going to be gross, you’re going to see this clown stabbing this guy in the chest like 10 times.
Lowder: A million times, oh my god.
Paskin: And I did think also the scene with the woman and the boy, that he’s kidnapped in the truck, was truly pretty frightening.
Lowder: Yeah, I thought it was genius to have him try to make a balloon animal and then he messed it up, that was the thing that set him off. I thought perhaps we were going to find out he just wants to entertain people, but he can’t, he just kills them.
Paskin: He’s a bad clown.
Lowder: He can’t, he just kills them all, the birthday party massacre.
Paskin: The balloons also figure into the opening credits, which I will say are the first opening credits that I’ve been able to watch. They’re cool and weird and there’s lots of claymation and also a lot of sex stuff and a lot of skeletons having sex and legs for penises and things. But I find, historically, the credits so creepy that I just cannot do it, even the music I have to skip. But this one I thought was good.
Lowder: This one, I thought was particularly beautiful also. They’re really creepy, but so well done, whatever firm is putting that on. I love what they also did to the theme music and they slowed it down even more than it already was and added the toy piano or something, it was great. It made me very excited.
Paskin: So on that note, we’ll be back next week talking about Episode Two.
Lowder: I cannot wait.
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