Usually the strongest episodes of an American Horror Story season is the premiere and the finale—all of the episodes in between tend to bring the show down. After the fantastic premiere last week of Freak Show, I was expecting the usual dip in quality, especially considering that “Massacres and Matinees” would introduce even more new characters to, possibly, muck up the works, as has happened before. I mean, one minute you’re telling a story about a young witches’ coven, next you’ve got Kathy Bates’ decapitated head spouting off racist remarks. But Freak Show is already standing out from past seasons, gracefully adding new characters that don’t feel so much like crazy additions, but more like perfect new ideas that fit in well.
The two newest additions to Elsa Mars’ Freak Show are Dell Toledo and Desiree Dupree, a married couple who fled Chicago for Elsa’s show. Toledo, played by Michael Chiklis, is a strong man with a stronger temper, who also happens to be Jimmy Darling’s father. Desiree, played by Angela Bassett, is a hermaphrodite with three breasts—and no problem with cheating on her easily angered husband. The two ran from Chicago when Toledo caught his wife cheating on him (attempting to turn a gay man straight), which led to the poor guy’s neck being snapped by Toledo.
In a usual season of American Horror Story, these characters would be introduced just for their weirdness, then later given some connection to the story when it was absolutely needed. But instead, Dell and Desiree are integrated much better than expected. They’re immediately presented as having a past with both Jimmy and Ethel Darling, and by the end of the episode when they make themselves unwelcome, Dell seems like the perfect person to pin the recent murders around town on.
It all seems to be tying together, but there is the possibility that down the line, this could lead to too many characters and too many ideas flying around. For example, “Massacres and Matinees” doesn’t even mention the stark finale of last week’s premiere, with Elsa Mars showing that she has two prosthetic legs. We also don’t get much of the dark underbelly that seems to exist at the Freak Show, what with last week’s rape. However this is slightly hinted at when the show features a scene that is clearly a direct homage to Freaks, with the group around a dinner table screaming “kill the copper!” instead of “one of us!”
The first episode of the season “Monsters Among Us” focused on the rivalry between the freak world and the normal world, but it’s great that in “Massacres and Matinees,” we get a sense of the dissent that is starting to occur within the freak show. The biggest rivalry is between Jimmy and Dell, with Jimmy wanting to be accepted as a human being by the rest of the world, taking a bunch of his friends out to a nearby diner. Yet Dell doesn’t think the freaks should be out in public, giving the normal people a show for free. This battle leads to Jimmy trying to frame Dell for the murder of Detective Bunch last week, but Dell instead frames Meep the geek for the murder instead. After what seems like only a few minutes in jail, Meep is murdered and dropped back off at the freak show. Also, the newfound fear coming from Elsa over the talented singing of Dot Tattler is an intriguing plot, and the idea of throwing in a new song that shouldn’t exist in their time period each week is starting to be pretty fun. Who knew Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” would work out so well in a freak show setting?
But maintaining the creepy factor this week is Twisty the Clown, the most terrifying character that AHS has ever given us. I’ll admit, I had no idea that was John Carroll Lynch, but now that I know, it somehow makes it even scarier. But you know what also ups the Twisty scare levels? The idea that he’s become friends with Dandy, and now they’re working together, because Dandy is just bored. There’s something inherently terrifying to me about characters that murder because there’s nothing better to do, which almost makes Dandy just as unsettling and strange as Twisty.
“Massacres and Matinees” is also directed by one of AHS’s best directors, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who has an excellent way of making his scenes claustrophobic, such as the opening reveal of a severed head (thanks to Twisty). He also loves those slightly slanted angles that makes things all the more unsettling.
I’m pleasantly surprised with how well AHS: Freak Show keeps up the excitement of the fantastic season premiere. “Massacres and Matinees” not only introduces new characters in a way that makes sense, but also gives us far more depth into the character dynamics. In past seasons, AHS would’ve already made some pretty big mistakes, but so far in AHS: Freak Show, things are looking pretty great.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.