The second chapter of Freak Show is here and with it, the not-unexpected “message” of this season is revealed: civil rights, equality, etc., etc. It’s a known problem in the American Horror Story series that Ryan Murphy clumsily grasps at big-message thematics only to toss them aside for another great murder spectacle or musical sequence. Perhaps this year will be different because of the innate “other”ing that happens to obvious “freaks.” But, perhaps not. This is American Horror Story, after all.
“Massacres and Matinees” finds the town of Jupiter in full-on panic mode after the four murders and kidnappings of the week before — and also the disappearance of the police officer who Jimmy Darling butchered — and Elsa Mars’ collective freaks are the main suspects. Because of this, the cops are putting the town on a strict curfew, effectively robbing the freak show of its late night audience.
Shortly after the cops come and go, two new freaks arrive: Wendell “Dell” Toledo (Michael Chiklis), and his wife, the three-breasted hermaphrodite Desiree Dupree (Angela Bassett). (“Three titties, proper girl parts, and a dingaling. I’m a full blown hermaphrodite, put that on your banner,” she says by way of introduction.) The two were former stars in a Chicago sideshow but, after Dell murdered a “poof” who was trying to “change his stripes” by having sex with Desiree, the two fled, searching for a new freak show to call home, and ended up in Jupiter. Elsa, broke and at the end of her financial rope thanks to the new curfew, offers Dell next to nothing to be the big boss of the freak show and he accepts.
Dell quickly begins to trying to tighten up the place, introducing a contentious 3 PM matinee show and giving Bette and Dot a slot as a musical act. Once this is settled, Dell heads into town and starts to post flyers for the new matinee and ultimately comes upon Jimmy and the freak gang trying to have a meal at the local diner. It’s here, with the hesitant waitresses, scared little white girls, and the manager who expresses the “right to refuse service” that Freak Show attempts to strong-arm the audience into drawing parallels between the plight of the freaks and that of ’50s era African-Americans. (It’s not a far stretch, really, but it’s also an unnecessary one.) When Dell notices the commotion being created by the freaks, he removes Jimmy — who was earlier revealed to be the son of Dell and Ethel — and kicks the shit out of him, firmly, if not temporarily, establishing the male hierarchy of the freak show. That is, of course, until Bette and Dot — but mostly Dot — sings Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” and provokes perhaps the most dangerous thing of all: Elsa’s ego.
After the performance, the police show up again, this time with a search warrant in response to an anonymous tip that pegs Dell as the dead cop’s murderer. The police search the grounds of the show and find the cop’s badge — in Meep the Geek’s tent, right where Dell put it.
And still, this is not the most interesting stuff in “Massacres and Matinees.” That belongs to Twisty the Clown, the psychopath whose near wordless storyline somehow manages to be more intriguing than that of the actual freak show. He’s first seen murdering the owner and clerk of a toy store and then, when he’s walking down the road in broad daylight, he gets picked up by Gloria Mott, who is looking to entertain her wandering son, Dandy. (Dandy earlier stormed out of the mansion, yelling that he would go to, “maybe St. Petersburg, where they have real caramel corn, not that cardboard they sell at the freak show.” This is after Patti LaBelle — woo, Patti LaBelle! — in the role of Nora, the Motts’ maid, tells Gloria about animal remains she finds in the backyard.)
Dandy, in turn, just wants friends wherever he can get them: First he tries the freak show, but Jimmy turns him down. Then, when he finds Twisty in his house, he’s more than welcoming to the clown, even though he is a hulking, fake-mandibled thing covered in dirty rags. (Is there some sort of intentionality behind the characters in the world of Freak Show not being as freaked out by Twisty or is this just an oversight?)
When Twisty eventually leaves, seemingly out of embarrassment after Dandy finds a disembodied head in his bag of tricks, Dandy follows him to his trailer-cum-cage in the middle of the woods. There he comes upon the woman from the previous episode, who has escaped after attacking Twisty with a wooden plank. Dandy recaptures the woman and returns her to Twisty, potentially forming one of the most deranged psychopathic duos on television.
As the episode comes to a close, Elsa creeps into the room of Bette and Dot and talks into Bette’s ear, pointing out that Dot stole the spotlight from Bette with her performance of “Criminal.” Elsa gives Bette a shiv and plants the seed of spite that is probably going to lead to the beheading that everybody’s been predicting since the concept of Bette and Dot was announced. Shortly after this confrontation, in the middle of the night, the police come and drop off Meep’s dead body — a clear, rather aggressive warning.
So, now we have the cops vs. the freaks, Bette vs. Dot, Elsa vs. Dell, Dell vs. the freaks, and Twisty (and Dandy) vs. everybody. That’s a lot of conflict for a show only two weeks in, but, rest assured, there will probably twice as many by next week’s end or else this isn’t American Horror Story.