In this installment of the podcast, Paskin and Lowder talk about the ridiculously anachronistic gay bar in Episode 5, Paskin’s tingling TV spidey sense, and why Season 4 seems to be the most confusing American Horror Story season yet.
This podcast contains major spoilers so listen after you watch each episode.
Listen to the other episodes here.
The transcript is below:
Willa Paskin: Hi and welcome to the Slate Plus podcast about American Horror Story: Freak Show. I’m Willa Paskin, Slate’s TV critic, and I’m joined by Bryan Lowder. Hi!
J. Bryan Lowder: Hello.
Paskin: Today we’re going to talk about—is it the fifth or sixth episode?
Lowder: I believe we’re on five.
Paskin: Five. “Pink Cupcakes,” which I think raises the question whether or not this season has been any good so far. I’m just going to say no. Obviously there’s still a lot to go and things can change so quickly, but there’s just something missing, there’s even maybe a darkness missing or some sort of actual threat or… it feels very piecemeal or very p.c. and when Jimmy is crying about Moot, it’s like—
Paskin: Meep, sorry. It’s almost like funny, every time he’s like “Meep” again, are we supposed to be laughing at you being like “Meep?” It’s just really weird.
Lowder: I had the same thought last night. We didn’t know enough about that character to care as much as I think the show wants us to care, or at least to empathize with Jimmy’s emotions. Because it doesn’t follow at all.
Paskin: It follows, it’s just like Jimmy is a decent guy who has guilt and people should have guilt more than one episode of a TV show but it’s something about the way it’s playing, it just seems so maudlin and—
Lowder: It’s very tortured and strange.
Paskin: He’s so sad about Meep that he’s going to try to finger the hermaphrodite. It’s just very weird. I know that’s not the right word.
Lowder: Well, in the show it is. Well, it’s true, it’s not the right word. There is a central tension or problem missing. I don’t know, but it feels like there’s a lot of things going on and nothing to really hold them together.
Paskin: Right, Dot and Bette were almost not even the main focus, but I keep wondering why they’re not. They seem to me so—
Lowder: They’re the richest characters.
Paskin: They keep just about being the center and then not and we have to watch Elsa sing “Life on Mars” again. I know that they booed her, but we still had to sit through her literally singing “Life on Mars” again. What did you make of the whole Dot and Bette seeming like their heads had been chopped off and poisoned and then a reverse back to not?
Lowder: Can I just ask you what was your interpretation of what the narrative frame for that whole thing was? That the freak hunters… Stanley’s imagining what he was going to tell the museum curator, in what space did that happen? Do you know what I’m saying?
Paskin: When it opened, I almost believed it, so I think that was like this is going to happen—it was a scene from the future. But there’s no date on it, which is rare for American Horror Story. They date things when it’s real. Then we come to this scene where we see Dot and Bette’s heads and then I assumed we had this, what he had hoped would happen when he fed them the cupcakes. And then of course, that’s not what happened, or what happened at that time. But I’m not sure that means that it’s not going to happen at all, him seeing their heads in that tank isn’t a real moment that we will see somehow and it just didn’t happen that way, or if it’s truly not real at all.
Lowder: It’s plausible to me that the ending of the show could be all of them in tanks. That’s totally plausible. I was just slightly confused about are we already killing them—clearly in this episode they’re not dead, but is that going to start happening soon?
Paskin: I think it was not clear on purpose.
Lowder: Artfully so or poorly done?
Paskin: I will say, also, it was one of those things that as it was happening I was like, “I would be really surprised if they got killed off in this episode.” You’re not in the story, you’re a little bit like “Something is tingling my TV spidey senses like this is bullshit.”
Paskin: Television, television, ruiner of art and civilization.
Lowder: Yeah, it’s funny.
Paskin: It went on a little long.
Lowder: It did, but I believed that Elsa would be averse to that.
Paskin: Then, of course, when she’s not good enough to cut it on the stage TV.
Lowder: God, that scene. That was genuinely tough for me. Even though the rest of this episode was kind of ridiculous, that scene where she is failing miserably onstage was pretty tough. We were really witnessing her pain, and in some ways it’s worse than even a lot of the other characters who you would think would have a harder road of it. I don’t know, it’s just something.
Paskin: She took it kind of well.
Lowder: I think she’s the type of person that when one things closes, she quickly veers to another way. There is a darkness in that, for me. Every episode we have to see her more and more objectified, it gets tough.
Paskin: Yeah, except then she brings the twins to Dandy. And that was the worst.
Lowder: That was tough.
Paskin: For someone who’s so knowing kind of, she’s malleable, basically,
Lowder: And naive, basically.
Paskin: Yeah, she’s like, “He’s going to give you a TV show? Well, then I have to kill you, because we’re definitely the only two people who have ever gotten TV shows in the whole world from this fictional person who’s not giving TV shows at all.”
Lowder: Of course, and I love when Dot and Bette were like, “Oh, you’ll be a guest on our show.” And she’s like “Hell no.”
Paskin: I did actually like the scene where they come across Dora’s body and the mother knows right away. He’s trying to lie and she’s like, “What did you do?” I thought that sort of had to happen, but it’s like she gets it. She’s insane, but she gets it.
Lowder: Well we have this nice back story apparently the father was also crazy in some way, his father.
Paskin: And I think also the intimation was killed hobo, now kills people.
Lowder: And she’s like, “You can’t do that anymore, it’s 1953, you can’t just murder people.”
Paskin: You can’t just take people off the street, they’re looking at you now.
Lowder: And this is a disease of the affluent. I thought that was amazing.
Paskin: Did you think that was amazing? I felt like there was a scene they mention that again. This is going to be like a “rich people are bored.”
Lowder: I loved very much the scene where they were planting those tulips on top of her and Dandy was doing this sort of classic kid maneuver, it was like, “It will be OK, Mom! These flowers will be beautiful!” Something good will come of this.
Paskin: What have you made of the Dandy/Matt Bomer scene?
Lowder: OK. So one, I need to do some research on this, but I am almost certain that that gay bar scenario was entirely extremely anachronistic. This is the early ‘50s in somewhat rural Florida, not like Miami.
Paskin: There were more people in that bar than were in that town.
Lowder: Oh, for sure. It had Go Go Boys, it was like this whole—I mean, I don’t think that was even going on in New York in the ‘50s, much less in Jupiter. This show is not at all interested in realism, but that was a strangely specific kind of scene to create, because I think there are ways you could have done that. I’m also not sure how I feel about making everyone—or so many of the characters—actually gay. It’s like an allegory for marginalized people; we’ve talked about this a lot. There’s some kind of unsettling dissonance when you just have people that are the thing that you’re talking about. It’s strange to have both. I mean, Dell is gay and we’re like where did that come from?
Paskin: I think the issue with the Dell thing is they didn’t play it this way at all. If you think back, there are all these things they could have played that way. The guy he killed in Chicago was gay, his two romantic partners that we know, one has a beard, and one has a penis. It was in the writing, but it wasn’t in the execution until this week.
Lowder: I had a hard time getting with that whole scenario. I thought Matt Bomer was fine, he plays a prostitute, a very good looking guy that Dandy kills. And I thought the tension between them was interesting because I think a lot of the time that kind of psycho character gets coded as sexually deviant, at least possibly gay, and I think they played on that troupe nicely, because I don’t think he actually is. He was obsessed with his body; there is a great scene—
Paskin: The US Steel of Murder.
Lowder: So I thought that was fine, but again, I just don’t believe that there would be this gay bar for him to go to to find the people that he could murder.
Paskin: And I also didn’t buy the Dell thing. And I do know exactly what you mean about how there’s something sort of strange about having the allegorical thing and the actual thing itself so together in the same space. I wonder what they’re going to do with it, because it’s like do you actually… on the other hand, they’ve had all these seasons of the show, they’ve never had gay characters. I mean, Lana was a lesbian in season 2, but they haven’t had this many.
Lowder: No, what is it Stanley, Dell…
Paskin: It’s Stanley and Dell, but Dandy’s obviously sort of like, he seems sort of ambi- or asexual in some kind of way, willing to manipulate it however he wants to.
Lowder: It’s very present in a way that surprises me, I guess. But that storyline, the Dell storyline came back around for me when he visits the doctor after Desiree is told that she is actually biologically a woman and she just needs a little bit of cosmetic surgery essentially to realize that. I bought Dell’s anger at that intrusion, but his feelings about Matt Bomer’s character I didn’t relate to very much.
Paskin: At all. It’s almost like the way he felt about the Matt Bomer character, like this is your first experience, but that isn’t really what the show suggested.
Lowder: It wasn’t clear what the show wants us to think about his—how out is he? To himself or…
Paskin: Right, because Desiree said to him, she suggested she knew.
Lowder: Well, she said like a sham marriage.
Paskin: And then she was like, “I would be too much woman for you anyway.”
Lowder: So maybe that’s it. Yeah, I agree with you, there were objects in the writing that could be interpreted that way, but like the performance did not lead me to expect this at all, and I don’t think that was a good thing actually.
Paskin: Why do you think the Emma Roberts character, whose name was Maggie I guess, why didn’t she let Jimmy kiss her?
Lowder: Well, she was…
Paskin: She was trying to save his life.
Lowder: She was trying to warn him to get away, I think she does like him to some degree, I don’t know if she has romantic or sexual interest in him, but I don’t know, I don’t think she wanted to be that close.
Paskin: She’s allowed to not want him to kiss her. But I just wonder because where it’s going, I don’t think…
Lowder: In some ways that complicates that storyline a bit, because we’ve been led to believe that they were going to be our central romance. It would be more interesting to me if they didn’t end up that way.
Paskin: Well, they do have Dot and Bette’s obsession with Jimmy, or Dot’s anyway, that they played strongly in the first few episodes and have now sort of…
Lowder: You asked at the beginning if this season was any good, I think the problem with it is that we’re not getting enough time with any one person to develop those kinds—we get little bits of information, I feel like we’re just going to get back story and sort of getting people’s motivations, but the interactions between people have not been allowed to unfold.
Paskin: It’s weird because in seasons past, they’ve always had this many characters. There’s just something not quite meaty enough yet. They’re just not, they don’t know—
Lowder: I don’t know what this season’s about. I was talking to someone about this earlier this week, I was like I don’t really know, I don’t understand what the issues being explored are besides what this series has always been about, which is marginalized people, but other than that, it’s just not clear to me what is the key focus of this particular season. I just don’t know yet.
Paskin: I don’t think it’s been made clear.
Lowder: Sometimes I’m down for just an atmospheric thing, but this, this is so far unmoored from anything coherent that it’s tough to stick with it.
Paskin: Yeah, it just feels like we hop in and out of these characters. I wonder if Elsa is supposed to be that person, but they’ve always had an actual kind of heroic person at the center. Very flawed, but the Connie Britton character or the Sarah Paulson character or the Taissa Farmiga, this person who’s supposed to die in the horror story or your protagonist. They don’t really have that.
Lowder: There’s no one to root for, no one to care for.
Paskin: I guess you’re supposed to root for Jimmy, except then everything about him is so preposterously cheesy.
Lowder: But his solution is simple, like Emma Roberts said, “Leave.” You’re fine, you can probably figure it out, there’s nothing that major to overcome.
Paskin: And that actually would be an interesting thing for them to play with, the way that they all limit themselves, that they’re freaks when they’re actually not and it’s sort of a self-signifier.
Lowder: Well, that’s what’s so interesting about Desiree’s discovery, I think. We saw her very quickly switch from conceiving herself wholly as someone undeserving of love and like a freak or whatever, and then she gets this one word from a doctor and suddenly her whole outlook has changed. It’s an interesting tweak on that theme, but you’re right, other people could probably make similar choices.
Paskin: There was also Desiree and Dell’s fight. We find out that his father had lobster hands too, so he has “freak blood” in him, but I don’t understand why she was so mad at him for having a kid 20 years ago. She was so furious at him.
Lowder: I took that to be a little bit about in that relationship, she was meant to be the freakier one of her particular situation, and he is just this sort of strong guy, but in fact he is the one that has this genetic freakness, whatever that means. And she doesn’t, based on this new revelation. So I think she was just frustrated that she lived with that particular power dynamic for so long.
Paskin: I think that’s right.
Lowder: Or maybe I’m giving it too much credit.
Paskin: No I think that’s the right reading of it. It’s weird about the show because on the one hand it so much should be about how we’re all freaks, and no one’s a freak and then it’s really dedicated to this very strict understanding of freakishness and it hasn’t actually complicated that in a way that seems coherent yet.
Lowder: The show’s position toward that question is not at all clear yet, yes. Exactly. And I would hope that they would clarify that a bit as we go.
Paskin: So maybe on next week’s episode, where our opinions about the show will turn around completely.
Lowder: We’ll see.
Paskin: Oh, actually I won’t be here next week. I’ll be gone, but someone else will be here.
Lowder: Who will be our guest, we’ll have to find someone.
Paskin: We’ll find someone great. OK, see you then!
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