For those unfamiliar with “American Horror Story” (2011 – present), often simply referred to as “AHS,” each season features a new, unrelated story line that incorporates many of the same actors and actresses playing different characters. This unique approach, along with “AHS’s” talented cast, sets the show apart.
“Freak Show,” the fourth and newest season of “AHS,” premiered on Oct. 8 and is set in the town of Juniper, Fla. in 1952. Here’s the new idea: Elsa Mars, played by the fantastic Jessica Lange, owns a traveling freak show, which has been on the decline for several months. It is in financial trouble, and risks being kicked off the property due to its low income. The town has ostracized her show, some from fear of its members and others from disgust. Meanwhile, a murderous clown rampages through a nearby town, traveling closer and closer to the show, though none of the performers are aware of this development. Very little is known about the killer, but he resembles Bloody Face from season two of “AHS,” “Asylum.”
When Elsa hears of Siamese twins, Bette and Dot Tattler (both played by Sarah Paulson) who have been discovered after their mother is murdered, she is convinced they will be the act that brings fame and success back to her show. So, naturally, she seeks them out hoping to recruit them. The twins are stark opposites: Bette is kind to the point of naivete, while Dot is cold and cynical, especially skeptical of Elsa’s intentions. “AHS” does a fabulous job of alternating between the twins’ separate thoughts and their interactions, often somewhat hostile, with each other. Paulson captures each character’s essence very well, despite both characters being nothing like those she has played in previous seasons.
The twins, realizing that they are prime suspects in their mother’s murder, decide it is in their best interest to travel with someone who, at the very least, doesn’t think of them as monsters: Elsa Mars. Elsa has brought those shunned by the rest of the world to her small family of “freaks,” and Bette and Dot will soon become a part of it. Though Elsa’s real hopes for this freak show are unclear (does she want a community of her own, or cold, hard cash?), she does create a safe space for people who have been rejected by the rest of society.
Season four brings back many fan favorites, as well as introducing some brand new cast members. Evan Peters is back as Jimmy Darling, a man with ectrodactyly, a condition that enlarges and webs his fingers. Kathy Bates plays Ethel, his mother, the bearded lady. Arguably the most interesting aspect of “Freak Show” is that this season’s premise has allowed “AHS” to incorporate actors who have unique abilities in real life, including Jyoti Amge, Mat Fraser and Rose Siggins.
The last season of “AHS,” “Coven,” straddled the line between supernatural, campy horror and teen drama. Although it was enjoyable, many fans agreed that it felt too light compared to previous seasons. It is refreshing to see that “Freak Show” has gone back to the show’s roots with a sufficient dose of horror.
And as viewers await the subsequent episodes of the season, they can expect to be delighted by the versatility of the core cast. Last season, Kathy Bates played a racist and violent socialite from New Orleans who was undoubtedly hated by fans of the show. This season she plays a kind mother, who — despite her son’s frustrations at being treated as a freak — remains faithful to Elsa. Likewise, while Lange has developed a reputation for playing conniving characters on “AHS,” she still manages to bring her own spin to each character and surprise fans with her convincing performances.
The beginning of “Freak Show” leaves many possible storylines open to exploration, but makes it clear, even from the first episode, that this season will impress and terrify fans — especially those who fear clowns.