I have to open with a confession – up until I started watching this fourth season of American Horror Story a couple of days ago, I hadn’t managed to watch any of the series at all. A fan of the genre and the concept of a series that could deal with completely different types of horror from year to year, I’ve been keeping spoiler-free too so was going in entirely cold. And I have to say, first impressions have been very good!
Freak Show is set in 1952 in Jupiter, Florida – a town that 60 years later would be rated as the 9th happiest seaside town in the US, but things aren’t quite as content here… Freak Shows are on the decline but not completely gone, and the carnival run by Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) is one of the last. Following a double-take moment early on as hospital staff note two hearts with a shared circulatory system the non-Time Lady (so far?) is shown to be conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson) who Elsa recruits into her troupe after they are found injured with their mother murdered. Their integration into the extended family of the show – which Bette is far more comfortable with than Dot – provides the catalyst for exposing some cracks in the relationships which are widened as a series of murders and abductions terrifies the townsfolk.
Right from the start, there’s a great sense of style and undercurrents of unease, similar to the work of David Lynch with several episodes having more than a touch of Twin Peaks about them. That’s not a bad thing of course, and with a brutal disregard for character survival it makes for an entertaining sense of uncertainty of what will happen next. The characters themselves are excellently written, with performances impressive across the board from Jessica Lange’s egotist matriarch, Sarah Paulson’s double role through Angela Bassett (reminding me of Total Recall for obvious visual reason!) and Jyoti Amge’s infectiously cheerful Ma Petite. Particular note for me is Mat Fraser who some may have seen in 2009’s Cast Offs who is fantastic as Paul “The Illustrated Seal”, and John Caroll Lynch’s Twisty is probably the creepiest clown I’ve seen in years! As the series progresses the backstories of the performers and how they joined the show becomes evident, and they avoid pitfalls of cliche and tokenism well, though there does seem to be a little danger of falling into a “outsiders are the real evil” stereotype that is less fresh.
One other niggle is the extent to which no character is safe – by the end of episode 6, Bullseye, there have already been several significant casulaties – as while adding a sense of dread is in danger of making me want to hold back my investment in some characters in case they’re next in line! At the rate things are going there may not be many left at all come the end of the season, though it does mean that as a viewer I can never be sure what will come next or how the overall story is going to end.
Suffice to say that half a dozen episodes in I’m completely hooked, and the other seasons have leapt further up my to-watch pile as well. The final word has to go to Elsa in possibly the biggest moment in the first episode that I knew this was a series I’d love – enjoy!