There are bad things happening in Jupiter, Florida. The year is 1952, and one of Sarah Paulson’s heads (the longtime “American Horror Story” cast member is pulling double-duty as conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler) has already announced that the world that she’s known is now “forever doomed.”
That’s because she and her sister, Dot, have been forced out into the world, after the milkman found their mother dead on her kitchen floor. When he ventured up the steps to investigate, he found Bette and Dot, who Mrs. Tattler had kept a secret all these years.
They are rushed to the hospital sporting fresh wounds and the entire place is abuzz. Nurses are vomiting in the trashcans at the sight of them, which seems a bit much. Tighten up. You work at a HOSPITAL. Medicine and surgery being what they were back then, how are these twins the most shocking thing you’ve ever seen?
The nurse can barely take notes during the X-ray, too distracted by the twins’ three kidneys, four lungs and two hearts. Although it’s over the top, it makes sense for “Freak Show” to begin this way, with close-minded, townsfolk gawking at anyone different.
An old-time sideshow sounded like a perfect setup for Ryan Murphy and the rest of the “AHS” writers when this year’s setting was announced. Sure, it’s been done before, but that’s what “AHS” specializes in: taking up horror movie tropes and traditions, tossing in some political allegory and shaping it into something so deliciously campy or genuinely horrifying that viewers can’t look away.
This time, the show is offering that up in spades. There is Jessica Lange (with a German accent!) playing Elsa Mars, owner of what seems like the last “freak show” in the South. With people increasingly looking to television for their entertainment, she’s struggling to hang on and looking for her next act.
Having read about the murder in the paper, she’s hopeful that Bette and Dot will be the answer to she and her “monsters’” troubles. (Side note: I’m going to forgive Lange for whispering her way through the first half of this episode just because she pulled off that fur hat and stole.) After sweet-talking Penny, a naive candy striper with a rebellious streak, Elsa steals her uniform a sneaks in to talk to the twins.
It’s the first time we really see Sarah Paulson with a second CGI head, and the special effects are impressive. If they weren’t, it would be incredibly easy to be taken out of the story as Bette and Dot size up Elsa, communicating with each other telepathically the entire time. Elsa quickly pegs Bette as the more trusting, curious one and zeros in on her with compliments and intrusive questions about the twins’ shared “reproductive system,” at which Dot kicks her out.
The Tattlers aren’t the only Jupiter residents who are having a bad week. A young couple is in an abandoned field doing some major necking. According to classic horror rules, that can only mean that someone is about to die.
If you haven’t watched the first episode yet and are reading this spoiler-filled recap instead, here is a warning: this season is not for those of us with coulrophobia. Just as the boyfriend goes back to retrieve something from the car, the single creepiest clown ever to exist comes out of the woods.
Not sure what’s more disturbing, his awful mask or the deliberate Michael Myers-esque way that he appears out of nowhere. He toys with the couple before bludgeoning them both with bowling pins. When the girl awakes, the clown is stabbing her boyfriend repeatedly with a pair of scissors. She tries to run, but, of course, she falls and the scene cuts out as the clown starts lumbering after her.
Later, more bodies were found. The clown killed a mother and father in Bridgewater, and kidnapping their son, Corey. Bonnie Lipton (the girl from the abandoned field) is still missing, but her boyfriend Troy Miller’s body has been found, bringing the death toll to four.
It’s then that we get the first glimpse of “Twisty the Clown’s” lair and it is good and disturbing. Ryan Murphy said the writers’ goal was to make the “most terrifying clown of all time.” Mission accomplished. He’s got Bonnie and Corey caged up in this dilapidated school bus where he’s alternating between doing clown tricks and bursting into fits of rage, as one does.
Naturally, the twins know that they will be suspected of all of the crimes, so they make a run for it, stopping by their house to pack up a few belongings. Elsa shows up and gets the truth from them with little effort.
It happened at the dinner table. Bette asked their mother if they could sneak off the farm for a movie, but Mrs. Tattler refused, believing that things would end as poorly as they did in Alabama if the townspeople found out about her children. (Side note: I won’t be unable take Bette seriously if she keeps doing things like demanding to see a movie “in glorious technicolor.”) Frustrated and trapped, Bette stabbed Mrs. Tattler with a giant carving knife. Later, Dot stabbed Bette as punishment for killing their mother.
Out of options, the twins agree to join the freak show. Bette’s enchanted by everything, especially Elsa’s swanky tent, but Dot is disgusted by it all…except for Jimmy, who comes to the rescue when the Geek bites the head off of a live chicken at the sight of the twins. She does not, however, enjoy Jimmy’s mother, Ethel (Kathy Bates), the freak show’s bearded lady and Elsa’s right hand, which …can you really blame her? I love Kathy Bates, but what is that accent she’s doing? Is it Scottish? Southern? Midwestern? So confused.
Ethel is unflinchingly loyal to Elsa, which is precious at a time when business is so awful. She is the one who convinces the twins to eat and keeps Jimmy’s frustrations from boiling over.
When Elsa can’t earn loyalty, she’s willing to resort to extortion. Remember Penny from the hospital? Turns out, she took Elsa up on an invitation to the freak show where Elsa had her drugged and had some of her acts sexually assault her.
It’s unclear what exactly happened, but just in case Penny decides to talk, Elsa’s got it all on film. Not sure if the tape would be more or less disturbing if it were actually clear what happened. Either way, it’s enough to prove that Elsa’s capable of major evil.
If Elsa fails at keeping her staff protected, there’s always Jimmy. After a fight with his mother, he catches a detective looming over the twins in their tent. He cuffs them and plans on having them picked up the next morning with all four of the murders pinned on them. You know, because they’re “monsters.” When Jimmy’s had about enough, he slashes the detective’s throat.
It’s enough to win the twins’ trust. They agree to be in the show, which has two, whole guests! The great Frances Conroy as a well-to-do snob named Gloria Mott and her spoiled son, Dandy. After the show, the two of them are so impressed with the twins that they ask to buy them. Which…okay, whatever. The twins refuse, choosing instead to remain with the show.
The premiere only serves to set up the board and introduce the players, so it isn’t the most exciting hour of “AHS” ever to air, but there are a few promising points. Bette and Dot’s relationship is interesting, Angela Basset should turn up soon and Twisty the Clown is as terrifying as TV villains get. All in all, the next nine weeks should be pretty interesting.