I have a touch and go relationship with American Horror Story. I’ve seen five seasons and liked two: Murder House and Freak Show are the only ones that don’t (ironically) feel gimmicky, or seem to run completely off the rails halfway through. I’ve rewatched both in the last week to find I’m still drawn to them.
I can’t explain my attraction to Murder House. I love a chance to get into dangerous teen boys’ heads, and the Harmons’ couple dynamics feel very realistic. Compared to other seasons, it’s fairly cohesive on the whole. The house porn certainly doesn’t hurt, either; I’m in love with those built in Tiffany fixtures.
Then there’s Freak Show. This was actually my third run through with it: the first left me stunned, the second made me cry. Unlike the other arcs, most of the protagonists enter the series as innocents, genuinely good people who happen to be in bad situations. They are victims of circumstance, nothing more.
This time I noticed a couple things.
S4 E1 displays that the freaks mostly move under cover of night and are subject to police harassment. Jimmy, whose fingers split into two pairs rather than four individuals, tastes freedom by renting himself out as a masturbatory aid. Dot and Bette, conjoined twins sharing a body below the neck, are welcomed as the newest members of the troupe. Antagonist Dandy Mott sees them and immediately attempts to buy them.
Something definitely felt off here. Turns out the plot was gearing up for a fairly offensive denouement.
S4 E2 sees the freaks involved in both a sit in and a senseless police murder: the body is returned by being thrown from the back of a truck that never fully stops. It also has the first appearance of two of the only four black characters: Dora, the Motts’ maid, and Desiree, a woman with three breasts and purring with sex appeal.
In effect, the writers chose to borrow some fairly traumatic Civil Rights imagery for a group of exclusively white people, then made it clear they couldn’t be arsed to humanize their nonwhite characters at all. Dora serves up distractingly dated head-bobbing sass alongside her meals, and Desiree alternates between Jezebel and mammy archetypes throughout.
From this point, there are all kinds of microagressions towards POC: while begging, (Legless) Suzi kills a dancer who gets more handouts than she does; a little girl asks Desiree if she’s a real lady; Bette makes a passing reference to someone as “high yellow”. Quid pro quo, Desiree and Dora both spit out “white” as an insult, as though their presence at all is equally threatening. It should be noted that Freak Show takes place in Florida in the early 1950s. While this was probably a common mindset among white people in the actual time and place, it has absolutely no business being broadcast on national TV in the 2010s.
While black cast members get the worst of the insensitivity, there are a few other notable minority players:
Ma Petite, an Indian woman somewhere around 2 feet tall and treated like a doll across the board. She’s frequently seen putting makeup on ringleader Elsa and, on one occasion, is delivered to her as a literal present. Twice she is removed from her bed in the middle of the night, the intruders only announcing their arrival at its foot. Her lack of personal agency borders on disturbing; it’s eventually revealed that she was bartered for soda to serve as a surrogate child for Pepper. She’s doomed to a life of just-go-with-it, and eventually killed by someone pretending to hug her, then snapping her neck.
Salty, Pepper, and Meep, all of whom are played by able actors in heavy makeup, all of whom are affected by unspecified mental disabilities. Meep is the least verbal, only able to say his name but otherwise functional; he’s framed early on for a cop murder and becomes the truck-delivery casualty. Salty and Pepper have the same nondescript issue, which appears to be a poor-taste play on microcephaly. Pepper is Elsa’s first “adoption”, and Salty was obtained solely to give her an “understanding” husband. When he dies of old age, Elsa can only speak of him with disgust, calling him stupid and unwilling to learn compared to his wife. Pepper becomes inconsolable with grief, so Elsa returns her to her non-freak sister. Lacking any meaningful dialogue, all three characters are presented as disposable.
Dell Toledo, a strong man, the only member of his immediate family without “lobster claws”, and of uncertain sexuality. He’s married twice to women with masculine physical traits and spends a lot of his screen time at a local gay bar. Stanley, an openly gay con artist, sees him there and blackmails him into murder (though Dell’s current wife, Desiree, drops hints that she already knows). It would appear that Dell finds it more shameful to be gay than to be a freak. Even though he has the ability to pass as “normal” in either situation, he’s much more willing to defend and admit to being the latter.
Ethel Darling, a bearded lady, showtime announcer, camp chef and broad Finnish stereotype. Like other poorly scripted Finns, she’s self-reliant, alcoholic, and as quiet as a TV series permits her to be. She’s never exclusively ethnically identified, but if you know what to look for- if, say, your own family is among the .2% of American Finns- it’s dogwhistle clear. I’m calling attention to her because it feels great to see a fully developed character that looks and sounds a bit like you. Why the writers chose to quietly specify yet another white cast member rather than pay attention to the characters noticeably lacking is anyone’s guess. I certainly didn’t need any more representation: drawing attention to Ethel is icing a cake so much that it becomes inedible.
The actually physically different freaks: Amazon Eve, Legless Suzi, Toulouse, Paul the Illustrated Seal. Though their stories come across piecemeal throughout the series, they are largely filler compared to the repeat-seasons stars: CGI’d Sarah Paulson, prosthetic’ed Evan Peters.
I’ve stopped watching other AHS seasons at various points for doing something in extremely poor taste. I’m ashamed to admit that the sit in sequence didn’t even blip my radar the first two times around- I took it as a normal discrimination experience without ever stopping to consider why. To quote Pepper’s sister, “God doesn’t always give with both hands”: yes, Freak Show handles segregation, but only to the extent that it serves the plot. As an audience, we deserve and ought to demand better.
This is a great season for feeling disgusted and nihilistic. I won’t be watching it again.