Alice Rush reviews the seventh episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show…
After a shaky episode last week ‘Test of Strength’ proves that whilst this season, much like Coven before it, is decidedly lacking in the horror element of the show it still has a lot to offer in terms of drama and intensity.
This week sees a marked move towards Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities crumbling around her as each of the acts stumble towards their own personal doom. Jimmy’s rescuing of the twins from Dandy puts him in the warped murders firing line, Ethel is getting more and more ill after discovering the death of the only doctor who would treat her, the twins are being eyed up by Stanley who is duping Elsa into helping him whilst at the same time also blackmailing Del into killing another of the camp. Phew. There’s a lot going on this week but what ‘Test of Strength’ demonstrated is that whilst the show can sometimes get lost in the sheer volume of the ensemble cast early on in the season, the show runners still know how to strategically bring them all together.
This week took a darker turn as Stanley took a few steps closer to his goals and began blackmailing Del into carrying out the work Maggie could not. Michael Chiklis really shone through in this episode and showcased the contradictions at work within Del. Coming to the series as a brash and ‘strong’ man we are learning that underneath the bravado there is little substance to him. Sure he had some moments of sympathy but we still see that he’s a violent and selfish character. His ‘strong man’ image was deliciously juxta-posed this week as not only did he lose in a fight with Amazon Eve but he had to resort to murdering the most physically helpless member of the clan, Ma Petite.
What Freak Show is doing quite well is peeling off the layers of the main characters and exposing their flaws as well as their triumphs. A truly touching moment this week came in the form of Del and Jimmy bonding and Del finally admitting he is his father. Though Del brought him to a bar with the pretence of murdering him, as the two opened up he was unable to go through with his plan. It was nice to see the men finally lay their differences aside however the future can’t be all that rosy as Jimmy still doesn’t know about Del’s abuse of him and Ethel nor his other ghastly deeds. Anyway, good and bad aside it was great to see Del become more of a main character this week after taking a backseat in the past few episodes.
Bette and Dot are also in the blackmailing mood this week as they lie about Elsa selling them to Gloria in an attempt to get their own wishes granted. Bette’s demands are all wrapped up in her dream to become a star whereas Dot has darker motives involving separation surgery. Elsa then thinking she’s being clever plays right into Stanley’s hands it is implied that the twins death could solve all their problems. The power plays within this episode are handled in a very slick and convincing manner, which does in a way make up for the lack of horror the title suggests will be inherent. It seems the horror within characters is once again being emphasised over physical gore.
There is a slight nod to the show’s titular motif this week as Penny, Paul’s girlfriend, is mutilated by her father’s tattooist for wanting to run away and join the freak show. Unfortunately this is just a bit far-fetched and, to be honest, late in the series for me to care. If her story had been introduced earlier I may have felt a twinge of sympathy and revelled more in the gory scenes but just as with introducing Paul as Elsa’s lover last week, it feels like this has just been thrown in to attempt to give the series more ‘drama’. Unfortunately it just felt a bit superfluous and messy.
Overall ‘Test of Strength’ was a solid episode that artfully drew together a number of characters into much darker plots. Unlike past episodes it felt very focused which allowed for better narrative development and it was satisfying to see progression in characters such as Del who definitely still has more to offer. After this week’s murder I’m crossing my fingers that the pace of the show picks up and that over the coming weeks the tensions in the camp boil over in a delightfully horror-full way.