American Horror Story: Freak Show Season 4 Review “Curtain Call”

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On the season finale of “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” it was time for the “Curtain Call,” and if past ones were any indication, there would be blood, and lots of it. Seemingly as if to address all the harsh criticism the show has received this season, particularly in regards to the lack of characters we rooted for and cared about, the show opened up with Dandy summarily taking out as many freaks as he could, one by one, after a host of them up and quit, having had quite enough of his shenanigans for this lifetime. In short order, Paul, Penny, Barbara, and Suzi, among others were shot down by Dandy in cold blood.

Amazon Eve gave him a run for his money before he took her out as well, with only Desiree ultimately getting away, save Jimmy- who wasn’t there at the time- and the twins, who Dandy absconded with and retreated to his mansion with to promptly marry. It was a short-lived marriage, however- and a short-lived Dandy. Posing as members of his staff, “maid” Desiree drugged him, while “butler” Jimmy presented him with an invitation to his big debut on stage, having joined the fray after seeing the horror Dandy had wrought in all its gory glory beforehand. Bette shot him for good measure and it was off to the main stage, where Dandy got acquainted with Houdini’s old water tank, as the remainder of the freaks watched him drown while enjoying some popcorn and the like.

With that nasty business finally taken care of- Ding Dong, the Dandy’s dead! – it was off to Hollywood, circa 1960, where Elsa Mars finally got her wish to become a big star. After suffering the indignity of being forced to wait to talk to studio head Henry Gable (Richard Holden, “Salem”) for days on end, Elsa finally snapped and wailed on the secretary in charge (Vanessa Cloke, “Common Law”) before catching the eye of up-and-coming casting director Michael Beck (David Burtka, “How I Met Your Mother”). Together, as husband and wife, Elsa becomes a TV and music star, garnering several Emmys (imagine that!) and Grammys, and becoming the host of a weekly variety show. (Hits included “Ich Bien Elsa Mars” and “Merry Christmas, Knuddelmaus”!)

Perhaps inevitably, her past catches up with her when the snuff film that cost Elsa her legs surfaces, as does word that almost everyone in her former freak show was brutally murdered. About to be exposed publically- by Hedda Hopper, no less- Elsa opts to go out with a bang, and decides to break her cardinal rule about working on Halloween. As she wails a stately “Heroes” (Bowie again, but of course), none other than Edward Mordrake pays her a visit on stage, with Twisty and his own cadre of freaks in tow, and Elsa dies as she lived, performing to her very last breath.

Rather than spending her afterlife walking the earth with Mordrake’s motley crew, he instead ships her off to her particular afterlife- what else? – managing the freak show once again. There, she’s reunited with all of her fallen comrades and it’s always show time, don’t you know. Cue the Bowie again, and we’re out. We also get a glimpse of what became of the survivors: Jimmy married the twins and they’re expecting, and Desiree is back with Angus, also having started a family. That’s pretty much all she wrote.

So, this was about as good as could have been expected of an “American Horror Story” finale, I suppose, given the somewhat lackluster nature of the season as a whole. We know from experience that few will be left standing in the end, and such was the case here, as ever. To their credit, the show didn’t try and pull a fast one by having it turn out that Elsa went on to become Sister Jude as I feared they would do, despite there being all sorts of holes in that particular bit of plotting, not the least of which was the whole her not having legs thing. So, there was no retroactive plotting to try and pull that off, thankfully, but the whole affair did feel a bit dashed off.

Like I said, for a while there, it seemed like the show had the same opinion of itself as the critics, just going through the motions of killing off a bunch of characters we didn’t care about. Then we got the big send-off for star Jessica Lange, who reportedly won’t be back for a round five, and who could blame her? She’s basically played variations of the same character the entire time, especially over the last two seasons. Yes, we did get a brief return of the more celebrated Twisty and Mordrake, but even that was muffled somewhat by the anticlimactic nature of the ending, where Elsa basically got off scot-free and got a happy ending, even in death.

I think the main problem with this season was that they had one great idea- that of the titular freak show, and casting actual human oddities in many of the main roles, a la the movie “Freaks,” and seeking to show that, well, freaks are people, too! A noble endeavor, to be sure, but beyond that, the show didn’t seem to know what to do with any of it. The best characters- i.e. Twisty and Mordrake- were taken out of the show relatively early on- and the show never stopped trotting out more characters, to the bitter end (including the finale itself), most of which we never got to know beyond some random surface traits and flashbacks. In short, we never really had anyone to root for, as in seasons past, and, indeed, it seemed like the show itself wasn’t interested in giving us any. This season was like the television equivalent of a kid with ADHD- all play and no work.

As ever, the acting was mostly solid, beyond Lange’s aforementioned thankless lead role (which she did her best to set apart from her previous ones), but most of them weren’t given enough to do beyond flipping out or being emotional about whatever grotesquerie was happening to them that week. The plotting was scattershot and the writing was all over the place, veering wildly from speechifying about how “regular” people were the real freaks and purple prose about the main characters’ pasts. As ever, the direction and staging was beautifully done, but you could say that about a lot of stuff coming out of Hollywood. Just because it looks good doesn’t mean it is, you know?

But really, it was the plotting that ultimately sunk this ship. With previous seasons, we had a through-line: the family trying to make the best of a bad situation in a haunted house in the first; the quest of Sarah Paulson’s character to expose what was really going on in the “Asylum” and the search for the real Bloody Face in season two; and the process of determining the Supreme in “Coven,” the third season. Here, you had a solid enough set-up, but no real overarching plotline running through the proceedings as before, and it all but sunk the show, resulting in some occasionally effective moments, but nothing really cohesive.

I did like the notion of all the seasons being connected, so that was the one cool addition of this season, but even that seems like a desperate attempt for the show to offer up something new beyond the typical “who’s getting introduced and/or murdered this week” gambit. It was kind of like when “Halloween II” made Laurie Strode into Michael Myers’ sister- yeah, it sort of works, but it didn’t really add that much to the story, either. So, the Dr. Gruber was the same one who cut off Elsa’s legs and later went on to be the resident doctor at the asylum? And? It’s kind of neat at first blush, but on further reflection, more gimmicky than anything else.

My advice to the next season’s show-runners would be to sit down this time and map out the entire season all at once, then break it down and plot it accordingly. It’s certainly been done that way in episodic television before, and it shows when you put some thought into these things, instead of coming off like you’re making everything up as you go along. That’s why the first and third seasons work better than the second and fourth- you can tell they thought things through more. I don’t know what the next season holds, but hopefully, it will be better plotted the next time around.

And with less singing- to paraphrase Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own”: “There’s no singing in horror!” Leave that stuff to the “Glee” guys and gals. (Okay, yeah, there’s “Sweeny Todd,” but you know what I mean- Todd wasn’t belting out Nirvana tunes in an inappropriate time period.) And less characters, for God’s sake. It’s one thing to have a character with a variety show, trotting out name stars one by one. It’s another for the show to actually become that: “Who’s getting killed this week on ‘AHS’? Let’s tune in and see!”

This season had its moments, but it needed more of them. Hopefully, next season will make up for it. Until then, this was certainly not the greatest show on earth, even if it was compulsively watchable. Big-name guest stars and grisly deaths do not a good show make, you know what I mean? Hopefully, the show can get it together next season; otherwise, it’s not just the characters that will end up killed off—but the show itself.

What did you think of the season finale of “American Horror Story: Freak Show”? Are you happy with the way it ended? How did your favorite characters- assuming you had any- fare? What were your favorite moments of the season? What did you think of the season as a whole, and how it stacks up against the others? What would you do to make the show better? What do you think the next season will be about? Sound off below in the comments section, and see you next season!