I’m going to level with you guys. This season of American Horror Story has been a bit of a mess. Storylines have come and gone quicker than you can say ‘Emma Roberts has a limited range’, physical deformities are more important to the writers than any character development, and any fun elements which have been prevalent in previous seasons seem to have been packed away along with Lily Rabe’s chiffon scarves. Still, no one likes a quitter, and so it is with sheer determination and twelve mugs of coffee that we’ve made it to the eighth episode ‘Test of Strength’. In life it’s best not to engage too fully in negativity, so I’m going to give this episode the benefit of the doubt and treat it with much more respect than it deserves.
As the title suggests, this episode concentrates on The Cabinet of Curiosities’ resident strong man Dell and his inner turmoil. Dell has more or less lurked on the periphery of this season, only making an actual splash two weeks ago when we learned he was a closeted gay man. Determined to sustain the image of masculinity he’s cultivated over the years, his pride is all he has left and he will do all he can to protect it. So when Stanley threatens to tell the people of Jupiter his secret, Dell goes to great lengths to prevent it. ‘Closeted man is threatened with exposure’ isn’t exactly a groundbreaking plot, but it is hard to complain when Dennis O’Hare is having such a wicked time. Stanley is ruthless in his taunting of Dell, and decides to add some brawn to him and Maggie’s fraudulent plan by getting him to murder one of the freaks.
There’s an interesting conflict going on with Dell this week. While he’s having his masculinity called into question by Stanley, he is also being idolized by his son Jimmy. After finally admitting the truth, they have a bonding experience, and Dell decides to project his clearly misogynistic views onto his son in order to combat his impending embarrassment at the hands of Stanley. American Horror Story is well known for it’s depiction of female suffering, and this has resulted in some of its finest characters and scenes (basically, all of Jessica Lange’s characters). While it usually succeeds on that front, it is refreshing to see a male character control an episode like this. In the hands of an actor as skilled as Chiklis, the scene where he is driven to murdering the vulnerable Ma Petite in her bed plays as less savage than the many other death scenes which have come before it, and more like the final destination of a man trying desperately to stay in control of a situation that is spiraling wildly out of his hands.
While Dell was showing himself to be one of the most complicated characters in Freak Show, Bette and Dot were being effortlessly rescued from the Mott mansion by Jimmy. This scene was both infuriating and indicative of the wider problems of the season. Here we had a story that had the potential to be thrilling (and give us winning performances from Conroy, Wittrock and Paulson) until another character strolled in, ended it quietly, and we were quickly shuffled onto another, less interesting plot which will inevitably be tied up next week. Perhaps the reason it’s so difficult to get involved in any of the multiple threads running throughout Freak Show is that these threads are tied up neatly each week with next to no drama or consequences.
Once again, we are presented with an episode that works quite well by itself but falters in the grand scheme of the season. Luckily, Stanley and Maggie’s plan to murder the members of the freak show appears to have finally gained some steam. As of now it seems like it will be the driving point of the last six episodes of this season, however it is also incredibly likely that it’ll be thrown away without much thought next week. If that happens, we’ll just have to try and appreciate the smaller things about each episode, even if those things are getting harder and harder to spot.