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In this installment of the podcast, Paskin and Lowder discuss the sexual politics of the second episode, what makes Elsa a real “freak,” and why Dandy is the most terrifying character so far this season.
This podcast contains major spoilers so listen after you watch each episode.
Here's the transcript of the podcast:
Willa Paskin: Hi, and welcome to a Slate Plus exclusive about American Horror Story: Freak Show. Today, we’ll be dissecting the second episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show, “Massacres and Matinees.” I’m Willa Paskin, Slate’s TV critic, and I’m joined by Bryan Lowder, our assistant editor. Hi, Bryan!
J. Bryan Lowder: Hello Willa!
Paskin: So there’s a lot. I think there’s going to be a lot every week. We just chatted a little beforehand, and I think we wanted to start by talking about Elsa and Dot and Bette and the craziness that’s going on with them.
Lowder: Yeah, that’s a great place.
Paskin: So, you had thoughts.
Lowder: Over the course of this episode, I felt like we saw Elsa become more and more to the point where by the end she’s sort of whispering in—I’m going to get them confused—Bette’s ear, about Dot’s success as a singer and trying to turn her against her.
Paskin: And giving her a murder weapon?
Lowder: And giving her a murder weapon. It was a letter opener maybe or a knife of some sort. I started this season wondering if Elsa was going to be a fairly straight-laced character, actually, a businesswoman trying to make this show work, stressors and what not, but not actually be too disturbed in her own way, but it seems like the jealousy thing is really tearing her apart.
Paskin: And also there was a bunch of character inconsistency, I thought. They introduce this character, the Strongman played by Michael Chiklis and he wants to have this matinee, and she’s like, “Absolutely not!” and then a scene later, she’s like, “No, no, it’s fine.” I mean, it’s fine that she didn’t want to pick a fight with him at that moment, but it dramatically didn’t quite stand. It was about Jimmy and not about her and what she was doing didn’t make any sense.
Lowder: Well, another example of that, too, was the detective’s badge. I totally expected her to freak out when Jimmy revealed that they had murdered the detective. She seemed to have been very concerned about keeping a low profile and maintaining a comfortable relationship to the town, but then he reveals this and she’s kind of like, “Oh, OK.” Not quite proud, but—
Paskin: Yeah, I think it was hinted that she has this daddy-strongman-savior thing, that’s why she let the strongman in, and that’s when Jimmy was like, “I’m taking care of you, I killed this cop,” and she’s like, “Oh, great, I underestimated you.” In keeping with these shows, it wouldn’t be shocking if she gets in like some kind of perverse love interest in not so long.
Lowder: Not at all.
Paskin: Also, while we’re talking about Elsa and Dot and Bette, what did you think of the criminal?
Lowder: I liked it a little more than last week’s, actually. I thought it worked. If we’re going to do it every episode—
Paskin: Are we going to do it every episode?
Lowder: I think we might. And I think I’m fine with it.
Paskin: It’s sort of funny because it does have that feel of it is shoehorned in a little bit, it is a freak show, not like the cabaret. And then it has that stink of Glee.
Lowder: I like that they had Dot sing, no, I’m getting them confused again.
Paskin: Dot sang.
Lowder: Dot sang, so Bette sang the backup vocals with a little forlorn look on her face. I liked that.
Paskin: And I did actually think the scene where Dot realizes she can sing “Dream a Little Dream of Me” was a great eerie, chilling but kind of awesome.
Lowder: Again, exploring the issues of having two people in one body, it’s so amazing.
Paskin: And Sarah Paulson in that moment, like any time she gets to kill the ghost of her character in Studio 60, which is the only reason I know she can sing, Harriet Hayes, is a good moment.
Lowder: For sure.
Paskin: When we started talking, I brought up Jimmy. He actually had a lot to do this episode, but I thought the most sort of risible scene, it may be these whole two episodes we’ve seen so far is this sit-in that he stages. Which is this like, sometimes this show is so not subtle, and I know that’s not what it’s trying to do, but it’s so beyond that—like when they’re burying the guy he’s like “I want them to know who we are, they knew us better than we knew ourselves”
Lowder: “They’d like us,” yeah. That was so, oh gosh.
Paskin: And then at the end of the last episode, where he was like, “If they think we’re horrible, we’ll be horrible!”
Lowder: Well it had this funny thing about when they get into the sit in, as a respectability politics that was like “Well everyone have really good manners, and as long as we have good table manners, then they have to accept us” and clearly that wasn’t going to happen.
Paskin: Well, they did have terrible table manners.
Lowder: They did, they did.
Paskin: I mean, this is what’s interesting about the show, that even when it’s sometimes being seeming politically correct, even underneath it’s something that’s so totally weird and doesn’t actually scan that way at all. Where it’s like to make this distinct parallel between these fictitious characters and black people as sort of a similar moment is just so preposterous in so many ways. But then also you watch it and some part of your brain thinks, “Oh, I’m just supposed to think this is great!”
Lowder: The histories of discrimination are not at all the same and no, it doesn’t make much sense.
Paskin: He just likes to pluck his things.
Lowder: Yeah, it’s like: here it is.
Paskin: And then, speaking of ways that he layers these seemingly hot-button meaningful subjects in with other ones, Desiree, who’s the Angela Bassett character, basically her past as the hermaphrodite who turns gay men temporarily straight.
Lowder: Yeah, that was such an interesting aside. There was this moment, it was almost so quick you could miss it. There were two gay guys backstage somewhere. Our friend is inside, trying to change his stripes or something,
Paskin: Yeah, and successfully seeming changing his stripes, in that moment
Lowder: Seemingly, yeah, maybe. And then the strongman ends that pretty quickly. But I think it was fascinating, and that we had the line after that that basically “Gay guys are lower than the freaks”
Paskin: Yeah, “The poufs are even lower than us.”
Lowder: Yeah, that was a strange word for her to use, I think that’s very British. But anyway, that was an interesting kind of hierarchy established, at least in this moment.
Paskin: And also, I think when she’s like “I have three titties and functioning lady parts and a ding-a-ling,” and Elsa says to Dell, “How does that make you feel?” And he’s like “The luckiest man in the world!” That was a great funny summing up of the sexual politics so far.
Lowder: It’s interesting, there was a New Yorker Festival panel this weekend that I went to on LGBT TV and there was some discussion, they had Brad Falchuk was there,
Paskin: Brad Falchuk is Ryan Murphy’s producing partner.
Lowder: Exactly, talking about American Horror Story. And there was some discussion on whether intersex characters are the next frontier in representation—we’ve had gays, lesbians, bi people to some degree, and now an explosion of trans representation, but not so much of this intersex group of people. And this character is that, hermaphrodite is an outmoded word that we don’t use anymore, but she’s very much giving a voice to that group of people. It will be interesting to see how that plays out over time.
Paskin: This also is an aside, but I am always curious, firstly we’ll get to this for a second, but Patty LaBelle is in this episode, and it’s this throw-away part, but Patty LaBelle, Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates are all in this show, in addition to Jessica Lange, and they all have these kind of, not thankless, but relatively-speaking marginal parts, and I always just wonder how he does this magic where—
Lowder: Convincing them to do it.
Paskin: Yeah, and Jessica Lange is definitely going to have a much bigger part than you, and we’re going to showcase this grand am acting, but you’re going to just have less to do. And not that obviously Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett had some fun things to do last season, and a lot of it, but it is just always so much less.
Lowder: I’d love to be in the room for those negotiations.
Paskin: Maybe they’re just Zen and they don’t care.
Lowder: Or maybe it’s just so much fun, I don’t know. That’s definitely true that you’ve got some amazing people. I mean, the Patty LaBelle role is like you almost could miss it because it was so fast. I’m sure I imagine they’ll be more, but at least in this episode, it was very quick, and very, “Yes, mam!” It was very strange.
Paskin: Do we have anything else to say about the strongman and
Lowder: Well we found out that Jimmy Darling is apparently his son, which is interesting—with the Bearded Lady.
Paskin: It does start to feel like it’s a loose-end-tying too quickly almost.
Lowder: Well, of course it sets up nicely the tension that’s going to be between them at some point, Jimmy’s going to find out that’s his dad.
Paskin: And there is a lot to talk about with the whole set up. So Jimmy and Elsa agree that the strongman has to go, and they try to frame him with the cop’s badge. But he is not an idiot, and so moved the cop’s badge that had been hidden in his stuff to the geeks.
Lowder: What’s interesting about his character is both he and Elsa are the two people who aren’t actually freak in the sense of the other people. He’s strong, but there’s nothing else—
Paskin: Elsa, we have to talk about Elsa’s lack of legs, which is the reveal in the first minute. And it’s unclear to me whether anyone knows at all. She’s running around in high heels, her legs are crossed, the show’s not making a thing of it except for that one moment. But I just didn’t know, like when she says “Freaks like us” to Desiree, I couldn’t tell if she was being like “How are you a freak?” which is how Desiree took it, or how am I a freak?
Lowder: Didn’t she also say later “You people” or “Your people traditionally have been the ones that”
Lowder: It’s unclear how she relates to the community at the moment, but it does seem funny that the two people that are the least marked in this way are the ones who are trying to control everyone else.
Paskin: Yeah, that actually makes sense, it’s a nice detail. And as for the geek being basically murdered, I thought Jimmy’s scream at the end was maybe a little over the top, but I thought that scene was really actually horrible and amazing and when he was in jail—
Lowder: Oh, I thought it was very sad, especially since we didn’t know that much about that character at all, he was just sort of there and then you knew that he ate birds heads or whatever, but I was upset about it at the end, it moved me a little bit.
Paskin: I did, it moved me as well. So on to the continuing most terrifying and gross and scary storyline on the show, which has to do with the clown. We learn some things about, I think.
Lowder: We have this really weird moment where Frances Conroy’s character, Gloria Mott picks him up on the street and is like, “Won’t you just come to my house and entertain my weird infantile son?” and you get a sense there of a little more of his personality, he seemed kind of amused at this guy, I thought. It’s hard to tell because there’s not much facial expression. But the eyes sort of giving me a little bit of “What is going on?”
Paskin: Also, he didn’t kill him, so and also he agreed to go to this house and didn’t kill her. He was curious.
Lowder: Yeah, curious about these people that might be a little weirder even than him. And then at the end of this, we of course have Dandy and the clown teaming up possibly, which is horrifying.
Paskin: I also thought that this scene, which is at the very beginning of the episode where he murders these people at a toy store, and he’s decapitated this guy and this little toy is running through the blood was horrifying and amazing, and I liked that he then took that little toy to his, the people that he’s been holding prisoner. You said, I don’t know if you said it right now or before, but there is this possibility that maybe what he wants is a laugh.
Lowder: We also saw what’s under the mask this time, which looked like maggots and I don’t even know exactly what we saw, but something happened to this.
Paskin: Like Bane, he has a Bane-ish mouth.
Lowder: It seems like something terrible happened to him, and I can’t help but wonder is his whole arc will be that we find out that he was a great clown once, something happened and he can’t make people laugh anymore and it kind of twisted him and now he wants to make this kid and this woman that he’s holding hostage laugh and is trying in horrific ways to do that. But I don’t know yet, we’ll see.
Paskin: Also, his connection to Dandy, usually the serial killers in this show have almost been a little bit outside of the narrative.
Lowder: Well, they come in and out, right.
Paskin: And this seems like it’s tying him in some way, it makes it seem more possible that his past is connected to the past of the people that we already know.
Lowder: It seems plausible, yeah. But he could also just be a local birthday performer.
Paskin: So about Dandy. Dandy is like the more quintessential nightmare Ryan Murphy character, which is like this totally hilarious non-on-purpose, foppish glamour boy who has no soul at all.
Lowder: American Psycho-like.
Paskin: But so childish. There is also always this mommy issue. Obviously even though Frances Conroy, as far as we can tell, her character has been nothing but overly dotting—clearly she has deformed him in some way. He’s drinking Cognac out of a baby bottle.
Lowder: Oh my gosh, that line: “You can’t live on sweets and Cognac, Dandy.”
Paskin: The whole thing, that whole story, it’s very funny. But then he’s just so horrifying.
Lowder: He’s sort of an echo of the Zachary Quinto character from season two.
Paskin: Except for without I think the horrible backstory.
Lowder: You’re right, that this is something we’ve seen before. In some ways maybe scarier than an outright monster like the clown.
Paskin: I think he’s supposed to be more terrifying ultimately because I think we think something horrible happened to the clown, at least to his face, and that’s not true of Dandy at all. I did think also that scene where he goes to the freak show and he’s like “I want to join you” and Jimmy says “Unless you have pony legs under there” And it’s like I know the whole Cole Porter cannon, this is like Ryan Murphy shooting fish in a barrel, he’s like all I want to do is make jokes for this guy.
Lowder: That was a great moment and I think sent him on a path to destruction possibly.
Paskin: Have you seen that actor in anything before?
Lowder: I don’t recognize him. I don’t know. Not off the top of my head.
Paskin: He’s going to be a total sexual pervert, that sort of thing.
Lowder: I mean, if he’s got a baby bottle of Cognac, then something stunted there.
Paskin: So on that note, we’ll be back next week to talk about episode three.
Lowder: Can’t wait!
Listen to the first episode here.
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