‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ Season 2 Episode 8 Recap: “Test of Strength”

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It seems that Freak Show finally maxed out the amount of hanging plot threads it could have, because some stuff actually happened this week: Dell and Jimmy finally had a real father-son moment; Dot’s dreams of being separated from Bette are a little closer to becoming reality; a freak has finally died because of Stanley; and Penny the Candystriper has been irreversibly changed, all thanks to Elsa’s actions back in the pilot.

We come into the episode right where last week’s “Bullseye” left off, with Jimmy finding Bette and Dot at the Mott household. He convinces the twins to leave rather easily after he realizes that Dandy was the second clown at the weirdo freak show that was the site of Twisty’s death.

When Jimmy returns to camp he dives into this week’s musical number, a Darling-fronted performance of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.” The scene is intercut with clips of Dell at his gay haunt — High Noon — where he bashes the bartender for calling Andy (Matt Bomer) a hustler. The camera pans to reveal Stanley receiving a lap dance as he watches Dell from a dark corner, and it’s a moment that proves to have dire consequences for both Dell and one of the freaks.

Stanley and Dell have a little confrontation, with Stanley blackmailing Dell based on what he saw at the bar. He tells him he wants one of the freaks dead, or else everyone will know the truth about him. (Why his being gay and bashing a gay bartender would make much of a difference to the freaks, I have no idea.)

Cut to Maggie and Jimmy in bed together. They’re contemplating leaving Jupiter while, elsewhere in the camp, Dell tries to chloroform Amazon Eve, which is perhaps the dumbest move he could’ve made. She beats his ass. “Who’s the strong man now?” she asks, throwing him out of the trailer. The next morning, Eve goes to Ethel and Desiree, (who are BFFs now), and the women of the camp begin to plot to overthrow — or kill — Dell.

Jimmy, in an attempt to help Dell save his own ass, takes him to have a drink. The two have a nice bonding moment and laugh about Ma Petite in furs, Life magazine photos, all that stuff. Dell gets Jimmy real drunk, and Jimmy goes outside to vomit. Dell sneaks up behind him, grabs a brick and hesitates long enough for Jimmy to regain his composure. Jimmy confronts him, yells, “You’re my dad, you’re my dad!” and Dell breaks down. It’s all kinds of emotional — well, it should be, but this show is so far from reaching any real emotional depth that scenes like this ring empty. Jimmy and Dell stumble into camp drunk, and Elsa and Desiree confront them. It leads to nothing much. The best part of this whole sequence is Evan Peters’ drunk acting, which is maybe overdone but still a hell of a lot of fun.

Dell, having failed to capture Amazon Eve and facing increasing pressure from Stanley, kills Ma Petite with a bear hug. The scene tries to be powerful: the camera lingers on the two of them, sure to show Ma Petite’s doll feet going limp as Dell gets more and more upset. I suppose this should be the emotional height of the episode, or maybe even the season, but Ma Petite was never much beyond a plaything for the characters (and the writers), so little was felt, aside from a kind of resigned, “Finally.” It was no surprise that Ma Petite, the littlest and most defenseless of all the freaks, would be the first to fall to Stanley.

Elsewhere, in the episode’s other driving plotline, Jimmy confronts Elsa over Bette and Dot’s disappearance. Just as Elsa was about to be outed as the conniving liar she is, Dot speaks up and claims they went on their own volition, further delaying Elsa’s comeuppance. But there’s a catch.

Bette and Dot’s lying about Elsa’s betrayal is just a set-up for Dot to extort money from Elsa in order to get the separation surgery up in Chicago. We find this out through passed notes, delivered to us visually through a stylish split-screen, the heads of Elsa and Dot floating on planes of black as they read their respective notes to one another. Elsa isn’t keeping the notes much of a secret, and she approaches Stanley with the news. Stanley, businessman that he is, suggests killing them to put everyone out of their misery. Needless to say, Elsa is receptive to the idea.

There’s also the tacked-on storyline involving Penny the Candystriper and Paul the Illustrated Seal. Penny, who had been looking after Paul for most of the episode, heads home and deals with her prideful father, who threatens to disown her for cavorting with the freaks. She insists on her love for Paul. So, his solution is to turn her into an unrecognizable freak so that nobody will recognize her as his daughter. Cut to a scene in which a tattoo artist turns her face into a snake, and forks her tongue to boot. Poor Grace Gummer. At least Paul welcomes her with open arms back at the camp.

The biggest deal in this episode is probably that Stanley’s scheming has begun to have real consequences. After weeks and weeks of nothing but imagined successes, he’s finally starting to get his way. It won’t last for long — hell, it probably won’t even be mentioned in the next episode (December 3, the show is taking next week off). But with Freak Show having more disparate storylines than any other season of AHS, it’s a relief to see all of them coalesce a bit. Surely Dandy will be out to kill Jimmy for taking the twins, and Dell will probably be killed or kill Stanley sooner or later. With any luck, all of the action will be relegated to the campground. Until Gabourey Sidibe’s character shows up, eh. I never thought I’d be bummed to see Sidibe in a show, but at this point we can really only be interested in so many characters.