Once again, Ryan Murphy creates a series bustling with poignant and frightening performances with a backdrop of poetic visuals.
American Horror Story is now on its fourth season, entitled Freak Show, which follows previous series Murder House, Asylum and Coven. Set in 1950s Jupiter, Freak Show looks at one of the last remaining freak shows at the time struggling with business whilst focusing on the conflict between the ‘freaks’ and those that misunderstand them. The previous instalments of the Ryan Murphy-created series has meant that expectations were pretty high. Audiences around the world expected the complex characterisation, skilfully entwined narratives and frightening aesthetics that characterised the three previous series in American Horror Story, which Freak Show has delivered.
Performances are particularly poignant but synchronously frightening in this instalment. Jessica Lange stars as Elsa, a woman who clings to the dwindling fame that she has always desired, and uses the freak show as a platform to achieve her star status. Her characterisation does occasionally draw parallels with Lange’s three previous roles in American Horror Story, but the trope of the ageing woman who clasps onto her youth with both hands is executed masterfully by Lange. Kathy Bates, Evan Peters and Angela Bassett also return for pleasing performances, but the real returning stars are Frances Conroy and Sarah Paulson.
Conroy portrays a delusional mother whose childish treatment of her grown-up son Dandy (Finn Wittrock) causes much corruption later in the series, where he begins to find himself in the role of a clown, following in the footsteps of Twisty the Clown, who has become an icon attached to the series. Her wild, erratic nature creates both an element of sadness as well as instability; we are both drawn in to her but warned to stay back. Sarah Paulson portrays twins Bette and Dot. With such a disparity between the two, Paulson’s talent and versatility as an actor is exemplified and she, without a doubt, steals the freak show with her performance, deserving of many awards from upcoming ceremonies.
The intricate narrative that lacked in the previous series, Coven, but thrived in Murder House and Asylum, has made an epic return in Freak Show, where cruel and twisted plot lines work their way through all major characters, revealing themselves in some of the most unexpected ways. The cruel treatment of the ‘freaks’ becomes a central point of conflict, and it is through this that Murphy reveals the greedy and corrupt nature of people through their treatment of what is seen as ‘other’ to them. Murphy does sometimes use stereotypes with regard to the ‘freaks’, but their conventional positioning and narrative role is overturned, altered and manipulated, where unexpected characters become villains and expected villains demonstrate an element of the victim. Nothing here is clear-cut making it all the more endearing and engrossing.
So far, Freak Show is absurd and rotten to its core, executed by an array of weird and wonderful performances with a backdrop of poetic visuals. The cinematography of the series is better than all previous series, with its cinematic tone creating a sometimes surreal, alternative experience, along with a vibrant green and red colour palette that makes it a delicious viewing.
In previous instalments, American Horror Story tends to peak a few episodes before its grand finale, but has Murphy finally created a piece that ends just as good as it begins?
American Horror Story can be seen on FOX UK, every Tuesday at 10pm.