American Horror Story Freak Show, S4E1: Monsters Among Us
Original Airdate: October 8, 2014
Recap by Sarabeth Pollock
It’s here! It’s finally here!
Sarah Paulson is walking with a dark look on her face. She’s thinking of her diary, and she says she’s about to enter the gates of hell. Oddly enough, the camera is tilted, so we don’t know which Sarah Paulson we’re looking at. Confused? You should be. Sarah Paulson is playing double duty this season, portraying both Bette and Dot Tattler, the Siamese Twins. More on this later.
Jupiter, Florida. 1952. The milkman arrives at the Tattler house to find the old milk still on the porch. He goes inside the house to investigate and comes upon an old woman dead on the floor. She’s been stabbed multiple times. In classic horror film form, instead of rushing out the still open front door, the milkman head upstairs. He approaches a closed closet door at the end of the hall, and whatever he sees leaves him screaming.
Next we rush down the corridor at a nondescript though very sterile 1950’s-era hospital. Orderlies and doctors alike rush up to the gurney, and many quickly turn away in disgust. As the gurney passes through the doors at the end of the hall, a nurse runs out and heaves into the trashcan. What is on the gurney? We’re not meant to know…yet. All we do know is that as the doctor runs an x-ray, he tells the nurse that this figure before them has two hearts, two spines, four lungs, a shared circulatory system, but one reproductive system. The nurse’s eyes are as wide as saucers as she takes down the doctor’s notes.
A well-dressed (and fashion forward) woman arrives at the hospital carrying a large purse with a demonic-looking face on it. She’s dressed to the nines, really, and seems out of place wearing a furry concoction in Jupiter Florida. Penny the Candy Striper is telling the duty nurse that she would have drowned the creature in their wing upon birth if it had been hers. The nurse doesn’t find her humor amusing, and instead she tells Penny that the supervisor will be upset that she has red lipstick on. This young woman seems destined for trouble.
Enter Elsa Mars, played by Jessica Lange. Elsa has a German accent and an affinity for strange things. She claims she’s there to see her son, but she wants to know what lurks behind the only door with an armed guard. Penny says it’s a monster, and this piques Elsa’s interest. She offers Penny a cigarette (“It’s Lucky Strike, it’s good for you.”) and guesses that Penny is candy striping to make her mom happy (Penny says that it was that or reform school). Elsa offers her business card and suggests that Penny would be happier leading a life of adventure. Penny is intrigued. She wants to know what’s inside Elsa’s “Cabinet of Curiosities,” but Elsa warns that she can only learn by entering.
Elsa has managed to con Penny out of her candy striper uniform, and she goes past the guard and into the room, bearing two balloons. She walks around the curtained bed and pulls back the sheet, awakening the Tattler sisters, Bette and Dot. Elsa doesn’t look upon them with fear, rather she sees nothing but opportunity.
Cue the creepiest opening credits to date.
When we return to the hospital, Dot and Bette are watching their visitor with interest. Dot is surly and serious, while Bette is playful and juvenile. Elsa busies herself by setting out a dress for the twins to wear once they leave the hospital, and she comments that the crime scene was pretty bloody, which doesn’t earn much of a response from the girls. She gives Bette some magazines and offers her a puff of her Lucky Strike. (Interestingly, Dot is the one who exhales the smoke) The girls can communicate with each other without speaking, and we get to see their perspective as the screen cuts to a split screen to mirror what they see. Elsa informs them that their doctor shared their medical charts with her, and she notes that they only have one reproductive system. Has either of them ever had a boyfriend? Dot remains silent, but Bette is quick to tell Elsa what happens when she touches herself. Dot calls her sister a slut. Elsa bids them farewell for now, reminding them that she is there for them.
There’s a young couple getting frisky on a picnic blanket in a field. The young woman wants to keep going, telling her beau that she stole “two rubbers” so they can keep going. He hurries off to the car to grab something, and as the girl gets ready for him, she spies a man standing across the field. As he comes closer, she sees that he’s a horribly scary clown, with a mask of a grotesque smile plastered across his face. She is scared at first, but then he presents her with flowers. She laughs. Then he slowly pulls out some batons that clowns use to juggle. By now, her boyfriend returns and he assumes a protective stance in front of her. The clown doesn’t like him at all, and he strikes both of them with the batons. The girl wakes up in time to see the clown stabbing her boyfriend over and over again. She screams and runs, but she can’t escape him.
Meet Twisty the Clown. He’s the stuff of nightmares.
In a small diner, Elsa clips news articles with glee. The waitress asks if she’s clipping coupons, but she’s really looking for movie reviews for her scrapbook. She tells the waitress that the star was paid $200K just to “take a hot shit” on the movie. Just then, Evan Peters enters. His role this year: Jimmy Darling. He’s wearing mittens of some kind, and he promptly engages in a flirtatious conversation with the waitress. Elsa approaches and tells Jimmy that she can’t make her lighter work. His eyes cloud at the sight of her. The waitress asks if Elsa is his mom, but he shakes his head and tells her to scram. Elsa immediately calls him selfish and says that she worked hard to find this place that they can call home and build upon the show. He is jeopardizing all of that. If not for Elsa, Jimmy’s mother would be in an asylum (which is a nod to season two, and foreshadowing to Pepper’s fate). The only places for freaks, outside of Elsa’s show, are in state wards and asylums. Jimmy angrily reminds her that the people of Jupiter don’t want freaks in their neighborhood.
Flashback: Elsa is sorting laundry with Ma Petite, India’s Jyoti Amge, also known as the world’s smallest woman. She’s just a hair over two feet tall, and Elsa is cradling her and talking to her before setting her down so that Ma Petite can fold the stockings. There is a man there telling Elsa that she needs to vacate the field because a revival is coming down from Georgia and they won’t want to see the freaks there. Elsa is enraged that they would try to push her show off the land, even though the man points out that no one is going to see it. They have a one-year lease. She tells him that she has a bottle of schnapps hidden away…and that’s the end of that.
Jimmy can’t understand how she did it, but he says that they are over. Elsa becomes furious, pounding her fist and startling the other patrons. Jimmy pats her on the arm and takes his leave, and when Elsa gets up, the waitress tries to collect her bill. Elsa tells her that it’s on the house, because “stars never pay.”
Next we see a lavish luncheon at a local house. The ladies have all gathered for a special event, and while there may be a sales pitch coming from the hostess, most of the ladies are there because of what’s in the bedroom. One young woman is frightened, but her hostess insists that it’s okay. She found him at a roadside show, and he has shown her things that she never knew existed. The young woman goes down several dark hallways until she comes across a bedroom. Jimmy is inside, and he smiles at her. She lies on the bed and hitches up her skirt. Still smiling, Jimmy slides his penguin-flipper hand between her legs and shows her a whole new world of pleasure. He smiles as she screams with pleasure.
Back at the hospital, Elsa asks the sisters about their mother’s murder. Dot says it was a robbery gone bad, but the story has holes in it. Elsa suggests that they try harder to get the story straight. Their mother had died two days before the girls were found with a fresh wound.
Hospital workers gather around the radio to listen to a news story about the murder of a local couple. It’s a particularly gruesome scene. We flash to the scene itself, where Twisty the Clown has entered a house at night and kills the father, then the mother. He steals the couple’s young son, who starts to scream as the terrifying clown bears down on him.
Dot listens to the radio report while Bette reads her magazines. Dot knows that trouble is brewing, and she shuts the magazine, forcing Bette to listen.
Out in the woods sits an abandoned van. Inside are tattered toys and various items that belong in a clown’s bag of tricks. At the back of the van is a cage, where the girl and boy sit in squalid conditions. The girl tells the boy he needs to eat, and he does, but sparingly. Twisty the Clown returns, and he presents the captives with a clown toy. The girl, believing that she needs to appease his pride, tells him that he is a very good clown and he should let them go so that they can tell everyone how wonderful he is. But Twisty clearly has another game. He pulls a long chain of blankets and garments from his pocket, and at the end is a rattle. The noise startles the children. Finally, he tries to make a balloon animal, but it pops, which terrifies the children and sends him into a fierce rage. He starts throwing things all around, making the hostages scream in terror. What is striking to me about Twisty is the depth of his expressions. His eyes are amazingly expressive and he makes his whole face come alive with his eyes alone.
The Tattler girls are packing their suitcase. They’ve left the hospital and plan to strike out on their own, but Elsa shows up. She tells them that a massive manhunt is underway for the murderer, and though there were crimes committed while the girls were in the hospital, they are still suspects. Dot sees through Elsa’s plan, but Bette is having trouble distinguishing Elsa’s intentions. Elsa knows that they killed their mother. We flash to a scene at the dinner table, when Bette is begging their mother to take them to the movies. Their mother reminds them what a horrible time they had back in Atlanta, when they had to slip away in the middle of the night. Bette insists that they could sneak in, but Mama won’t have any of it. The girls have no idea what would happen if people knew of their existence. Unfortunately, Bette is tired of their existence, and she wants to leave. She grabs a knife and stabs their mother in the neck, over and over again, until Dot stops her. Dot tells Elsa that Bette didn’t know what she was doing, but Elsa points out that Bette could have stopped her. Bette asks what Elsa wants. Elsa caresses their faces, making Bette giggle. She wants them to help save her show.
Next we see Bette walking along. We saw Dot scowling at the start of the episode, and now Bette walks along with a secret smile on her face. Elsa walks behind them while they walk toward a devilish creature that serves as the entrance to the park. The camera pans over and we see the other inhabitants of the show: Jimmy, the Penguin Boy, Paul the Illustrated Seal, Amazon Eve, and Ma Petite (who is in Jimmy’s arms). They watch as their new family member joins them. We also get to see the whole view of the fairgrounds, complete with Ferris wheel and merry-go-round.
Bette and Dot take to their journals to describe their first day at the freak show. Bette describes their beautiful accommodations, and the new sights and sensations. Dot describes the despair of it all. She talks about going inside the mess hall to see the other residents. Paul and Legless Suzy are there, along with a boy who channels his inner Ozzy (decades before the Prince of Evil rises, of course) and bites the head off a chicken. Jimmy is there to reassure them that he was just excited. He’s wearing a wife-beater and his hands are in his pockets. He sweet talks them and winks at Dot, and she smiles in response. Dot describes Ethel Darling, Jimmy’s mother, who is also the Bearded Lady. She’s a tough old brute played to perfection by Kathy Bates, who relishes the role that has her wearing facial hair that somehow looks entirely normal on her. Ethel, as it turns out, was saved from jail when Elsa appeared as an angel in white and bailed her out, and therefore Ethel owes Elsa her allegiance. She’s a handmaid of sorts to Elsa, and she is also responsible for making sure the show’s newest stars eat. Bette complains that Dot won’t let her eat, but Ethel won’t have it.
Eve, Paul and Jimmy hang roadside signs advertising the new headliners. Eve doesn’t think it will matter, considering that no one ever travels the road. Jimmy is worried about being raided, given that the twins are wanted for murder. We flash to Elsa’s boudoir, where Pepper and Salty tend to her nails while Jimmy sits beside them. Elsa has a plan for everything, which is what Jimmy tells Paul. Suddenly, a car turns the corner and several men drive by, calling the group freaks and throwing bottles at them. Jimmy wants to go after them, but Paul and Eve hold him back. Jimmy doesn’t like people who call them freaks.
Later, Elsa sits in the tent watching old movies with disturbing acts taking place. Ethel cleans up after dinner while Pepper and Salty clear the table. Penny, the Candy Striper, bursts into the tent wearing a flimsy undergarment. She claims that she has been assaulted. If people only knew what was really going on out there, she says. But Elsa is nonplussed. No one was assaulted—Penny participated on her own. Penny believes she was drugged…but then Elsa turns on the projector. She has a tape of various sex acts being performed between the members of the family, and Penny was the guest of honor. She welcomed it. Penny watches, sickened. Elsa reminds her of her place at the show, and then she picks up Ma Petite and leaves Penny to figure out what to do.
Jimmy is in his trailer with his mother, who is counting the money he earned doing his side jobs. He’s shaving, and clearly Evan Peters has been working out. But I digress. Jimmy wants a better life, but his mother thinks their life is fine the way it is. Ethel sees Elsa as their savior, but Jimmy thinks that Elsa is keeping them under her control. He proposes moving away, buying land, and starting their own life, but Ethel won’t hear it.
Later that night, Jimmy is walking outside when he sees a shadowy figure in Dot and Bette’s tent. He goes to investigate and finds a detective there, come to arrest the sisters for murder. Jimmy tries to point out that they had been attacked as well, but the officer knows that the mother had been dead much longer. The detective has no sympathy for the freaks, telling Jimmy he calls a spade a spade. Jimmy becomes angry and whistles, calling the other members of the troupe to the tent. The detective says there’s no room in Jupiter for freaks, which sends Jimmy into a rage. He cuts the man’s throat, and he falls to the ground gasping for his last breaths. Jimmy grabs the keys to the handcuffs and frees the twins, telling them that they are safe with them. Dot seems to have a change of heart when she sees that Jimmy is willing to kill to protect her.
But enough of that….it’s time for the show!
Gloria Mott (Frances Conroy) is in the audience with her son, Dandy. They’re the only ones in the audience and Dandy insists on switching seats to have the best view of the freaks. He doesn’t like sitting there, and he’s quite the male-version of Veruca Salt. His mother pacifies him until the show starts. Ethel opens the show while Elsa prepares backstage, donning her best Bette Davis-Baby Jane blue eye shadow. It’s creepy. Downright creepy. Ethel introduces the oddities, including Paul, Salty and Pepper, Eve and Ma Petite. Dandy takes it all in with wide eyes.
When Elsa takes the stage, she’s wearing a powder blue suit that matches her eye shadow. Her blond hair is like a halo. She launches into a song about the wonders of Mars (her name is Elsa Mars, of course) and the members of the troupe perform with her. It’s a visually stunning performance, and Jessica Lange is at her best with the vocals. As soon as the number ends, though, she seems to forget where she is, and when she sees the empty audience she becomes upset. Gloria and her son are interested in buying the Tattler sisters from Elsa. Gloria is prepared to offer up to $15K to make her son happy, but the sisters insist that the show is their home. Dot catches Jimmy’s eye and he winks at her. Elsa laughs and tells Gloria that the show is going to be a hit with their new headliners. Something tells me that something is very wrong with the Mott Family.
After the show, the troupe goes out to the woods and circles the body of the detective. Jimmy gives a rousing speech about how they will not be bullied anymore. The troupe raises its weapons and proceeds to hack apart the dead detective.
Back at the fairgrounds, Twisty the Clown rides the merry-go-round. His face is truly disturbing. Is that a face stuck onto his own face?
Elsa is in her tent and Ethel is fussing over her. Elsa is smoking opium and Ethel has a haunted look in her eyes, as though she has a secret that she’s keeping from Elsa. When Elsa is alone, she puts on some music. She still has the garish makeup on, but now she looks more like a fallen angel than a proud performer. She sits on the end of her bed and pulls up her dressing gown. There are braces strapped to her thighs, which are covered in thick stockings. Slowly, Elsa removes her legs. Yes. Elsa is an amputee.
So ends Chapter One of AHS Freakshow. There were so many things going on in this episode that I don’t even know where to start. So for now I’ll leave it to you—what did you think?
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to run away from clowns for the next few months. (As if I didn’t already…)