Underneath the veneer of greasepaint and stage smiles, Freak Show is a season of binaries. Innocence and experience, naivety and corruption, life and death, darkness and light, pleasure and pain are all played against two juxtaposing and integral backdrops: the carnival and the suburban ‘normality’ of Jupiter.
When the local bobbies introduce a town curfew in the wake of Twisty the Clown’s (John Carroll Lynch) murderous antics, the fragile future of the Freak Show falls onto the conjoined shoulders of twins Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson).
The Carrie-esque split-screen camera work and tight tilt shots of each twin literalise the dichotomy between the characters, but all is not quite as it seems with the Tattlers. The way in which each individual’s desires, fears and weaknesses are manipulated by both the camera and Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) is a testament to the development of the show: the fact that something so potentially cheesy just seems to work so effectively is a triumph on its own.
“People don’t come to see freaks in the heat of the day,” Elsa laments, following the suggestion of incongruous matinee performances to counteract the potential damage the curfew may cause the show’s profits. “They come in the evening when the darkness moves in and speaks of mystery and the unknown, when logic loosens its vice grip and the imagination comes out to play. Night allows the stars to shine and we come alive.”
It’s a somewhat chilling reality for her crew of misfits, as it becomes apparent by Episode 2 that the performers exist in a parallel Jupiter to the wholesome all-American neighbourhood in which the diner, the picnic spots and the toy store operate. Elsa’s crew exist in a shadowland far removed from the airy, spacious home of Gloria and Dandy Mott (Frances Conroy and Finn Wittrock), or the lonesome highways, parched forests and grassy fields of Twisty’s playground.
Episode 2 deserves special props for a truly chilling execution of one of our favourite clown-related urban legends – the Home Intruder Poses as Clown Statue, which has actually happened, FYI (good luck sleeping tonight) – and the much anticipated introduction of actor Angela Bassett, aka Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans from Season 3’s Coven, this time reincarnated as a three-breasted performer sure to delight all the Total Recall fans tuning in.
Additionally, for American Horror Story nerds, the meta inclusion of Naomi Grossman as Pepper, the microcephalic inmate of Season 2’s Briarcliff Asylum, is sure to delight as the first actual character to cross between seasons.
The real jewel in the crown of Episode 2 is, though, Twisty’s thread finally interweaving with the primary cast – although the nature of the web is yet to be woven…
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.