American Horror Story: Freak Show made its debut on FX last night to the usual mix of awe, confusion, and maybe a little too much hype. When something is this stuffed, to the extent it can be stuffed with things, it's helpful to remember the two primary rules of Ryan Murphy productions:
- Irony does not exist, and
- Everything is irony.
I'm not a fan of camp—it's complicated enough just liking the things you like. But whatever we mean when we invoke that elastic, overworked phrase, that's in part what Ryan Murphy is trying to do. That means any attempt to discuss the show, and this has almost always been true, becomes a catalog of stuff, specifically crazy-ass stuff, which is fun but not that intriguing to me, because that's what he was offering in the first place: A list of crazy-ass stuff. Spoiler alert:
Tired of being hidden away in a country farmhouse, one conjoined twin murders her mother/jailer, and a couple days later the other tries to kill (or at least punish) her via scissors to the chest. Thanks to a coinciding murder spree by the roving psycho clown who lives in a scary schoolbus down by the river, the twins (Bette and Dot, played through cinematic witchcraft by Sarah Paulson) are threatened with arrest until the embattled and loony mistress of a carnival outside town, Fraulein Elsa (Jessica Lange, obviously), acquires them as a new attraction, so it's through their eyes—and dueling diary narratives—that we begin to meet the denizens of the titular attraction.
How could that possibly take ninety minutes? Well, mostly it has to do with redundantly describing the politics of being freaky, over and over. But that's the point, and it's not a bad thing, even if it's a Ryan Murphy staple. Both Popular and Glee are built entirely and specifically around this same "freak" concept of the In Crowd/Loser dynamic, and as he ages, it hardens more and more into the overtly political:
The ramp-up from Nip/Tuck, about the ultimate emptiness of deforming oneself for popular acceptance, to Asylum (in large part about our culture's history of pathologizing normal human behavior), to The New Normal (the granular negotiations surrounding assimilation and social change), and even unto last year's Coven finale, which saw witches come out of the broom closet on a global scale and take down a brutal misogynistic hegemony in the process.
Murphy is about breaking down the walls between "us" and "them," which anyone can tell you is going to look ugly most of the time, because they wouldn't be "them" if they weren't the repository of what we hate in ourselves. They're what we say NO to: Every singularity looks like the apocalypse until you reach the other side, every reconciliation is as scary as coming out, because it changes our fundamental realities. Everything you don't know is monstrous, because in the absence of the knowns we project into the unknown what we've got going on, and for most of us most of the time, that's fear.
The reason so many of Murphy's characters are unlikeable, or irredeemable, is precisely to ride this balance: Because it's a process, and getting to Better means starting at Worse. But understand anything deeply enough and you won't be able to hate it anymore, because it's no longer unknown but a part of you. It's come back home. It fucked a Minotaur, molested a corpse or two on the way, but it got there eventually.
So as irritating as a lot of the baggage that comes with a Murphy vehicle can be, I would say the greater project is worthwhile. Getting the knack of that wider perspective takes a lifetime, so it's good that he keeps telling this story where people can hear it: Armies who, by the end get lost in the fight for its own sake, and whose survivors slowly come to understand that what we share always dwarfs the differences between us. Just ask Elsa Mars:
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For those looking simply for a shared experience of WTF, this is even more helpful than this season's scariest antagonist yet. But I would say what's most intriguing about Jessica Lange's Fraulein Elsa, seen above performing David Bowie's 1971 classic "Life on Mars?," represents much more: in fact, a huge evolution in Murphy's approach to the the overall us/them concept that obsesses him.
Like his New Normal stand-in, the producer of a Glee analogue, she's the showrunner for a freak show who is never quite sure if she's supporting or exploiting the "darlings" and "children" she proclaims to love. For a man who has made his career speaking on behalf of women, racial and gender minorities, and the downtrodden, it's sort of a shocking move. Has Murphy matured into finally letting us see him sweat this?
Only after getting very high on opium does Elsa admit to her loyal work-wife Ethel (a mesmerizing Kathy Bates, plus an awesome beard and very specific accent) that she is, at least at certain times, completely aware that her deferred film-star dreams are what really give her the drive to save her carnival at all costs, and that ultimately she's riding on the backs of her "freaks" whether she wants to be or not. She presents at first as Mars, the God of War, storming the gates of Jovian Jupiter, the Father of us all. Here, she finally questions whether she's not just another agent of that world's selfishness. It's the kind of real-talk, humanizing scene that Lange usually gets right before she dies each season, but here it gives us a reframe of all the drive we've just seen in action.
The reason Elsa flips the fuck out on anybody questioning her "monsters," the reason she was so obsessive and seductive in acquiring the Tattler Twins, the reason she is willing to fuck random policemen and film Grace Gummer's gang-rape, her delusional attachment to keeping her godawful small affair going outside a town that doesn't even want her, all comes into a radical new focus when Elsa admits to her own selfishness. And then in a private moment, the show takes it one step further: Elsa—who by the way has a "Legless Suzy" act in her show—is a double amputee herself.
To be among the freaks but not of the freaks—not "born this way"—is a rallying cry for almost anyone whose heart is in the right place even when their politics are suspect. Elsa is a social justice queen, a male feminist, a cisgendered ally, with all the intersections and weirdness that have come into the conversation as we contemplate the fog of war surrounding identity politics, from #gamergate and #notyourshield to the larger civil rights movements in play in the show's 1952 (and every other time, of course).
When the camera moves, during Lange's performance above, to this "sad-clown" version of Elsa in the audience, it's contrasting her visually with the complicated, weeping freakazoid Dandy Mott, who can't seem to separate his adoration from his prurience from his fascination with the freaky. That's no accident. While the story has other plans for Dandy, it's an important point for the show to make as early as possible: Just because you're on the Inside of the Out Crowd doesn't mean you're not benefiting from the structural iniquities that surround us all, nor does it mean you aren't, on some level, taking a vacation in someone else's story.
Mars, and Murphy through her, have created a world where up is down, where ugly is beautiful, where freaky is normal—just as last season Murphy invented an all-female world of witches, in which men were plot-point afterthoughts, objects of desire or pity, rendered mute—and in doing so have asked a question that cannot be unasked: Who has the right to tell anybody else's story? Is it heroic to do so? Is it inevitable that we slide, being creatures of vanity, always from "ally" to "honorary"? (i.e., How can a white feminist be racist, a gay guy misogynist?) How much do the silver screen images we identify with transmute themselves, over time, into appropriation?
In other words, when Elsa asks whether there's life on Mars, she's asking a much simpler question, on behalf of Murphy and on behalf of everyone watching: In this carnival, in this world, is there life in Mars? Wonder if she'll ever know, as the song goes, but honestly redemption the one thing Murphy never fails to deliver. Even when it's unearned, but especially when it hits so close to home.