A simmering lack of trust bubbles beneath the veneer of family values in the latest instalment of Freak Show. Despite a healthy (if not continuous) level of infighting within the troupe, the Cabinet of Curiosities has always been a sanctuary of safety and acceptance for the performers. As the whispers of potential television stardom for Fräulein Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) grow stronger, a splintering of camaraderie occurs: the departure of their matriarch and ringleader would naturally compromise the future of the show.
Although the performers were endeared to the town for a brief spell, following the belief that Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters) was responsible for the death of serial killer Twisty (John Carroll Lynch), the status quo of distrust has clearly been restored: Paul the Illustrated Seal (Mat Fraser) is shunned by the local pharmacist before a ludicrous accusation of pickpocketing occurs, demonstrating a continuation of the unwelcome energy that the carnies must deal with whenever they leave the confines of camp.
Elsa describes her somewhat delusional plan: once she has conquered Hollywood with her glittering television debut, she intends to gradually recruit the rest of her family as extras on the show. This promise seems empty to the rest of the cast in the wake of the disappearance of the Tattler sisters (Sarah Paulson), whom Elsa claims took flight during a shopping trip. The somewhat clumsy expositional dialogue that establishes the fact the pair have jumped ship is a disorienting narrative trick that makes it seem as though a beat was skipped, particularly as their “mysterious” whereabouts is revealed to the viewer immediately and not played for dramatic tension at all.
The strenuous relationship between Dot and Bette Tattler is demonstrated through internal monologues as they write in their diaries. As they exist within each other’s consciousness, the twins externalise their most private thoughts and desires through the written word, with a solemn oath never to breach that bond of trust. Of course, the problem with committing one’s deepest desires and darkest ruminations to paper is that they are vulnerable to exposure, which could prove to be their downfall.
The vulnerability of the performers is highlighted in Episode 6, with a fantasy sequence showing the sweetly trusting Ma Petite (Jyoti Amge) carried to her death by double agent Maggie Esmerelda (Emma Roberts), and Paul the Illustrated Seal appearing helpless against a slap from Jimmy.
The theme is focalised via the iconic bullseye trick, in which a performer is strapped to a rotating wheel. Knives are tossed to strike the target behind them in a daring feat of precision and timing, of which Elsa claims to be a pro.
“Fate is the true master of us all,” she explains to Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates), as though the future of both the performers’ wellbeing and the show itself is completely out of her hands. “Faith and loyalty only take people so far,” is Ethel’s portentous response, applicable to every thread in the show so far. Elsa’s faith in Stanley’s (Denis O’Hare) Hollywood promise, Stanley’s faith in Maggie Esmeralda’s ability to double-cross the performers, Gloria Mott’s (Frances Conroy) faith that her son Dandy (Finn Wittrock) won’t kill again, Dandy’s faith in Bette’s love, Bette’s faith in Dot’s honour, and the performer’s faith in Elsa are all, surely, about to be tested.
American Horror Story: Freak Show is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. Seasons 1, 2 and 3 are also available.