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Much like young children dressed in makeshift kitten costumes and the soothing sound of fireworks outside your window, American Horror Story (AHS) is now something we can look forward to each October. AHS has only grown in popularity since it debuted in 2011, and since this fourth season is rumoured to be Jessica Lange’s last as the official matriarch, the stakes are insanely high for series creator Ryan Murphy. So, after trying his hardest to make us forget about the worryingly unfocused Coven, Ryan Murphy has invited us to the new world of the Freak Show.
We’ve moved back to 1950s America, with this season taking place in one of the last remaining freak show attractions in Jupiter, Florida. Jessica Lange takes the reins once again as Elsa Mars, founder of The Cabinet of Curiosities. Times are tough for poor Elsa, she’s having trouble filling seats in her show, and the people of Jupiter are becoming increasingly hostile towards the stars. As her bearded friend Ethel (played with a curious Baltimore accent by Kathy Bates) explains, people are “finding their jollies” in their own homes nowadays. What’s a fame hungry ringleader to do? Adopt a pair of murderous sisters attached at the neck, that’s what! And when conjoined twins Bette and Dot are discovered in the home of their recently murdered mother by their local milkman, Elsa hopes to bring in more paying customers by adding a new face (or two) to her roster.
Generally speaking, AHS has suffered from throwing too many ideas into the melting pot. New ghosts were added to the Murder House every fifteen minutes, Nazis were fraternizing with aliens while nuns whipped lesbian journalists in the Asylum, and Coven killed off then revived each of it’s characters with a worrying level of intensity. The first episode of Freakshow carefully avoids this problem, introducing only a select number of the characters while leaving the likes of Angela Bassett, Emma Roberts, Gabouray Sidibe and Denis O’Hare to make their entrance in later weeks. ‘Monsters Among Us’ thus becomes one of the most focused and coherent episodes of any season of AHS.
It wouldn’t be AHS without some actual horror, and this season’s Big Bad is the demented Twisty The Clown, played by John Carroll Lynch. While we are watching Bette and Dot get comfortable in their new surroundings, Twisty is working his way through the town with reckless abandon and a gruesome mask. It’s not entirely clear what his connection to Elsa and her band of misfits is quite yet; as far as I could tell he was just roaming the fields of Jupiter viciously murdering people and kidnapping children. But I’m sure as the weeks go on, we’ll see beneath the mask and find out more about Twisty’s motives (I’m sort of hoping he doesn’t have one, that’s always much more frightening).
It’s not really fair to judge any season of AHS based on its first episode (Coven started as one girl’s story about being disowned by her family and ended up being about witch hunters, zombie boyfriends and one huge metaphor for coming out of the closet) but if this 90 minute introduction to Freakshow is any indication, season four of AHS seems poised to be the strongest offering yet. The supernatural element was never successfully executed in the previous seasons, so to see it done away with here is a good sign, while AHS veterans Lange, Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters have each been given much more to work with this time around. Of course, this could all be derailed once every character has been introduced, but for now Freak Show looks set to return the show to the thrilling heights it hasn’t seen since the early episodes of Asylum. Hurrah!