American Horror Story: Freak Show Season 4 Review “Magical Thinking”

American Horror Story Season 4 Episode 11 Magical Thinking 3

On the latest episode of “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” we got what was easily the best episode since the “Edward Mordrake” two-parter, with “Magical Thinking.” Oh, Neil Patrick Harris, is there anything you can’t fix? Yep, the actor formerly known as Doogie made his first appearance, and quite literally stole the show- or at least bought it from Elsa. But he also stole it figuratively, for that matter, in that he was the best thing on it for some time.

Harris played Chester, a traveling chameleon salesman/ventriloquist/would-be magician (only on “AHS” would such an occupation even exist) who sought to join the show. Elsa was dubious until she saw he had some considerable bookkeeping skills as well, and was willing to put his money where his mouth was. He bought the show, with Elsa enforcing certain conditions: he had to keep all the performers and the line-up intact. He agreed, but wanted his ventriloquist act front and center. Or should I say Marjorie did?

Yep, as with most horror-oriented portrayals of ventriloquism, Chester’s dummy was an extension of himself, and that side of him- aka Marjorie- was mad as a hatter. Think the movies “Magic,” “Dead Silence,” and that old chestnut “Dead of Night,” an anthology film whose segment “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” is often considered the granddaddy of the horror subgenre, though “The Great Gabbo” technically got there first, way back in 1929. “The Twilight Zone” also explored the theme a few times, if I recall correctly, so it’s not exactly new territory, but can still be effective if handled well, as it was here.

What set this approach apart was that we actually got to see what Chester saw when he talked to Marjorie, and it was none other than “AHS”-vet Jamie Brewer, aka Nan and Addie from previous installments of the show. Unlike Pepper on the last episode, I don’t think that Brewer’s characters are meant to be considered the same person we saw previously, though I suppose you never know with Ryan Murphy. For instance, some have posited that Elsa became Sister Jude on the “Asylum” season two. I don’t know that that’s the case- after all, Elsa’s legs were missing, and Jude’s were not, last I checked- but it’s fun to speculate about things like that.

Besides, in this case, Marjorie isn’t real in the first place, obviously. She’s a metaphorical representation of Chester’s madness, so I’m not sure that counts. Either way, it was good to see her again, and in such a different role than in previous installments. Here, she was the demon on Chester’s shoulder, urging him to man up and take care of business. In much of the show, it was about what you’d expect- for him to kill those who did him wrong, as was the case with his wife (Shauna Rappold, “Treme”) and her lesbian lover Alice (Angela Sarafyan, “Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part Two”)- but leave it to “AHS” to up the ante by including Marjorie in a…I’m going to go with a foursome, with Chester and the Tattler twins, who picked him for their first time.

Of course, it was Harris that made all this such a tour de force, and if introducing yet another character so late in the game- there’s only two episodes left, after all- was indicative of the considerable issues this season has, at least it was memorable, which is more than I can say of the season as a whole thus far. Alas, it’s becoming more and more clear that this season has fallen prey to the “kitchen sink” approach of season two, “Asylum,” which makes it telling that it’s the one this season most clearly connects to.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, the show is watchable, as it has always been, but to me, the best iterations of the show were when it was just focused enough to tell a overarching storyline that stretched out over an entire season, as with seasons one and three. Granted, both this season and “Asylum” have one main setting throughout the series in common, much as one had the “Murder House” and three had the “Witch Academy,” but those two latter seasons also had an ongoing storyline that drove the season and helped tie things together in a way that made sense and felt like parts of a larger whole.

Here, as with “Asylum,” it feels like a scattershot assemblage of mini-stories that are loosely tied together by the “Freak Show” theme at best. This season simply lacks focus, as if it were a dog that was constantly looking around for something to catch its attention. “Squirrel!” You know what I mean? It just seems like they are fishing around for ideas without a solid idea of how to connect them, which is somewhat ironic in light of the revelation that all the seasons are interconnected.

I can’t help but wonder if, like “Lost” before them, it’s a situation where the writers were throwing everything against the wall to see what would stick, only to find themselves written into a corner when it came time to tie everything together in a satisfying way. At this point, is such a thing even possible? I mean, it would be one thing if they had it planned this way all along, but I don’t know that that’s true. If it is, then they are certainly going about things in a decidedly haphazard, devil may care sort of way.

The real irony is, of course, it’s still one of the better shows on television, and certainly one of the better horror-oriented shows out there. I mean, I’ll take this over the likes of “The Vampire Diaries” or any of those Y/A movie adaptations of the latest paranormal romance novels any day of the week, to be sure. And needless to say, the cast of this show also blows away half the shows on television and even many theatrical releases these days. It’s also a show that’s not the least bit afraid to take chances and go where most shows, even genre-oriented ones, fear to tread.

I love all of those things about it, and it’s never less than watchable, but at the same time, there’s so much room for improvement, that it’s a shame the show doesn’t invest more time in just bettering its many weaknesses, you know? Especially since those weaknesses seem to crop up every season, and unless they are just flat-out ignoring critics, they should know this by now, right? I suppose that, as long as the ratings remain strong, they will continue to ignore their inherent problems, but that’s too bad, because if they didn’t this could be not only one of the best genre shows on television, but one of the best, period.

The thing is, they’re halfway there already, which is what makes it so frustrating. I’ve been a horror fan most of my life, and outside of genre specific awards, horror has rarely been acknowledged by the mainstream, save the occasional anomaly like “The Exorcist” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” And yet, “AHS” consistently gets nominated by the big guns like the Golden Globes and the Emmys, and better yet, it wins a few, too. That shows that critics absolutely do appreciate the show and what it brings to the table.

I just wish that the show itself appreciated how much better it could be if it really put the writers’ minds to it. Given the overall lukewarm reception this season seems to have gotten, maybe that will change. In fact, maybe the announcement that all the seasons are tied together is also an announcement of sorts that the show will be trying harder in the future.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that that is the case moving forward, and that Murphy’s upcoming slate of new shows doesn’t pull too much focus away from this one. (Although I am so looking forward to Murphy’s “Scream Queens,” especially if the rumors are true that it will live up to its name by featuring the all-time great titular ladies of that sort, like Jamie Lee Curtis and Sarah Michelle Gellar, amongst the cast.) It would be a shame if “AHS” fell by the wayside because Murphy’s attentions were too scattered elsewhere.

Although, maybe it’s just the shot in the arm the show needs. Maybe new writers and show-runners and the like would actually be a good thing. Sometimes it works, after all. Look at “The Walking Dead,” for instance. It’s struggled with its ever-changing line-up of people behind the scenes, and while it’s far from perfect, it is seemingly better with each passing season. Maybe a new influx of writers is just what the show needs.

As it stands, though, it’s kind of a shame that the best episode of the show in some time is still pretty derivative of other previous movies and shows. You can do better, “AHS” and what’s more, I want you to because the television landscape needs a “Freak Show” like you stirring things up, making things interesting for those of us who like things a little more off the beaten path. Hopefully, it will happen sooner than later, but I fear it may be too late for this season. We shall see in the weeks to come, I suppose.

Until then, it was a good episode, with a great turn from Harris, and (finally!) the demise of one of the more hiss-able villains of the show, Dell, was most appreciated. There was a lot to enjoy in this episode, to be sure. Hopefully, that will be the case with the last two, as well. Hopefully.

What did you think of the latest episode of “American Horror Story: Freak Show”? Did you enjoy NPH’s role as well? How about that foursome? Were you glad to see Dell finally get his just desserts? What will Elsa and company do about Stanley, now that the cat’s out of the bag about him? How will it all end? Make your predictions- and complaints, if need be- down below and see you next week!