FX’s American Horror Story
Season 4, Episode 1: “Monsters Among Us”
Directed by Ryan Murphy
Written by Brad Falchuk & Ryan Murphy
* For a review of the Season 3 Coven finale, “The Seven Wonders” – click here
* For a review of the next episode, “Massacres and Matinees” – click here
This season begins with Sarah Paulson narrating us, her face fades in quickly. Well, one of her faces.
Our introduction to them comes in 1952 – Jupiter, Florida – when the milkman Bill Palmer (Wilson Bradford) finds mouldy looking milk bottles outside the door. Going inside, he comes to discover there’s been something awful going on, as the food is all left out, everything in disarray, and Ms. Tattler lays in a pool of her own blood. Upstairs, he comes to discover what’s been hiding in the house all these years, tucked away in secret by the old woman. Back at the hospital, we get to see the terrified look in the eyes of a nurse as a doctor lists off the internal anomalies of the person they found at the Tattler house.
Before seeing what’s been causing all the commotion, Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) shows up asking questions of a candy striper named Penny (Grace Gummer). Turns out Elsa is poking around for business purposes, she runs a traveling carnival and show of oddities. Penny, being the naughty nurse she is, helps Elsa on her way inside. Now, we finally get to discover why the hospital is in an uproar, hell – the whole town.
Another go around sees Paulson playing the twins Bette and Dot Tattler. Not only are they identical twins, they’re conjoined – rather, they’ve got two heads on a single body. They’re both highly different, though, each with their own distinct and vibrant personality. Even better than that, we as the audience get to sit in on their internal conversations and monologues, which is damn cool and will certainly serve as a unique, important device throughout the season.
Something I love about Bette/Dot is the way the visuals have started to work in “Monsters Among Us”. At various moments in any given scene, we’re treated to a split-screen technique giving us a slightly differing perspective from each of the women. It already visually sets up the tension and different feelings they have about Elsa and her ways.
While Elsa poses as a caring person to them, underneath it all she’s selfishly interested in their life, their condition, simply so they might come and work for her at the freak show.The horror begins pretty savagely here in the first episode. Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch) wanders out of the trees to a clearing where Bonnie Lipton (Skyler Samuels) and Troy Miller (Andrew Duplessie) are almost ready to make a little love together. Twisty is so unbelievably creepy. Part of his face is all skin and makeup, while the other parts seem glued on… or torn off. There’s bloody edges all over his skin almost mixing in with the makeup.
Pretty much you can bet he’s a bad, bad sort of clown once he hauls out a couple bowling pins and whacks the lovers in their heads.
Little nod to Lynch’s turn in David Fincher’s Zodiac, as Bonnie comes to and sees Troy being stabbed to death by this nasty clown.
More characters filter into our mind’s eye now.
First, introducing the chameleon going by the name of Evan Peters, this season taking up the role of Jimmy Darling. His initial scene gives us a bit about him, and some about Elsa. It seems their travelling carnival is in trouble, with only what’s between Ms. Mars’ legs keeping them in town and staving off the landlord. Meanwhile, she’s pissed with Jimmy – a freak in his own right at her carnival – because he’s out flaunting himself and looking to hook up with women. He wears big, heavy leather mitts on his hands. Only hinting at his character to come.
Next scene, the gloves come off; in more than one way.
At a little party full of 1950s-era housewives, ole Jimmy is the entertainment. At the back of the house, in one of the bedrooms, each of the women head to see Jimmy and his big, long lobster hands. Y’know – the better to make you cum with, my dear.
Throughout the rest of the episode we see a lot of weird, wonderfully grim and exciting stuff.
Twisty goes back to the abandoned rusty bus where he keeps a young boy whose family he killed and Bonnie Lipton. There, he terrorises them in their cage after his attempts to amuse them fail. Absolutely disturbing stuff, even more vile if you’re afraid of clowns!
Elsa further worms her way into the lives of the twins. She scares Bette – the more innocent of the two – while Dot is much more sceptical of Ms. Mars and her scheming ways. Because, as it turns out, Bette went a little mad and started to stab their mother, which led to them both becoming accomplice to the crime. So naturally, Elsa uses this to her advantage. She claims it’s to save them, when really it only benefits her in the end; after all, she holds all the power knowing the truth of what happened to their mother. Off the twins go, back to the freak show, ready to help draw in some paying customers.
So many different things happening in this first episode of Season 4. There are even more interesting characters than ever before, I think. With such a full and wide variety of characters – due to the vast freak show – it’s impressive how well Falchuk and Murphy fit so many pieces into the script.
We get a brief flashback scene to when Elsa meets Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates), a.k.a The Bearded Lady (and Jimmy’s mama). Man – just have to say it, Bates is a powerhouse of a performer. Her accent is awesome, the whole bearded look goes well, and she embodies the character like always; quality actor.
There’s also Paul the Illustrated Seal (Mat Fraser), Amazon Eve (Erika Ervin), tiny little Ma Petite (Jyoti Amge), the familiar face from Season 2 Asylum Pepper (Naomi Grossman) and another awfully termed pinhead named Salty (Christopher Neiman), and more. Very rich tapestry of characters going on already from the start.
Funny enough, the candy striper from earlier named Penny wakes up after her time with the freaks and seems to have a problem with what happened to her, saying she was “drugged and ravaged.” Although, Elsa hauls out a film of all that went on the previous night, which pretty clearly shows how much fun Penny actually had. In this scene, we get a good look at how fed up Elsa is with how she and the freaks are treated – she calls them “beautiful” and “heroic,” chastising Penny for her and her kind’s way of looking down on them and at them.
At the same time, Jimmy Darling wants to have a normal life outside of their freak show, he wants to take him and his mother away, all of them. He even expresses the desire to help the freaks get away from drowning their sorrows in alcohol, telling Ethel how there are meetings and support groups for those types of issues now. He’s obviously a caring person, more than just a guy to be labelled ‘freak’, just like the rest of them. Loving this season’s themes already beginning to branch out from this first instalment.
But a dark side comes out of Jimmy’s hopes to look after the freaks. When a cop comes poking around for Bette and Dot, wanting to take them in under arrest for murdering their mother, Jimmy cuts his throat after he continually uses the F-word (no not that one: freak).Finally we’re introduced to the sickly stuck-up Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock) and his doting mother Gloria (Frances Conroy). They’re a hilarious pair, decadently dressed while taking in the local show Elsa and her carnival of freaks offer up. Our initial view of them is not overly long, however, within these moments we’re also treated to Elsa and the freaks putting off their show.
Some found it strange the way Murphy incorporated music into this season. I love his explanation, though, as every artist’s music they use is someone who has identified as a type of ‘freak’ over the years. For instance, we continually get Elsa singing Bowie, so it’s not hard to see his outsider status; later we’ll get other musicians like that, even a bit of Nirvana. Great sequence in this episode with seeing/hearing Jessica Lange performing David Bowie’s “Life On Mars?”, as the freaks play instruments in the background. Amazing stuff to kick this season into full gear.
My favourite part is the end of the episode when Elsa takes off her wooden legs for the night, slowly rolling down her socks, undressing. Very powerful scene. Now we understand a little more perhaps why Elsa is hardened and vicious and ruthless at times. As “Auf Weidersehn, Sweetheart” by Vera Lynn plays, the episode finishes on Elsa’s sad, tragic face. We’ll see where she and the rest of these characters take us in the second episode.
Dig the music in this season even more than any other before it. There’s a great quality to it with an almost 1950s sci-fi sound at certain points. It’s full of strings that sweep from one end of the spectrum to the next, so beautifully and at the same time in an eerie sense. I also can’t shake the weird electronic heartbeat-type sound, it comes out with the strings and it’s like a pulse beneath all the other sounds. At first you almost think it sounds out of place, then after some time the noise grows on you and morphs into the rest of the sonic wall. Score and soundtrack have been a big thing since the first season, but Season 4 in particular really has it down pat. Can’t wait to see how the aesthetic overall works in this season as the episodes go on.
Next episode is titled “Massacres and Matinees”, directed by series regular Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.