American Horror Story: Freak Show Hits a Mid-Season Lull

Dandy's right: Being bored is the worst.

Michele K. Short/FX

If dropping buzzwords like “fate” and “love” were enough to lend an episode thematic cohesion, then Wednesday’s episode of American Horror Story, “Bullseye” might have been redeemed. But though the latest Freak Show installment tried to reach for some kind of narrative tightness to counter the show’s very elastic sense of plot and motive, it failed (unlike Elsa) to hit the target.

At the heart of “Bullseye” lies the truly original concept that people who do bad things just want to be loved, deep down. Love is all you need, love is an open door, etc. Even the very worst elements of humanity—the freakishly amoral—are still human. The sociopathic man-boy Dandy realizes after reading Dot’s diary that she thinks he’s gross and boring. In other words, no matter how much caviar he buys or how many tantrums-on-velvet-beds he throws, his soul is a big desert filled with dust and scorpions, and he’s “never destined to feel love." There it is again—destiny, a great excuse for deeply insecure megalomaniacs to do bad things.

Back at the tents, it isn't hard to see why Elsa, whose sympathy factor dwindles week after week, puts so much store in The Wheel—a creaky, hyper-symbolic contraption used for throwing knives at spinning people. “Fate is the true master of us all,” Elsa pontificates. “I control my fate.” But for Elsa, fate is just a way to imbue her own creeping powerlessness with meaning. When Paul questions her story about Dot and Bette running away, Elsa takes a literal stab (a few, actually) at earning the trust and loyalty of her family, but misses. She desperately wants to be loved but wouldn’t hesitate to kill those she loves (Theory: Elsa doesn’t understand what love is).

Both Elsa and Dandy harbor dual obsessions with love and fate, in addition to an impressive collection of delusions. Elsa vacillates between the role of exasperated mother hen and benevolent dictator, reminding her troupe fiercely how she rescued them from squalor. Dandy’s psychic wounds are beyond the healing of a pair of twins with “four eyes and two hearts,” so he must have blood. Rejected by an “ungrateful hydra” in a “gilded cage,” he’s made the transition to a self-anointed, implacable Angel of Death.

Freak Show’s problem is that neither Elsa nor Dandy embodies the compelling, twisted villainy seen in American Horror Story’s first seasons, though Elsa comes closer. Her character contains echoes of Kathy Bates' Madame LaLaurie from Coven in her appalling treatment of her "family"—selling out Dot and Bette, wounding Paul, manipulating the rest—to position herself as the true star and shed the "freak" label.

While in the shadows lurk Dangers—the bigoted townspeople, Stanley’s scheming—this season’s tension still feels weak and aimless. Sure, dark moments are delivered—Ma Petit’s near-death, Paul’s “accidental” stabbing, the twins revisiting the idea of separation surgery—but darkness for darkness’s sake can only go so far. Without Twisty around to at least inject some visceral terror, the more apt title for the show seems to be Ambivalent Horror Story. The real-life horror isn't in the gore or the deceit but the season's squandered promise.