In this installment of the podcast, Lowder and Paskin talk about the inevitable fall of Elsa’s charm, why characters are staying alive instead of getting killed off, and the one disturbing element Freak Show is missing.
This podcast contains major spoilers, so listen after you watch each episode.
Listen to the other episodes here.
Read the transcript below:
Willa Paskin: Hi, and welcome to a Slate Plus podcast about American Horror Story: Freak Show episode 7 “Test of Strength.” I’m Willa Paskin, and I’m joined by Bryan Lowder and we’re going to talk about the episode. I did just say to Bryan that all I want to talk about is how I think the show is bad right now. So, if you want to be positive about the thing you’re talking about, but I just really.
Bryan Lowder: Say one nice thing.
Paskin: One nice thing: I thought that—forget the fact that Grace Gummer has not been on the show until last week and this whole storyline with her and Paul makes no sense, like why haven’t they called an ambulance, a week later?
Lowder: Yeah, well I thought he was dead. When he was back, I was like, “Oh, great, he’s not dead.”
Paskin: Right, which actually I think is one of the things that is wrong, so we’ll circle back to that. I did think the thing where her dad just tattooed her and had forked her tongue was like the kind of super upsetting and gross and disturbing and weird thing this season is missing. I don’t actually enjoy horror particularly, I don’t really love that sort of stuff, I don’t really watch horror movies, but that just threatening freakiness has been missing from this season so much. And this is the thing about Paul, the fact that he’s not dead, why has nobody died this season? I think it’s maybe because all of these actresses are so famous or something that there’s been this weird respectfulness about characters that we know—it doesn’t make any sense. Any other season, people start getting killed off. Maybe they come back as a ghost or they come back as Frankenstein or whatever. That seems important to the show. There’s no stakes, everyone is just wandering around.
Lowder: That’s a great point, I think it’s true that this show has been weirdly careful with all of the figures, and I think one of the problems this season, more than perhaps in the previous ones, is that I’m having trouble with having the actresses become characters. Like they’re still very much Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson and whoever, I’m seeing them that way and not as anything else, so that is a failure.
Paskin: It’s really weird also because the episodes have been so long for no reason, and yet there’s still been no character development. We have these shows that are ending at 11:07 and then you’re wondering why. I think you could have somehow gotten this into shape, because there was so nothing to hang onto here. I didn’t learn anything I didn’t know already.
Lowder: Well I’m down to hang with atmospherics as a reason to stick with something, but it’s not interesting enough to validate that.
Paskin: I was watching the opening credits—I’ve gotten to the point where I’m watching a show in real time and I can’t fast forward through the commercials where I just start screaming at the TV like why am I trapped in your actual time? And then I stop 15 minutes later. But I didn’t, I started on time, so I had to watch the credits—and I was like these are amazing, and so weird and creepy and sexy and horrible, and where is that?
Lowder: Oh, I think the credits are the best part of the show. Very easily the best part of the show.
Paskin: And it’s like there are weird things like why aren’t Dandy and the twins having sex? That would have been really disturbing and weird, but just do that. It would be more interesting. I’m interested in them losing their virginity, I’m interested in them liking him differently, I’m interested in the idea that he might be so hot for them—just all of these things. And instead—
Lowder: Well, think back to season two where we had Chloe Sevigny crawling on the floor—
Lowder: That scene has stuck with me
Paskin: Because it was so horrible!
Lowder: And I agree that in this episode when we had the tattooing scene, that was probably the first time this whole season when I’ve been genuinely horrified by something, and my partner who I was watching with was also, we were both just like oh my god, that is so disturbing and awful. And that’s what the show used to do well.
Paskin: Totally. That scene, the whole context of that character and what’s happening with her dad basically makes no sense. We just met him, we don’t know anything. Why he would do that is so unclear.
Lowder: Well, and it escalated so quickly. He’s unhappy with her hanging out with the sort of—
Paskin: Now he’s going to make her a freak—
Lowder: Yeah, he’s sadistic and bringing in this weird tattoo artist.
Paskin: And we could have had some of their really screwed up relationship before, if it’s going to end here, which is someplace that actually seems sort of stake-y and interesting.
Lowder: Well, she says like, “The evil that lives in this house,” and I was like, “wait, what?” I just thought he was kind of boring, why is he evil now?
Paskin: There’s a thing that happens with TV shows, and Ryan Murphy TV shows in particular, actually, where the people who make them don’t actually know what’s good about them. They are very capable sometimes of doing thing that are good, but over time it sort of becomes clear that—it’s not that it’s a fluke, but they don’t have total clarity about what is good about their show. And this season just feels to me what they think is good about the show is Jessica Lange and it’s not that she’s what’s wrong with the show, but Elsa at this point is not that interesting and takes up huge amounts of time being not that interesting, and everyone else is actually totally smarter than her. And yet we have so much of her and so much of Jimmy singing, “Come As You Are.”
Lowder: It’s true, and also on the level of story and character, there is no reason for these people to hang together anymore, there’s been so many opportunities where it would have made sense for Jimmy to leave, or for everyone to leave. Elsa’s clearly terrible, it’s not believable on that level. And also, as you say, this character as a character is just not interesting.
Paskin: Or not anymore.
Lowder: Not anymore. Well, there was this piece in the AV Club, I believe yesterday or the day before that was talking about how Jessica Lange has played essentially the same character all four seasons in a certain sense. This sort of dark diva troubled—
Paskin: With an accent.
Lowder: With an accent character. Which I’m very partial to, I’m fine with that, I’m down with it. And I think Ryan Murphy’s very into it, a very gay figure to be interested in, but you have to innovate it in some ways. And you’re right, there’s not been enough development of this particular manifestation for it to keep me that invested.
Paskin: I mean, all the other seasons she was not the main character. In the second season she was a really important character, but she ended up really sharing that role with
Lowder: Many others...
Paskin: And Jude’s arc was sort of fascinating and amazing. Last season, it was a more similar thing, but it just felt like everybody else was more vibrant. And this season, there’s just nobody, they all feel kind of lifeless. Speaking of people’s capacity for badness, just the fact that Dell even couldn’t kill anybody. I mean, he kills Ma Petite at the end, but last week we had this episode where Emma Roberts character can’t kill anybody, and then this week we have an episode where Dell can’t kill anybody. And I obviously don’t want him to kill Jimmy and I was happy that the strong woman kicked his ass, but it’s like you can’t begin every episode where it’s like they want someone to die and then just be like “Oh, not this one.”
Lowder: To be fair, Dell’s blackmail situation with Stanley is kind of interesting, maybe. But I don’t know, the stakes aren’t there. I talked about this last week with Jeff, who was guesting, and there was just no—I don’t know what I’m worried about, I’m just not concerned about anyone’s fate. And that’s a problem.
Paskin: I did think the shit under your fingernails line was—
Lowder: That was tough.
Paskin: What did you think?
Lowder: Well, he had a lot of good lines, we have this sort of gay blackmail think going on because Stanley saw Dell at High Noon, which I guess is the name of this improbable gay bar.
Paskin: That’s not in Jupiter, we learned.
Lowder: Yeah, two towns over, as it always is. That was tough, I did like the line more that was like, “Queer, isn’t it?” Like when he comes out like that. That was pretty well played, and I think that’s just Denis O’Hare’s ability as an actor, he delivered that well. But I don’t know. It’s still, anachronisms of this are hard for me to swallow, but maybe I’m paying too much attention to that. I still get certain kick out of the improbability of this show being on television, but I agree that this is one of those cases where the artist is not the best person to talk about or advance their art necessarily. It’s where there needs to be some criticism that needs to be taken—
Paskin: I believe he could do a great season again, and I actually think the setting is still a good setting. It just seems so tenderhearted in this strange way. They’ve always had this capacity for total cheesiness, that’s part of his thing. Wild, disgusting stuff.
Lowder: Veering between sentimentality and hokey.
Paskin: And this just feels like there’s too much of that. There’s too much messaging, too much Glee.
Lowder: Yeah, I was going to ask do you think it’s too message-y? I don’t think there’s been an episode that’s passed that there hasn’t been some sort of little speech. I don’t remember that being the case in previous seasons. There had always been a sort of metaphor going on, but I don’t remember it being so—
Paskin: Or it would be like pronounced at the very end.
Lowder: I just don’t recall it being so someone has to make a speech about being an outsider every time.
Paskin: Right, or that it was so clear. It would sometimes be like last season where there was all this sort of race, which was so insane and not thought on their part that it was almost more interesting because it was such a mess, whereas this is so PC and on-message that this is boring.
Lowder: We talked about this a bit, but having the simultaneous freak metaphor allegory happening alongside an actual gay situation, there’s something still about that that is narrative-ly causing dissonance. I don’t want both things in the same universe.
Paskin: Or you want both things and you want it to get really freaky, so it’s just have Dell have sex with that guy. Just do that and don’t be worried that this is going to make everybody look bad. Just do the thing that you would do anyway, which is have this go in some totally noxious, perverse direction. But it’s almost like they’re holding back because they’re trying to do these two things at once, because this allegory has become the thing, they’ve handcuffed themselves a little bit.
Lowder: Yeah, I think that’s right.
Paskin: The doctor scene, for example. It’s just like that’s an important example. Why don’t Cathy Bates and Angela Basset find out or intuit or be like “Huh, this is a weird story, why would he break his hands and kill himself?” That’s not a crazy thing for someone to think in a TV show, and then to have that reason to be mad at him, too, or just to follow up on the Angela Basset story is sort of interesting.
Lowder: It’s very disappointing that we’ve hardly heard from her in the past what three episodes now? That’s a shame. Her character, in some ways, bridges that contemporary marginalized person in the character of a hermaphrodite or intersex person with the freak. That’s actually an interesting intersection point that they could explore more, but they really haven’t and I don’t know why.
Paskin: I think the one thing we should talk about before we wrap up is Dandy and how we’re feeling about him as the big bad.
Lowder: We only saw a bit of him in the beginning of this episode when Jimmy comes and takes Bette and Dot away, but it seems like his plotline is going to develop a bit more coming up and maybe his mom’s going to be involved, based on the scenes from next week?
Paskin: She already is basically.
Lowder: She is, but maybe she’s going to wield a weapon and actually help with some of his mission to bring death to the world or whatever he said. I’m excited by that. I think it’s worth watching as much as anything is in this season.
Paskin: I do think they needed to get him out of the house sooner. I just think he should be in the freak show being really weird.
Lowder: Or what if he was picking off people the same time Stanley’s picking off people and there’s two threats advancing. That would give some stakes in that we’re not sure who’s doing what. He’s been locked in this sort of admittedly campy and funny patrician house situation, but it’s getting a bit old now.
Paskin: His range of emotion, which just seems to swing from “I love you and I’m not bored because I’m so obsessed with my toy” to “Now I have to murder” is just very—and I know he’s supposed to be a crazy person, but it’s just a little why can’t he do both things at once? They’re so many things, like he should be wanting to kill Dot.
Lowder: His emotional swings are too predictable I think is what it is. He would be more frightening if his flashes of range and sort of child-like tantrums stuff were far less predictable than they actually are. You know when he’s going to get mad.
Paskin: Or when he got mad, he was violent. He is violent, but he’s not actually violent. His moments when he’s been like “I’m going to kill someone now”—
Lowder: Right, as an experience.
Paskin: It’s not like oh you just made me mad, and he did that with the Patti LaBelle character I guess.
Lowder: Yeah, but even that was —
Paskin: He knew that time—
Lowder: He was like “I’m finally going to do this thing” when Jimmy comes and steals his toy, he’s not at all, he’s angry but he doesn’t act out in a way that you would expect him to.
Paskin: I find that character still very promising but yet still really in a holding pattern.
Lowder: Well, we’re coming up on the holiday break, so there’s time
Paskin: Yeah, there’re six more, like something has to happen.
Lowder: I guess. I don’t know.
Paskin: You’re even more pessimistic than I am.
Lowder: Well, I’m in for it, but I just—I don’t know. This season, I’m kind of feeling resignation. I’m like “OK, let’s have next season in space.” Or whatever people are theorizing. I’m maybe just waiting for that.
Paskin: Are they going to do it in space? That would be so awesome.
Lowder: I don’t think so. There’s been a little bit of a fans trying to guess, I guess are clues about what season the next season will be and there was some theorizing that perhaps it would be in space.
Paskin: Like with a howl as a bad guy or something?
Lowder: Yeah, I think Murphy has said that’s probably not true, but who knows. People have been saying that because he’s gone back on the idea that they were all connected. He used to say that wasn’t true, now he’s saying that they are. Who knows?
Paskin: And I guess Lily Rabe still has to show up and stuff.
Lowder: She does, we have to have the connection with Asylum.
Paskin: I just assume that soon everybody is actually going to start killing people.
Lowder: Yeah, that. And I don’t know, even this Lily Rabe thing that has been held out as this thing we’re supposed to look forward to, I feel like it’s going to be like 10 minutes. I feel like she’s going to show up, they’re going to be divest of some of the freaks or something and then she’s going to take Pepper away and that will be it. I just don’t know. I’m not super excited. Because she’s not going to be possessed at that point.
Paskin: That’s true, she’ll be the good version of herself.
Lowder: She’ll just be her, which isn’t that interesting.
Paskin: So, we’ll be back in two weeks.
Lowder: Sorry we’re so pessimistic, I hope people still like it. And I’m still having some fun, but I’m just, I guess my hopes are so high.
Paskin: Yeah, totally. It’s a bummer, probably anyone who listens to this likes the show, so sorry guys. This is coming from a place of love and affection. We want it to be better.
Lowder: Exactly. We want it to be good.
Paskin: But we’ll talk again. Not for Thanksgiving, but the week after. Thanks again.
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