Each week, Slate’s television critic Willa Paskin will chat with assistant editor J. Bryan Lowder about the good, the bad, and the horrifying in American Horror Story: Freak Show. This week, Slate video assistant editor Jeffrey Bloomer joins the podcast while Paskin is away.
In this installment of the podcast, Lowder and Bloomer talk about the disappointingly improvisational spirit of Season 4, the role of Freak Show’s Casanova figure, and this episode’s most freaky scene.
This podcast contains major spoilers so listen after you watch each episode.
Listen to the other episodes here.
J. Bryan Lowder: Welcome to a Slate Plus podcast about American Horror Story. I’m Bryan Lowder, an assistant editor at Slate, and I’m joined today by a special guest podcaster—Willa Paskin is off this week, so we’re joined today by Jeff Bloomer, who is an assistant editor of Slate Video and American Horror Story fan. Welcome, Jeff.
Jeffrey Bloomer: Thank you, Bryan.
Lowder: I thought that since this is your first time on the podcast, we would just start by sort of getting a sense of your feelings for this season. Willa and I have, at least until last week’s episode, soured a little bit on it and decided it was kind of a mess and weren’t sure if it was going to be as successful as previous seasons. So I’m just wondering what you’ve thought so far, have you loved it, hated it?
Bloomer: You know, in the beginning I had very positive feelings. I thought that the show had found it’s groove again and there was a little more verve, but I think that with Ryan Murphy, there’s always a drop off in quality as things go on. It’s an inevitable thing and I really thought in the beginning with the anthology series and finding new energy and new uses for the characters each season that it just wouldn’t happen, but this season is just been impossibly listless. We’re halfway through now, more than halfway, and this entire episode felt like it was kind of scratching at the edges and not really going anywhere.
Lowder: Do you think that part of the problem is too many characters, what do you think is the thing that’s undermining this the most, if you could put your finger on one thing?
Bloomer: There’s just this improvisational spirit that I think it feels very much like they’re kind of making it up as they go along. There doesn’t, to me at least, feel like a larger structure. It seems like they chew up characters and spit them out as they go along. I mean, the clown is gone. I didn’t particularly like the clown, but now I miss him.
Lowder: At least Twisty gave us some amount of tension, like who is this person, what’s his backstory? That was cut off very early, I think surprisingly early. Even though I think Dandy’s meant to replace him, but in a way that I don’t find as compelling. It’s true that this season in general is lacking—and Willa and I talked a bit about this—a sort of an overarching problem or direction. Last season we had who is the next Supreme? What is the deal between the Coven and the voodoo group? There were these things that drove the season along in some way. Here, I’m still not sure what that central tension is, or problem or question. Maybe it’s like “Is Elsa betraying the Freak Show?”
Bloomer: She clearly is at this point.
Lowder: But do you think that’s enough?
Bloomer: You have Stanley and Maggie who have this overarching plan to take apart one of the freaks, but they’ve been very halting at this and don’t seem to be very effective. I don’t understand why Stanley can’t do this on his own.
Lowder: We still don’t know what does he have on her that’s keeping her around?
Bloomer: I was going to ask you about that. I have absolutely no idea what is the connection between the two of them. Why is she traveling around Florida with this sadistic, gay—what is he, a fake doctor?
Lowder: Yes, some sort of charlatan. It’s totally unclear. When I was watching it last night, I was thinking exactly about that—she wants to run away with Jimmy and she brought that up at the end of this episode, why doesn’t she? What is she afraid of with him? Maybe there will be some reveal, if there is some hidden reason that they’re together, they should have revealed that earlier because it’s just very unclear to me. If she’s got qualms about putting Ma Petite in a jar. Which was terrifying, by the way.
Bloomer: No, there were some genuinely horrifying images in this episode.
Lowder: And last episode, we had this problem of knowing what was real and what was imagining, and in this episode they had what was in this case sort of a fantasy of what might happen.
Bloomer: Right, we were prepared for it this time.
Lowder: Woo, that was so scary. I was like ah, please don’t do that. So we’re both a little unsure of this season, I think that’s fair to say. I will say that I liked this episode better than last week’s, and I think part of that was just because we finally got some sense of the interiority of some of the characters that I don’t think we had before. We had Elsa sort of make a neat speech toward the beginning about destroying anyone in your way if you’re trying to make it. Dandy has this speech and then the twins had this interesting diary thing going on where we got more of a sense of their perspective. So I wonder if you noticed that and had any thoughts about it?
Bloomer: Not as much as you did. I think this season has been a lot of times falling into this trap where the characters are constantly explaining their motivations for what they’re doing, and to me Elsa is just so transparent. By the end of this episode, she’s saying that she just wants to be loved, she’s obviously very unreliable and very mercurial and it’s just getting to be kind of tiresome to me. Same with Dandy. I don’t see a lot to understand there. He’s obviously a total sociopath, if not something else. It’s always something with him—he has his ups and downs. And the twins, I feel like they were already sustaining their desire, one of their desire to be separated. So I was kind of able to overlook that like nothing happened.
Lowder: No I think that’s fair. I think I’ve been following this so closely for the podcast, I’m grasping for something to like about it, but yeah, you’re right that we’ve already established their tones and one of them is sort of cruel in her relationship with her sister. But I thought something about having Dandy be the third party there and then eventually read the diaries was compelling to some degree.
Bloomer: I did enjoy the repertoire, it was fun, it was like this weird deranged tea party. It was fun to watch all of that.
Lowder: That’s a great way to put that. Totally a tea party. So I wondered, one of the other main characters who sort of played a heightened role in this episode in a way I thought was really interesting was I believe his name is Paul? His freak show name is flipper guy or something like that. It was revealed that he is both a lover of Elsa to some degree and then also the young women who was lured to the freak show at the beginning of the season, I think went back to the village, Jupiter—
Bloomer: I think her name is Penny.
Lowder: Penny, right. Thank you. So he was sort of featured as this Casanova figure, which I thought was really cool that we got to see this guy do that despite unconventional beauty, let’s put it that way. I wondered if you noticed that.
Bloomer: Absolutely. That’s a sexy man. I did a little research after the episode, because he’s kind of been a peripheral character up to this point. He certainly had lines, he certainly was one of the main characters, but there wasn’t a lot going on there. And it turns out he’s an English rocker, his name is Matt Frasier. This is one of his first big acting experience in a more traditional show. Yeah, definitely. I thought that the portrayal—although very quickly it seems like they put him out of commission, but definitely at least there was an episode of the spotlighting and I thought that it was really compelling and effective and really showed an intimacy that we haven’t really gotten with a lot of these characters, even though there’s apparently some kind of freaky sex show going on that we’re not allowed to see.
Lowder: Yes, yeah, that I think we’ve only seen in glimpses with that projector.
Bloomer: It’s kind of obliquely referenced in this episode. I assume at some point there’s going to be some big crazy reveal where everybody is just in this like—but perhaps Ryan is saving that until the end when he really, really runs out of things to do.
Lowder: That would be amazing. I was really struck by how the camera in the show treated him like the sex object. They had some nudity, I thought it was really cool. The show this season throughout has been trying to balance treating the freaks, both people who are acting in that capacity and people who actually have physical deformities, treating them respectfully but also with a sort of voyeuristic or sort of we’re invited to look at them in a way one would sort of look at a freak show, traditionally. So I thought this was a good way of tacking toward treating them more humanely and as fully-realized people with desires. I was pleased to see the show doing that.
Lowder: We had a few interesting questions of being on the margins, there was some discussion of passing at one point, I think that it was Paul in fact who said to Jimmy, you’re problem is that you can pass, you don’t relate to this the same way that I do, and we have this scene of being refused service as well. So very much again touching on the gay allegory or whatever sort of allegory Ryan Murphy is going for. I wonder if you paid attention to that in this episode at all, or throughout this season in general.
Bloomer: Absolutely, it’s a very pronounced theme, obviously. I think one of the interesting things, and this is sort of extra textual and aside from the actual depiction on the show, but when I was reading this interview with the actor who plays Paul, Matt Frasier, he was in the AV Club this week and he kind of sounds like a big personality, very flame-throwing, very unapologetic and being very strong-willed about disability issues and things like that, he was talking specifically about how earlier in the series when he first got to the set, there were all these lines that were for Jimmy that were basically all about the other and feeling different and fitting in, and he found that very difficult because he had barely any lines. And he had brought this up apparently in an intense exchange with the writers, and they wrote him a bigger part, which I assume the fruit of it was this episode. So I think there was sort of having read the interview, for me it kind of jumped out as something that perhaps the idea is this show is treating these people who really are under a pound of makeup to play these roles a different way and finding a different thing. But I guess as far as the actual depiction goes, certainly it’s a tension between the people who are willing to embrace their other and embrace who they are and the people who really just want to live a normal life, like Jimmy.
Lowder: I hadn’t read that interview, but it’s heartening to hear that the writers responded that way. One of the things I’ve been thinking of this season is what it would be like to be on that set, given the dichotomy you just described being between people who are acting and people who are acting but in the capacity that they also live their lives to some degree. And I imagine there must have been lots of moments of conflict like that, so it’s cool that the show is at least trying to respond to that. And I think it seems like too this is one of those shows where they’re still filming episodes now and I think even writing possibly some of it at this point for the—
Bloomer: It feels that way.
Lowder: For the second half after Christmas and maybe more of that will even happen, we will see. So in the past Willa and I have talked about the scariest or grossest thing from each week’s episode. This week there wasn’t anything terribly gross exactly, but we had this wheel scene with Elsa doing her, I guess it’s her old trick she used to do back in the day of throwing knives at someone on a wheel, and it sounds like that scene sort of freaked you out a little bit.
Bloomer: Yeah, I was expecting it to be kind of toothless, it was obviously meant as a dramatic engine to have Elsa go on another tangent about her insecurity and also to establish her increasingly as a villain as they’re want to do with Jessica Lange’s characters in the series. I think it was just very well staged. I looked it up and it turns out the director of this episode was the director of “Pretty in Pink.” He’s gone on to make a few forgettable and kind of regrettable movies I think, and also a number of TV series he’s worked on. I just thought particularly moving the camera angle to the perspective of the spinning wheel looking at the knife, perhaps it was low-hanging fruit, but I was pretty freaked out by it.
Lowder: That’s fascinating to find that out. I wonder though did you think that it was on purpose? I think that’s the question everyone’s asking. The knife hits Paul, the third one; Elsa sort of makes this face afterward that suggests possibly—
Bloomer: Sort of the face she always makes.
Lowder: Yeah, but it was sort of unclear if that was like “well that happened maybe that’s a good thing” or “I intended that to happen all along.” What was your read on that?
Bloomer: To me, it struck me certain that she was getting revenge. At this point, I am pretty convinced that Elsa has these conflicting impulses and there is a good side to her, but deep down she is evil and she’s ruthless and she’s ambitious and all she really wants is to be loved. But to her that means adulation at the cost to everyone else. I think that she’s at this point firmly established as villain and given that all of the stuff that we’ve seen her do, getting rid of the twins, she brutalizes that nurse as well, to me it’s pretty clear that she did it on purpose. She seemed pretty good when she was rehearsing earlier in the episode.
Lowder: Yeah, that’s true. It’s hard to tell how much she’s been drinking at any given point.
Bloomer: Or doing what is it, opium?
Lowder: There’s always this lovely glass in her hand that’s the size of a thimble that I want.
Bloomer: That should be a section of the eventual book: the drug paraphernalia of American Horror Story. There’s always interesting stuff.
Lowder: Yeah, absolutely. We talked a little bit about Dandy before, and I think we got a sense that at the end of this episode anyway, that he is fully committed to his almost “angel and bringer of death” role. Where do you think that character has left to go? You said earlier that you think that yes, he’s a sociopath, what else? Do you want to see him engage with any of the other characters in any particular way? Or should he just murder randomly?
Bloomer: I think I may have overstated my Dandy feelings. I like Dandy, I was Dandy for Halloween.
Lowder: Really? How did you pull that off, by the way?
Bloomer: Makeup and really preppy shirt, it wasn’t anything particularly elaborate. I just did my hair and curled it and that sort of thing. I’m a fan of Dandy, I think there’s certainly going to be more interaction with the freak show, obviously their rejection of him. There is some dramatic tension there that’s unresolved because what does it really mean to be—is he latching on? He kind of reminds me, I don’t know if you remember this, but the serial killer in the Silence of the Lambs, that particular character Buffalo Bill latches onto the idea that she’s transgender because associates it with otherness and I’m wondering if this is sort of a derivative of that. It’s kind of what it reminds me of.
Lowder: Well, we had Dandy in this episode saying like “I only feel like a real person around these people.” In this case meaning Bette and Dot, but freaks in general. So it seems like that’s going to be played out.
Bloomer: I’m wondering if it’s a genuine, is he a genuine freak or is this just something that he’s latching onto to help explain his darkness.
Lowder: I am certainly looking forward to Frances Conroy making more terrified faces. I can sort of see a supercut of her being scandalized.
Bloomer: She is exquisite.
Lowder: All right, well I think we will end it there for this week. Thank you so much Jeff for coming on and guesting.
Bloomer: Absolutely, it’s been a delight.
Lowder: All right, we’ll see you all next week. And this week’s episode is sponsored, I think it’s fair to say, by Venetian Romance, the fragrance that everyone in this episode uses.
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