While Freak Show has been the most effective and well-structured season so far of American Horror Story, we still occasionally get some of the same problems that have plagued past seasons. The most egregious of these is the overabundance of characters and storylines, and with only a couple of episodes left, the show is still adding them, to a point where it seems impossible that it can tie all of these loose ends together in a satisfying way.
In “Magical Thinking,” our usual cast of characters takes a backseat to the introduction of Neil Patrick Harris’ Chester, a traveling Georgian chameleon salesman/magician/puppeteer. As Chester puts it, the magician’s main goal with the help of his assistant is to distract the audience—and that’s exactly what Chester does. So much of the story focuses on Chester, that it’s almost a surprise when our regular cast makes appearances. When Dandy and Maggie both showed up near the end of the episode, I thought, “Oh yeah, they’re on this show too!”
“Magical Thinking” starts us off with the beginnings of what we already saw in the future—Jimmy losing his hands to Stanley, who points out the light and dark side of show business. But the episode shows us several pairs from the beginning of the episode who share that light and dark dichotomy.
Surprisingly effective here is the evolution of the relationship between Jimmy and his father Dell. Having finally come around to his mistakes as a father, Dell feeds his now handicapped son at his bedside, makes plans to go into business with him (and to buy the show from Elsa), and viciously helps break Jimmy out of jail. We’ve seen the evil in Dell time and time again, but now we get a glimpse of the light. But it doesn’t last long, once he admits to Desiree he smothered Ma Petite to death, and gets shot in the head by Elsa.
Things are starting to look up for the first time for Dell. He’s reconnected with his son, made plans for the future and even is open with his wife. “Magical Thinking” is filled with characters getting a gut punch from reality, just when things are looking like they’re finally turning around, thanks mostly to Chester.
Chester brings hope to the freak show, but unfortunately he also brings his dummy Marjorie. For the Tattler sisters, they’ve been searching for their newest love interest after the failures of Jimmy and Dandy, and are basically auditioning the men of the freak show. They’re finally working as one, happy that they’re together. And with the arrival of Chester, both Bette and Dot find someone they agree could be the man of their dreams. They become Chester’s assistant and offer themselves to him, hoping he will be the one to deflower them.
For Elsa, she first sees Chester as a pest, just another traveling chameleon salesman. But with his excellence in numbers, and keen business sense, she goes on to see him as the perfect person to take over the freak show, once she’s headed off to Hollywood to become a TV star.
What neither the Tattlers nor Elsa expect is that Chester relies greatly on his dummy Marjorie. In fact, Chester is more of the puppet, with Marjorie being his puppetmaster. Maybe it’s an effect of Chester’s PTSD or the metal plate in his head, but Marjorie talks to Chester—even though it’s not quite clear in what capacity, since it seems like other people can hear their conversations. After returning from war, Chester found his wife shacking up with a war widower. After consistent mocking about how Chester couldn’t get it up without Marjorie on his arm, “Marjorie” ended up killing Chester’s wife and her lover.
But Chester’s reliance on Marjorie causes him problems, as he already has to involve her in his romance with the Tattler sisters. And he makes Elsa more than a little concerned when he begs the police officers to find Marjorie, after she disappears. At least Chester’s appearance does give us another reason for Dandy to be part of the story. He uses his detective to look into Chester’s past, which he plans on using against him, because he’s jealous Chester took his beloved Tattler sisters from him. Dandy should probably act soon though, since Marjorie now wants Chester to saw the Tattler sisters in half.
At this point, it does seem like Freak Show might be using Chester and Marjorie to tie together all the loose stories, in a similar way to how it used the ax man in Coven, even though that decision worked horribly for that season. Introducing two new characters this late in the season in such a huge gamble, especially when it takes away from the characters we’ve grown interested in, and have actually started to care about—a rarity in the American Horror Story universe. It’s impossible to deny the fun in watching NPH as Chester, especially when he’s in a much darker role than we are used to seeing him in, and it’s great to have Jamie Brewer back in the AHS universe as Marjorie. But right now they’re being used more as a deus ex machine than as actual characters we should be interested in.
Yes, Freak Show has learned from the many mistakes of American Horror Story;s past, but it still feels like this season might suffer from having too much going on. With only a few episodes left, it’ll be interesting to see if the series can rely on its cast without bringing in new blood to make sense of everything.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.