American Horror Story has often struggled to find its focus throughout the first half of its seasons; in general, though, the theme has been to keep the struggling group of cast members at its core together amid a lot of problems. In Coven, the goal was to keep the coven healthy and together; in Murder House, it was to keep familial relations together. And now in Freak Show, the season has made its intentions clear, that the pressures of living within the confines of Elsa’s freak show are threatening to break up the group. By doing so, Freak Show has cemented its place as the same story with the same cast, just set in a different facility.
But that’s not always a problem, and I don’t think Freak Show is suffering from that per se. It certainly has a lot going for it, from Dandy’s odd behaviors after accepting Bette and Dot into his home to “Bullseye”‘s focus on Paul and his two mistresses; even more, the pressures of outside life are straining the cabaret so much that there are more than two walls closing in on them, whether it be Jimmy Darling’s attempts to persuade the rest of the freaks that Elsa isn’t as truthful as she lets on, or Stanley’s mischievous coercion of Dell to kill off some of the troupe.
What is a problem, though, is Freak Show‘s continual movement away from its many sub-plots. In “Bullseye,” the show introduces Paul’s girlfriend Penny, a less than important character given all sorts of drama as quickly as possible. Her father’s abusive, but she’s rebelling; it’s the kind of thing dropped on the viewer so fast that it almost makes one question whether it’s been there all along. It hasn’t, and that’s Freak Show‘s fault – it tends to encompass way too many strands that it can’t possibly deliver on, and Paul’s dilemma is one of them. So much so that when Penny returns again in “Test of Strength,” the viewer is forced to feel like Penny is somehow an important part of whatever turning point the show is coming to in the second half of the season.
Likewise, “Test of Strength”‘s centralization on Dell highlights the huge plot holes in his character all along. He’s often such a giant dick – and in fact the episode draws attention to that early on – that it’s hard to really feel like his character has any feelings at all for Jimmy, despite “Test of Strength”‘s efforts to have them bond. It’s not believable after all of the shit he’s done, and even less so after her murders Ma Petite in cold blood for Stanley.
But what these episodes do manage to pull off is creating a threat for Elsa, who has strangely slipped from the show’s focus. There’s a storm brewing, one that pulls together a group of oppositions that threaten to derail the show. Jimmy’s one of them, distrusting Elsa after he finds Dot and Bette at Dandy’s house. Dandy’s another, because he’s a wild card that no one understands. And Stanley’s plan has so far worked, so this giant-dicked madman might begin to pick off the freaks one by one. What Freak Show has failed to do so far, though, is persuade the audience why it would be such a bad thing for Elsa’s freak show to disband. She’s clearly not the leader they need now, and so the season’s second half will need to explain just why the freaks still need the show. Either that, or overthrow Elsa for a better, more capable leader – but that feels a lot like Coven, now doesn’t it?