There's no doubt that season 4 of American Horror Story is one of the most anticipated premieres of the fall 2014 TV season. With the growing success of the first three seasons and 51 Primetime Emmy nominations, the fervor for the series has reached an all-time high.
On Wednesday, Oct. 8, the show returns to FX at 10/9 c with Freak Show, which will explore the lives of one of the country's remaining sideshows in 1950s Jupiter, FL. Because this is a Ryan Murphy series, we know it will be full of twists, turns, and scenes certain to shock. And before the premiere, we wanted to make sense of all the plot lines, cast members, and rumors surrounding Freak Show.
Set in 1952 in Jupiter, Florida, the show will explore life at the end of the carny world thanks to the advent of television. The show is largely about the freaks -- all of whom were historically mistreated and ostracized from society -- and a woman who's trying to keep their world from falling apart. At the center of the overarching story are two girls, conjoined twins, who are suspected of heinous crimes happening in the township. Of course, there's more to it than that, and it soon becomes clear who the real enemy is.
We basically know who's who in the show but it's worth breaking it down now that we can put the relationships and character intentions together.
Jessica Lange is Elsa Mars, a German ex-pat and the ringleader of the sideshow, rescuing freaks from hospitals and jails from being shipped away to asylums. Her character is modeled after Marlene Dietrich, the famed German actress and singer of the flapper years who remains a gay icon. (Spoiler: Lange sings in the first episode.) Elsa is not a villain, at least in the traditional sense that fans have become used to seeing her play on the past three seasons. Why is Elsa so taken by the freaks? Her connection will be revealed very early in the season.
Kathy Bates is Ethel Darling, the bearded lady who works alongside Elsa and helps run the campgrounds where the freaks live and work. She's the mother to Jimmy Darling, played by Evan Peters, who is the freaks' big man on campus -- his claim to de-fame is lobster claw hands that offer an unexpected perk for the ladies -- until Ethel's ex-husband shows up.
Michael Chiklis is Dell Toledo, a strong man, who is running from the law and shows up at Elsa's sideshow with his current wife Desiree (Angela Bassett), who is a three-breasted woman. Both are desperate for work after their previous shows closed.
Emma Roberts is Maggie, a fortuneteller who's actually a con artist. Her arrival at the camp means trouble for everyone she tries to help. She engages in a romantic relationship with Jimmy and is in collusion with Stanley (Denis O'Hare), who has been described as a "collector of freaks."
In one of the show's most talked about roles, Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler, who find themselves lured to the sideshow by Elsa. Their family is among those terrorized by Twisty the clown (John Carroll Lynch), a murderous man in face paint. He's out to get the freaks that have moved into Jupiter Township. (Warning: If you're not afraid of clowns, you will have a serious case of coulrophobia after watching this show.)
After first appearing in The Normal Heart, Finn Wittrock reteams with Murphy as Dandy Mott, a pretty boy who is keen on joining the freak show much to his mother Gloria's (Frances Conroy) dismay. She'll do anything to keep him from joining.
Working for Gloria is Patti LaBelle (her character named has yet to be revealed), who Murphy says does no singing on the show. LaBelle plays Gabourey Sidibe's mother. The actress is a New York society girl who returns home when her mother loses contact.
Finally Wes Bentley is Edward Mordrake, the man with two faces. According to Murphy, he has his normal face and then another on the back of his head that whispers evil things forcing the other to commit crimes. He's said to torment everyone in the camp, especially Ethel.
Also joining the cast in recurring roles are Matt Bomer, Grace Gummer, Skyler Samuels, and Naomi Grossman, who is reprising her role as Pepper and possibly connecting Freak Show to Asylum.
Populating the sideshow and circus are a cast of real life personalities that may have been, at one time, collected by Elsa. Among them are Jyoti Amge, the world's smallest woman, transgender fitness model Amazon Eve, performance artist Mat Fraser as Paul the Illustrated Seal, and Rose Siggins as Legless Suzy.
While they give life to the sideshow, the performers are not there just to be gawked at. "We're writing for them," Murphy told BuzzFeed. "We're giving them backstories and scenes that play on their own experiences because the writers interviewed all of them at length about their lives, and we're putting their lives in the script."
FX has produced a series of interviews with each of these actors to tell their real life journeys:
While there have been potentially a number of spoilers listed so far, here are a few more teases about things that will appear on the show:
Singing, not only does Lange perform in the first episode but it's also been reported that she'll cover Lana Del Rey on the show.
Expect a high body count -- there's up to 10 just in the first two episodes. And there's plenty of blood to go with all the bodies.
Patience is key when expecting to see some of the series' more high profile cast members. Bassett, Chiklis, and LaBelle don't appear until episode two. Bentley is only a part of the show for episodes three and four. And you don't see Roberts or O'Hare until sometime later. As for Bomer? Not much as been reported on his role.
Clowns are forever ruined by this show. Twisty appears early in the premiere and it's very unsettling.
Two of the first reviews to hit the web ahead of the premiere are from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.
Variety is a fan, noting the slight changes in storytelling:
The deliberate pacing and carefully doled out details in the first two episodes contribute to the sense that viewers may be in for an unusually single-minded season of "Horror Story," though it's probably wise not to assume anything this early on. After all, what seems important at the outset of any given installment may not matter a bit by the finale. The "Coven" premiere pivoted on a horrifying gang rape that was nothing but a bad, fuzzy memory by the end, while "Asylum" introduced an extraterrestrial subplot that never quite jelled with its otherwise chilling examination of the evil that men do.
The fundamental problem in the opening hours is the lack of an original storyline to move the show beyond a series of gaudy shock reveals, such as the unique anatomy Angela Bassett's Desiree displays in the second episode. The plot isn't much different from the granddaddy of all freak-show films, Todd Browning's 1932 Freaks--unusual performers band together as a defensively hostile group, persecuted by the "normal" citizenry repelled by them. This notion of superficial differences that provoke cruelty and alienation is a theme that resonates deeply with Murphy, and runs through his shows such as Nip/Tuck and Glee as well.
Having seen the first two episodes, we can tell you that there is plenty to love and loathe in the new season. The acting from Lange, Paulson, and Bates is superb. All three proving why they have become Emmy favorites.
Murphy certainly loves to push the envelope with what he thinks viewers can handle. The show is not for the faint of heart. And that's where we wish some of the campiness from Coven returned. There's a serious, perverse tone this season that recalls Asylum's brutal nature.