At the show it’s everyone’s morning routine – when Jimmy turns over the radio to hear more news of the 4 murders and a missing child in town and the increasing panic because of it – with added panic of the disappearance of the policeman the show people murdered last episode. The panic of it is shutting down most of the town.
The police arrive at the show. They interview Elsa who refuses to let them search without a warrant (they want to see everything they need to buy a ticket) and she’s told about the town’s curfew – which will shut down any shows. Bette and Doris also join Elsa in suggesting the cop was drunk – Elsa notes what “easy targets” they are.
The local toymaker and his assistant are the next ones to be killed by the Evil Clown (Credited as “Twisty” apparently).
At the camp, Jimmy’s feeling all guilty about killing the policeman and decides it’s best to dig up the body and burn the parts. While doing so, Jimmy pockets the policeman’s badge (more refrain on how they’re just ordinary people if only those outside would take the time to get to know them).
Two new people arrive at the camp – Dell Toledo, a strongman and escape artist, and his wife, Desiree Dupree. And we get some terrible back story – apparently back in Chicago gay men had sex with Desiree to turn them straight – and Dell killing him. Really? Desiree is sure they’re fine though because no-one’s going to care about a dead gay man – people who are “lower” than the “freaks” at the show. Desiree reveals she’s an intersex woman with three breasts (as she puts it “a full blown hermaphrodite”). Elsa doesn’t want to take them with business so low and Dell begs – there’s very few opportunities left. After examining his hands and, for some reason, asking if he barks, Elsa accepts them onto the show.
Ethel has history with Dell – they were in a show together and Dell nearly murdered Jimmy when he was a baby (a “mistake” he called him) but Ethel stopped him with a gun. She warns him to stay away from Jimmy (I think there’s an implication Dell may be Jimmy’s father). Don claims Elsa put him in charge – for security purposes.
Elsa tries to find some talent in Bette and Dot, and finding that Bette really really cannot sing, she’s willing just to put them on stage and have people stare at them – which Bette and Dot are not a fan of – Jimmy gets her to sing and Dot has talent.
Don seems actually to have been given authority because he’s already planned early performances while the curfew is on – but Elsa is against it; Freak shows belong in the night and she brings up a lot of basically horror clichés as to why. Dell refuses to listen, even as Desiree tells him to listen to his boss – he refuses to accept a woman as his boss and after menacing Elsa he storms into town to post bills –again insisting on a 3:00 show.
Jimmy decides to go with his plan to make the locals think they’re just like them – and he and several performers go to the local diner. The other patrons are not happy, one complains; several performers cause a scene and then Dell comes in and makes things far worse – escalating objections and insisting they eat at the camp. He calls them freaks giving up a free show. Dell drags Jimmy outside and beats him up.
Jimmy goes to Elsa about Dell; but Elsa has decided to go along with him. She’s especially worried that the people of the town will look for scapegoats for the murder and “Jimmy’s kind” has always made convenient scapegoats – maybe they need Dell for protection. Jimmy shows her the cop badge – proving he is willing to protect the group – and plays his ace: the play bills Dell is posting put her at the very bottom and in small print. So much for her dreams of stardom.
The performance starts – and Dell has taken over as ringmaster as well. Lots of tension during the acts (including between Bette and Dot – Bette seeming jealous of Dot’s talent. Elsa not happy with anything and Dell and Jimmy glaring and snarling).
The next day the police arrive in force to search the camp for evidence of the policeman’s murder – Elsa challenges what evidence they have; apparently an anonymous tip. Then, to everyone’s surprise, they want to search Dell’s tent. Jimmy planted the badge there – but Dell is a step ahead of him and moved it to one of the other performer’s tent who is taken by the police. They throw Meep in a cell with a large number of other men who think he is the murderer.
That night while Dot’s asleep, Elsa works on Bette’s resentment against Dot – and she leaves Bette a knife.
Jimmy drinks heavily over his inability to protect Meep and his mother, Ethel, warns him to stay away from Dell. Jimmy decides to give himself up to save Meep, but when he leaves the tent a car drives up and dumps Meep’s body before driving away.
To the Mott household with the terrible, spoiled Dandy and his mother Gloria. She continues to protect and defend him and it’s apparent he’s in the habit of doing terrible things and relying on her to save him. Dandy wants to be an actor and it’s one of the few times Gloria seems willing to put her foot down because of their so-special family respectability. When Dandy storms off, their servant, Nora has a quiet word with Gloria; looks like Dandy has killed the neighbour’s cat. And she wonders about all the murders in town…
Gloria decides to cheer Dandy up – and when she sees Twisty, she offers to hire him for a party.
Dandy has gone to the Freak show – Jimmy tries to talk him out of chasing the twins, but he’s there to join the show. He begs Jimmy to join because he needs it and it’s so important to him –but Jimmy has no time for Dandy’s romantic notion of what the circus is like with his vast wealth and privilege. Dandy has a tantrum in his car and goes home to have another tantrum there. Gloria puts him in his toy room – with Twisty the clown.
They manage to be very very creepy together and Twisty hits Dandy in the head and leaves when Dandy looks in his bag. Dandy follows Twisty to his caravan – inside which his prisoners are trapped, but the woman is ready to escape. When Twisty offers both a toy and then a severed head to the boy to amuse him (yes, a severed head), she hits him in the head with a plank of wood she’s pulled from the side of the cell. As they run, we briefly see Twisty without the mask on his mouth – he has no jaw.
She runs – and runs into Dandy. He grabs her and carries her back to Twisty while she struggles; Twisty has already caught the boy.
The show, again, takes a stab at nuance with the desperation of Dell and Desiree and the continued dehumanisation of the performers and their rage about it. We have Dot and Bette who at least want the illusion that they’re on stage for some kind of talent rather than just to be stared at for their two heads – they want the dignity of being performers, not oddities. There’s the common thread that the performers will be singled out as scapegoats and even Elsa willing to keep Dell around, despite his misogyny and abuse of Jimmy because they need a protector: which is definitely a pertinent and powerful issue for any marginalised group.
Then there’s the contrast between Dell, who has zero respect for the performers, and Elsa who objects to insults – but even she calls them monsters, uses horror tropes to refer to them; it’s a stark contrast from Jimmy who is desperately trying to grasp normality.
Yet even then, we had Paul take a plate of food he hadn’t ordered – which felt oddly unnecessary without more explanation. There’s also an issue that people with actual disabilities are background crew, even set decoration, for the main cast who are using prosthetics.
We have Desiree introduced and there are problems, beyond the archaic language explained by the period. First of all, of course, we have an intersex character most definitely not played by an intersex actor. She is also overtly sexualised not just from the beginning, but for the entirety of her portrayal here. From her selling sex “cures” in her backstory, to the tassels on her three breasts (and even having three breasts) and even to her one suggestion about Dot and Bette’s talent being about firing ping pong balls from her vagina – everything about Desiree is sexual and in a particularly fetishised way. Which is problematic both in terms of her being intersex – and in terms of her being a Black woman (and, really, American Horror Story doesn’t really have a good history there either. Really really doesn’t.)
Speaking of history and – on American Horror Story every gay man that has appeared on this show since the first season has been murdered. And usually sex has been involved – rape and murder in season 1 and now another murder after sex with an intersex woman to “turn them straight”? This is a habit – and it only gets worse with Desiree’s contempt for their deaths – with no counter message, not just in this episode but in the entire run of American Horror Story.
In season 2, Lana wasn’t murdered, but she was raped and sexually abused, the latter a sexual abuse directly related to her sexuality.
This show has always had strong sexual elements on every season – but every depiction of an LGBTI person on this show has been sexual in an – at best – exploitative and, at worst, abusive and murderous way. There are no counter examples nor does an LGBT person exist who hasn’t been attacked through their sexuality (or, at best, murdered after a brief appearance - that’s Lana’s very briefly appearing girlfriend). I doubt very much we’re going to see a lot different with Desiree being intersex, especially given the original depiction.
By the second episode, I think American Horror Story is really really REALLY going to try and address the idea of the “freaks” of this show being people deserving of respect, people being exploited and all the complexities I spoke of in the first episode. I think they’re genuinely going to try really hard
I also think it’s going to crash and burn into the hottest of hot messes imaginable.