This past Wednesday saw the finale of American Horror Story: Freak Show, the first season of said series I’ve actually stuck it through. I of course can’t comment on how well it did or didn’t stack up, but Freak Show itself is best summed up with two words: “half good.”
There’s a lot to like about the season, namely Finn Wittrock’s star-making portrayal of Dandy Mott, Pepper’s heartbreaking story, and the killed-off-way-too-soon Twisty the Clown, but there’s as much that had me continually question why I was still watching. Save mainly for Peppers aforementioned arc, presented in the stellar episode Orphans, there was a serious style-over-substance’ issue which, from what I understand, is a problem thats plagued every season of American Horror Story.
Senseless murder was the name of the game, and I all too often found very little to actually care about. Sure, there were some cool visuals and crazy shock value antics that I’ll likely never forget, but I can count on one hand the number of times I actually found myself invested in any of these characters, or any of the situations they found themselves in.
As if the writers understood that they gave us little to actually care about, the finale essentially erased the remaining characters right off the page, with Dandy Mott strolling through the Freak Show and slaughtering everyone in sight. Like similar events in previous episodes, its shocking and utterly disturbing, but with no emotional weight behind it, every bullet to the head feels like shock value for the sake of shock value mostly because, well, it is.
With nearly the entire troupe dead, and Dandy subsequently killed off in wholly anticlimactic fashion, the finale then turns its attention to Elsa Mars, revealing that she indeed became a successful Hollywood star, but has only been made more miserable by it. After reluctantly agreeing to perform on Halloween night, she intentionally summons the spirit of Edward Mordrake, who kills and relegates Elsa to an eternity in heaven. Which means her return to the Freak Show.
Admittedly, the episodes final scene was a sweet one, hammering home the idea that the grass is not always greener on the other side. What truly made Elsa happy was what she had all along, rather than what she spent so much of her life pining for. Its difficult to not at least be somewhat touched by her reunion with Ethel and the rest of the gang, in their own freaky little slice of the afterlife.
The problem, however, is that this happy ending was unearned. It was a heartfelt note tacked on to a season that had never really bothered to show its heart. It provides, confusingly, a happy ending to a character who had, up until that point, been portrayed as an evil, and thoroughly unlikable, villainess.
That Elsa had an emotional afterlife reunion with former best friend Ethel Darling was a perfect example, almost daring you to forget that she had in fact killed Ethel and then helped dispose of her body in gruesome fashion. It also attempts to dismiss that Elsa had abandoned her monsters, and had in fact signed off on several of their deaths, or how happy she was to sell them to Stanley for the sake of her own fame. You can’t just completely erase the past with a moment of sentimentality.
The finale just wasn’t authentic, nor did it ring true to anything that had come before. Freak Show, more than anything, fell victim to its own insistence on making nearly all of the characters unlikable, which reared its ugly head big time when it then asked us to care. At this point, the next season of the show might as well call itself American Horror Story: Senseless Murder. I’m not sure there’s any reason to pretend the show is something it isn’t. Maybe they should just remove ‘Story’ from the title.