Set in 1952, “American Horror Story: Freak Show” tells the story of a sideshow that has taken up residence on a small plot of land just outside the small town of Jupiter, Florida. Jessica Lange returns to the series for a fourth year, this time as former German cabaret singer and sideshow owner Elsa Mars. Without giving away too much, the premiere episode focuses on Elsa, in a last ditch effort to prevent her sideshow from going completely under, as she manages to coerce recently discovered adult conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson in a double role) into headlining her show.
Lange gleams onscreen as Elsa — evoking grotesque and glamour at the same time, with a precision that rivals Gloria Swanson as fading silent film star Norma Desmond of “Sunset Blvd.” Elsa likens herself to Marlene Dietrich — dressing in expensive-looking furs and bold frocks. But to most people, including us, she is just another cheap imitation.
Stardom is wishful thinking on Elsa’s part; a multi-layered fantasy that unfolds over the course of the episode and eventually culminates with a magnificent, yet flagrantly anachronistic glam-rock inspired cabaret performance that is essentially a critique of Elsa’s self-identification as a star. She appears center stage, but there are only two people in the audience — both of whom are interested in seeing the real “freaks,” not a self-made one.
In spite of the rather superficial and farcical characterization of Elsa, Murphy and Falchuk’s decision to shoot her from the third-person rather than the first-person point-of-view makes it very challenging to delve deeper into her character in order to decode her motives. The camera moves around Elsa, rather than with her. Unlike first-person shooting, where the camera forges an intimate bond between audience and character by assuming said character’s point-of-view, third-person shooting documents events without ever penetrating individual psychology.
Since the camera is always looking at Elsa, our knowledge of her thoughts and feelings are derived from external observations; whereas with Bette and Dot, the use of a split screen illustrates the twins’ separate physical and psychological points-of-view, situating us inside their fear so that we react with them, not to them.
In tinkering with point-of-view, however, Murphy and Falchuk inadvertently end up over-burdening the narrative with superfluous exposition — especially at the beginning, when Elsa has to visit the Tattler three times before they agree to join the sideshow. Having established Elsa as a charismatic and commanding woman, three visits to the twins feels rather reductive, when it has been clearly established that she is someone who takes what she wants, at her leisure.
Murphy and Falchuk nonetheless make up for the time lost to extraneous exposition by lining the main plot with a succinct, sinister subplot that not only provides an introduction to this season’s villain — John Carroll Lynch as a murderous clown with a harrowing Glasgow smile — but also, rather poetically, collides with the main plot line at the episode’s end.
By bringing the main and subplots together, Murphy and Falchuk provide a satisfying conclusion to the premiere, as well as a compelling set-up for the rest of the season. While the fourth season shows great promise, viewers who are usually skeptical of Murphy’s work must take a step back and accept both the strengths and the flaws of “American Horror Story” if they choose to tag along for this season’s ride.
“American Horror Story: Freak Show” premieres Wednesday, October 8, at 10pm on FX.
READ MORE: Watch: ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ Opening Credits Reveals Kissing Conjoined Twins