In this installment of the podcast, Lowder and Paskin talk about Dot and Bette’s eventual reconciliation, Jimmy’s weirdly charming threesome, and why Episode 9 was a huge step in the right direction for American Horror Story: Freak Show.
This podcast contains major spoilers, so listen after you watch each episode.
Listen to the other episodes here.
Willa Paskin: Hi and welcome to a Slate Plus podcast about American Horror Story: Freak Show episode… what episode are we on, Bryan?
J. Bryan Lowder: Episode 9.
Paskin: The “Tupperware Party Massacre.”
Paskin: I think the only really good episode this season so far.
Lowder: It’s true, yeah, I was really into this one.
Paskin: I’m Willa Paskin, I’m joined by Bryan Lowder. Hi!
Paskin: I found this episode, for a number of reasons to be much better than what’s come before, and one of them was just watching it, a number of times I was like “Ew” or “Ick.” It just made me feel weird things that I think the show is supposed to make you feel, and that hadn’t happened up to this point.
Lowder: I was totally disturbed three or four times, and I had been missing that. I didn’t realize that actually until it happened, but I was like wow, I haven’t felt this particular combination of sort of shock but also not being able to look away really not much at all this season.
Paskin: And a lot of them had this kinky overtone, you were like is this supposed to be sexy but horrible, everything was sort of working in some sort of—
Lowder: Well and you also had this feeling of oh my god they’re going to do that. I’m glad we’re back to that.
Paskin: Let’s name some of these things. I thought one of the things that was toeing this line of being kind of freaky was the stuff between Jimmy and Alma, who I think her name is Alma, yeah he calls her, the red new fat girl, Jimmy is sleeping with in a drunken stupor,
Lowder: But also still treating like a mother figure.
Paskin: And also treating terribly.
Lowder: And also terribly, yes.
Paskin: Again, I think she’s sort of being used as this prop, but they sort of worked.
Lowder: We had this sort of feeding scene which was like really something I’ve only heard on Dan Savage, very interesting. Then they’re having sex at one point and Esmeralda walks in and is disgusted. It was really creepy in a genuine way.
Paskin: One of the other scenes that was similarly like macabre but kind of sexual was this storyline with the strong man and Stanley. This episode, as with episodes past had this really jerky feel occasionally, like Jimmy had sort of a through line, although he kept showing up in weird places, like suddenly he’s at the Tupperware party. He did just check in on these people for weird periods of time and so suddenly we’re in these five minutes in the middle where the strong man is going to try to kill himself, had this flashback, was rescued, then we’re done with him. But I did think that scene of him and Stanley on the road was pretty intense.
Lowder: It was sort of in one way reiterated their relationship to each other as gay men, and sort of shared the difference—I mean Stanley I think is very much not proud of being gay, but more OK with his thing, he’s seeing the Hustler’s more regularly, I don’t think that he’s as conflicted about it as Dell clearly is in like you say we have this suicide attempt. There’s this sort of roughness of Stanley that we don’t quite see this but clearly taking out his penis and saying “ You know you want to touch it” and Dell being kind of disgusted but I think turned on a little bit, that was really bracing in a certain way.
Paskin: And we’ve talked about this a bunch the way that this show is almost at its weakest when it makes its allegorical—it stops making it allegory and just makes it what it’s about. Some of the speech that Dell made of the ghost talking to Ethel about how do you do it, you’re freaks and you can’t hide it makes it the connection between being gay and being a freak. I was a little, I wish they just wouldn’t do that.
Lowder: Although I did like that Ethel’s ghost did have that line that was like “For us, it’s on the outside, and for you it’s on the inside.” You could explore that in a more interesting way if you wanted to, so I didn’t mind that particular aspect of it, but it’s true. The making literal can be kind of annoying sometimes. I don’t think it’s necessary.
Paskin: And then I did think also one of the things this episode finally did and I hadn’t really put my finger on it until it happened, was one of the features of the other three seasons has been a sort of feature of tragedies which is this moment where something horrible is happening. It’s this Kafka-esque thing. You cannot stop it. You’re watching and something bad it happening to the characters and they’re trapped and they can’t get out. Lana is trapped in the asylum and her straight jacket gets tighter and tighter. And that has not been, there have not been stakes in that way.
Lowder: In fact, there’s been this openness; there’s always been this sense that people could just leave.
Paskin: Finally this episode they tied a bow around Jimmy where he is in exactly that situation. Dandy basically decides that he’s going to get Jimmy because Jimmy rightfully knows that Dandy killed all of these people, although he’s so drunk—who knows what he could do about it—and is going to ruin his life. And he then proceeds to seemingly do that. And as the episode proceeds, the episode ended with Jimmy carted off to jail for being massacring this Tupperware party, that Dandy actually did, I was like “Oh, this is what we’ve been waiting for this whole time,” the idea that these forces beyond our control have actually cornered one of these characters we care about.
Lowder: And it’s funny because I think that particular duo was sort of set up really early in this season, then we went away from it for like five episodes. I can’t quite remember all the details, but I remember at the beginning there was a sense of tension directly between those two people and then it just kind of went away, and I kind of just wish that they’d somehow kept that going a little bit more until now.
Paskin: There has just been a floppy noodle quality to this season, kind of, and I think maybe they thought that some of those noodles were interesting and they just weren’t. So now it’s just like OK, let’s get an actual arc. So just about Dandy. I thought, also, Dandy in this episode, I don’t know exactly what I think of him as an interesting character or not but I did think some of this megalomania, some of those speeches about him being god and about the law were pretty funny and ridiculous and I did also think that this end thing where he was like “I have all this money, I have all this power” made literal these ideas about his class that had been percolating, and “I can actually do all these terrible things” was actually a really interesting move.
Lowder: Well I think that was one of the moments that genuinely frightened me, because it showed he was using that to convince the detective to basically do what he wanted him to do. And this moment he was being confronted by the law it failed because not only is he able to do violence to people, but he is able to control them with money. So as much as I do not like Gabourey Sidibe as an actress, I think she’s really flat in this so far, well I guess she’s over now, but up until the moment she was shot, I thought “God, you’re really terrible part of this show” but when she was shot, it was really frightening to me, the way the cope was sort of just like “yep.” And I think that also brought up a racial undertone. It’s not been as explicitly present in this season as it could be, but at that moment, I was like “Wow, this police officer was already not wanting to believe you because you were black and then here we go.”
Paskin: I do wonder if that read of that, I mean, I think it’s there to read it, but I think it’s also heightened by the circumstance around Ferguson and Eric Garner stuff.
Lowder: Oh, you can’t not think about it. I’m sure this was written before that, but that was very much there for me.
Paskin: He did sort of also seem to turn some corner where he was like “now I just murder people.” I did think the opening scene of him just axing the Avon lady and then making his own Dot and Bette was nicely like “Woah!”
Lowder: Again, that was one of those moments where I was genuinely freaked out again. I don’t know, something about puppets always scares me a little, so that was fun.
Paskin: And that actually leads us into Dot and Bette, who I think this episode finally had something to do and made some progress on their relationship that I’ve been waiting to happen the whole season.
Lowder: I’m going to confess that I was very genuinely moved by their scene of reconciliation where they talked through I think—initially at least—differing dreams about what life would look like and come to an agreement that they actually do want to stay together. And something was very even beautiful to me about the symbol of them holding hands. Given that it’s the same body, but something about that moment of contact was powerful writing. I’d say in general in this episode what worked for me was the dialog writing seemed somehow more, had more texture to it and more depth and especially with them.
Paskin: And also the idea that they share this body, you sort of think something about it will be fluid or easy, but it’s this idea of them learning how to tie their shoes was this huge event because they actually have two hands that aren’t of the same body in some way, which was really, I hadn’t actually considered that as a possibility.
Lowder: This episode did a lot more with them, and it’s a shame that it’s taken this long to get there.
Paskin: And the thing about their reconciliation or in basically Bette’s generosity, Dot’s coming to realize she’s being so horrible it actually makes you care that they’re going to die. Or not die, we still don’t know what’s going to happen. But that when Dotte was like I don’t care if one of us dies, I’m basically willing to murder or suicide myself just to be away from you made you care less about that happening because one of them is so awful. And this idea that one of them is like in it together and trying just makes it that much more horrible if something happens. I did also think that scene with Jimmy was also very, I thought that was a very nice scene as well.
Lowder: Yeah, we had this I guess to call it a threesome, or an attempt at one anyway that eventually doesn’t work out. But there was something, I don’t know very fascinating about watching the three of them trying to negotiate what that would look like. At one point, Bette’s like I’ll just close my eyes and give you privacy if you want and Jimmy’s like no, you should be involved, too. It was charming. It’s a weird word to use: I found it pretty charming.
Paskin: And also there was something so vulnerable about it, just her being like “I want this.” That weird, the power of vulnerability too, and also then just the heartbreaking miss of it, where you could just imagine how they’re going to go off and do any sort of reckless thing because…
Lowder: I’m sure something insanely reckless.
Paskin: I do also wonder about the show’s commitment to Elsa as this not quite horrible person.
Lowder: Were you not like totally refreshed by her being in every other scene? I love Jessica Lange, and I love diva figure whatever but I think one of the things that made this episode work so much better was that she was gone for a minute and we had a breath.
Paskin: She might just not be that interesting. And part of that is like, yeah, she just might not be that interesting and obviously they made this move to have her be either willfully naïve or just sort of naïve that she’s not killing them, that this doctor is legit, that she does love her monsters, but it was in a small enough dose that’s fine. But I’m not actually interesting in this.
Lowder: That whole thing is wearing on me a little bit between like oh, maybe I love my monsters, how naïve am I, but I’m also very savvy, that is not holding my interest very much because I’m not sure that it makes much sense. Either she’s like this worldly, savvy figure, or she’s totally goofy.
Paskin: Either she cut Ethel’s head off and she’s voraciously fame-hungry, I mean sold the twins into slavery already.
Lowder: Right. Or she’s being manipulated by this guy, I don’t know. Something about that is not parsing for me. So I’m glad that she wasn’t that present.
Paskin: Generally speaking, this episode was a huge step in the right direction. Maybe next week, we’ll be just as pleased and will be excited for the last four or five episodes.
Lowder: Maybe we’re on a roll now.
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