In this installment of the podcast, Lowder and Paskin talk about the best and worst of Ryan Murphy, the gruesome reality of being tarred and feathered, and how Dot and Elsa’s special effects have shaped this season.
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Willa Paskin: Hi, and welcome to a Slate Plus podcast about American Horror Story: Freak Show. I’m Willa Paskin, and I’m joined by Bryan Lowder. Hi, Bryan.
J. Bryan Lowder: Hello, Willa.
Paskin: And we’re going to be talking about the episode called “Blood Bath,” which refers to both a lot of death and an actual blood bath.
Lowder: A beautiful claw-foot tub of blood, yeah.
Paskin: They did finally start killing people this episode, which I think we had been wishing they would do.
Lowder: Yes, I think it’s good to thin the heard a little bit. The deaths that happened this episode I thought were particularly compelling. I was surprised to see that Gloria Mott was the one to go first. I was not expecting that, but I thought it was appropriate.
Paskin: Do you want to go through the deaths and then maybe the almost death, the tar and feathering?
Paskin: Let’s start with Ethel, because she was the first one in the episode.
Lowder: We had this tension developing between her and Elsa—Ethel and Elsa—for the whole season basically and I think this had to happen at some point, but the way it happened was—I guess it was strange that there was randomly a knife sitting there—it was sort of a fitting end given that we had this knife-throwing thing earlier in the season.
Paskin: A couple things. I thought there was one line that was really funny—there were two lines in this episode that were really funny and the one line that was really funny was when Elsa’s mid-rant talking about the twins and she’s like “I was going to send them to Tampa—but death would be better than Tampa for me.”
Lowder: I totally have a star by that line in my notes. It was so great.
Paskin: I liked that it didn’t even have air to breathe, it was hilarious. This Elsa snobbism. I did think that obviously the show wants to give these actresses all this time to emote, but this scene just went on forever and ever. And by the end, I felt like there was no tension, weirdly. So Elsa actually does react to Ma Petite’s death with real emotion, because she didn’t kill her, and you can compare that scene to her later faking her distraughtness at Ethel’s death and you can see they are completely different. One seems totally ridiculous and over-the-top.
Lowder: I appreciated that juxtaposition, actually, because she is performing so much of this concern for people, but at the same time I think she does also care, I don’t think she knows exactly, the character knows exactly how she totally feels about this. I think sometimes she’s very mercenary and then other times actually does have a lot of affection. And so I thought it was cool to have those two different versions of that same sentiment in the same episode.
Paskin: And also this other hint—as if we needed it—that she’s not actually very talented. When she’s really performing, it’s bad. I know Jimmy embraced her, but it seems totally absurd that anyone bought her histrionics about Ethel, especially given how much more over the top they were compared to what she had just done the night before, two nights before.
Lowder: Credit to Jessica Lange for acting well at acting bad in a melodramatic way. The beats, and just to the level of facial expressions, the angle of her neck at certain moments were just straight out of those old melodramas that her character is imitating and immersed in. I was actually very impressed by Lange’s acting at being bad.
Paskin: Which is a hard thing and has come up lately a bunch in pop culture. Then her and Ethel have this long conversation about—Ethel basically shoots her leg, shoots her in the leg, which is also pretty funny, and learns in that moment something she’s never know, which is that Elsa has no legs, they’ve been chainsawed off. Which brought us to a strange, suddenly Italian vignette. Elsa speaks Italian apparently, that involved Danny Houston from last season, who is the axe-murder who maybe we’ll see more of, but it just seemed like this is why this episode is 11:06 for no reason.
Lowder: Right, let’s meet Geppetto creating her beautiful carved legs.
Paskin: And then it’s almost like they come to some kind of resolution, like Ethel understands that Elsa probably didn’t kill Ma Petite, that’s how it played to me, but then she was like “I have to kill you anyway.”
Lowder: Yeah, the whole thing is over.
Paskin: Then she gets it in the eye. Which is gross, and also the car thing was gross, I thought, in a funny, creepy good way.
Lowder: Maybe this doesn’t make sense, but did you interpret the reason they did the car thing as a way for the freak hunter as a way to get her head for the collection?
Paskin: Huh. I didn’t think about that, but I think that that’s totally right on.
Lowder: Otherwise, why do that particular thing.
Paskin: It has the virtue of doing two things at once, right? One the one hand, it is mangled, and I don’t know if he can use it if there’s a stab wound in the eye, that obviously came from bad ends. But I think that totally makes sense: it helped out Elsa, but it did help out him too because he can take the head.
Lowder: And he’s got the bearded lady.
Paskin: And we know he’s fine with taking just heads. Our future flash, we think. We saw a Dot and Bette’s heads again in the scenes from next week, so we can assume that is a thing that happened. But we’ll see.
Lowder: That’s true.
Paskin: This is an aside, but I do think that the special effects for Dot and Bette are so extreme that they are clearly not in episodes regularly just so that they don’t have to deal with them. I think that if Sarah Paulson were just herself, she would be in all of these episodes, but the twins are just gone all the time because it’s so laborious to do that.
Lowder: I think you’re right.
Paskin: I mean, Ethel hid them? It didn’t make any sense where they were.
Lowder: Yeah, there was one line where it was like “I put them somewhere!” And you’re like “Wait, where? Off camera?”
Paskin: And no time has passed, this episode picked up right where the other one left off basically. OK, so then onto our almost stuff, let’s do our tar and feathering. So lizard girl—
Lowder: The astounding lizard girl.
Paskin: That we hadn’t seen in like six episodes but is now back, is now a main character, explains what happened to her that her father did this to her and it’s sort of a girl-power moment, the other women in the freak show decide that they should get together and kill him. They get him and they decide on the way to kill him that they’re going to tar and feather him.
Lowder: This is going to sound strange and morbid, but I’ve heard of tar and feathering—
Paskin: Never occurred to you about the burning, right?
Lowder: Yes. I had never thought about that hot tar would melt your skin. It always seemed like something messy and inconvenient when I thought about it—
Paskin: Like embarrassing
Lowder: But not an injury. But then we had that painful scene where Amazon Eve had her hands on his face and pulled his cheek, I was like “Oh, god.” It had never occurred to me, I don’t know why.
Paskin: I had the same reaction: it’s hot, it’s not just sticky. So, we’re foolish, we never understood why tar and feathering was more than just a humiliation.
Lowder: I had not thought deeply enough about medieval torture.
Paskin: So basically the scene climaxes with Maggie, is that her name, Emma Robert’s character?
Paskin: Is that her name still?
Lowder: It’s her stage name.
Paskin: Anyway, with her coming in and giving this cheesy, cheesy speech.
Lowder: It was so stupid.
Paskin: So sacer in the worst of Ryan Murphy, basically.
Lowder: And just, go away. I was very much on the group’s side on this, like “Why are you telling us what to do?”
Paskin: It’s so at odds with the show, which is like “You’re going to ruin your lives”? They’re not even going to get caught, this is like the 10th person whose died, no one’s up in their business. She sort of first seemed like she was making some moral argument, like “You’ll never be able to go back and recover your soul,” which is ridiculous, just in the frame of the show. But then it seemed like she was making a “You’re going to ruin your life because the cops are going to come” argument, which is also ridiculous in the frame of this show, and is just this weird goody-goody thing, that I was totally expecting lizard girl to just stab him—
Lowder: Yeah, castrate him or whatever they were going to do.
Paskin: After this speech.
Lowder: Funny you note that in the thread of the law, because notice the police have totally disappeared from the show. At the beginning, they were always creeping around and sort of sketched out by the fact that there was this freak show in town at all, but then that’s not happening anymore. Which makes no sense, because I’m sure they would be constantly—
Paskin: There are all these murders, he killed this clown, there was also this other guy, Ma Petite just died.
Lowder: Absolutely. I’m glad you felt that way, because I just felt that speech was totally offensive.
Paskin: They just deposited it from another show that’s like Hallmark-y. I’d like to take a tangent now to talk about another thing that I felt was super weird, which is the introduction of the fat lady.
Paskin: Just a little context here, Ryan Murphy, I think with Glee in particular, has shown himself to be kind of insane about fat issues. Just really airing. There was a whole episode of Glee about thin being fat, genuinely Fin having an eating disorder, which it seemed like the show actually believed the was fat, in addition to his—it was trying to help him work through it while making all these jokes about his weight. Fin was not fat, but that was just so uncomfortable and strange. There is constantly this push and pull of this question of obesity in particular, where it seems like he wants it to be another one of these issues where it’s like marginalized people, but he has so much judgment about it that it doesn’t quite work. It’s like, you really don’t like fat people and you’re trying to make this a part of your thematic thing and something gets extremely uncomfortable almost every single time he does it.
Lowder: Yeah, this introduction of, I think her stage name might be Baby Ruth, or Ima Wiggles, I’m not sure which. That scene with Elsa picking her up out of the sanitarium I think she was at.
Paskin: Or like a fat camp, I think, right?
Lowder: Right, I didn’t know what to call it exactly, but it didn’t feel—it definitely had more of a hardened edge to it, the interaction—
Paskin: Well, it was certainly seedier, she was alluring her with her drug of choice.
Paskin: She was going to eat the Baby Ruth like she’s doing Opium in front of an Opium addict or something. So there’s that scene, which was kind of creepy, and I think we agree that kind of creepy is good for this show, so that wasn’t uncomfortable. But then the turn that it took for me that was so strange was she comes to the freak show, they sit her in front of all this food, I’m not sure where the audience is supposed to be with that being asked to feel some kind of revulsion, and then she goes to Jimmy, “You’re going to want to comfort yourself in this giant woman’s breast” which he does later. Which is so… he’s lost his mother, it’s motherly, but it’s actually just so strange, and again it’s twisted in a way that maybe the show could stand to be more of right now, but I just didn’t know what the point of view was at all.
Lowder: I guess I couldn’t think of a character who hasn’t been treated with a pretty fine balance between baiting the viewer to be freaked out by them, but very quickly then tacking back toward some sort of humanizing thing, where you get this sense of this person has feelings and is not just whatever their particular oddity is. And in this case, I think she was totally presented, at least in this episode, as a figure of revulsion. We didn’t get much here—
Paskin: She was just a prop. And even the conversation about being this Park Avenue princess felt distant.
Lowder: It did.
Paskin: And also, given the class issues of this particular installment, which have been hilarious about rich people. It’s not like we’re inclined to be sympathetic, the show is not super sympathetic to people who are Park Avenue princesses.
Paskin: So let’s turn to our next rich people, the other rich people. Dandy and his mom, who I have some logic problems with this, but let’s talk about what happened.
Lowder: Well we had some wonderful therapy sessions.
Paskin: Those actually were kind of awesome.
Lowder: I liked that we didn’t see the psychiatrist, that camera angle was funny and interesting.
Paskin: I also liked that he seemed smart, like he was on it.
Paskin: You’re sort of used to that thing that’s Mad Men style that’s like he’s going to be writing in the notebook, he’s not going to get it at all. He’s going to be writing things that are like “She’s crazy.”
Lowder: Although the notes that we did see him writing were what I would write, and I’m not a trained psychiatrist so I was kind of like “Anxious, smoking.”
Paskin: It’s also the things that you wouldn’t forget. I got it, I got the general gist that her son is a sociopath and she’s anxious, but no specifics. The thing about this, firstly, correct me if I’m wrong, Dandy wanted his mother to kill Gabourey Sidibe’s character, what is Gabby’s character’s name?
Paskin: Regina. But his mother didn’t kill Regina, and he killed her before she killed Regina, which just seems like she probably would have done it.
Lowder: And that almost would have been more interesting, because I think we had this sense that she was getting pulled into his dissent, pulled down with him in previous couple of episodes, like she was getting more and more wrapped up in it, so yeah, I was sort of expecting her to at least attempt to go through with it. But then it’s totally curtailed by the way that it ends.
Paskin: I did appreciate that she knew how messed up he was, which we hadn’t really had. We knew she knew, but we also knew that she was apologizing for him and it just became clear that she really understood that he was a terrible person and had murdered a small boy when he was a small boy, her litany of things that have always been wrong with him.
Lowder: It’s always killing the pet, that’s the sign.
Paskin: Right, then there is this horrible back story with the father. This pedophiliac, horrible backstory with the father.
Lowder: Yeah, there’s just the mess behind them.
Paskin: I have to say that I am finding Dandy, still, I think the performance is good, I think the idea of the character is good, but it’s just been stalled for so long. I need him to have a foil. I was also just thinking about what’s different about this season? In the first season, it’s this family being tortured by these ghosts, or being haunted by these ghosts, and they had to figure out a way to get out of the house. There’s a goal. Or in Asylum, Lana needs to get out of the asylum. She does at some point, but, you know. Or last season they had to figure out who the Supreme is. There just is not a goal.
Lowder: Right, exactly, that’s the word. There is no thing that I’m looking forward to seeing happen.
Paskin: And it makes all the time wasting, which I think in seasons past has been some of the most delicious, twisted, interesting stuff, feel like that.
Lowder: I think you’re willing to go through some of those digressions whether they were great or not because you had this guide star, at least somewhere in the offing. Ss far as I can tell, we don’t have that. I think that what could introduce that is if Dandy got out of the house. We’ve had this exploration for some of his psychology and background now for a number of episodes, and I think we’ve got it. So now I want him to be pitted against someone or something, whether it’s the freak show or what.
Paskin: It’s almost like they landed on it early on, maybe should have just been trying to get into the freak show this whole time. Or something that made it tie them together.
Lowder: Since the clown narrative ended, plotline ended, they haven’t interacted really. Not in a serious way.
Paskin: And next week’s episode is called something amazing. It’s called something about a Tupperware party?
Lowder: It’s “Tupperware Party Massacre.”
Paskin: “Tupperware Party Massacre” and we see him show up at some woman’s house, we saw Jimmy in the first episode show up in a similar situation, that was cool.
Lowder: A sex party.
Paskin: So he’s not going to the freak show if he’s going to a Tupperware party to murder everybody.
Paskin: So I guess I am looking forward to an episode called “Tupperware Party Massacre.” I have to confess.
Lowder: I think that sounds wonderfully campy and maybe will redeem the show a bit once we get there.
Paskin: So we’ll be here next week talking about that.
Lowder: Absolutely, with some Tupperware.
Paskin: A pleasure, as always Bryan.
Lowder: Absolutely, thanks Willa.