Each season of American Horror Story is so different at times it’s tempting to treat each like an entirely independent miniseries. It’s such a great structure for the series, each story sees a dramatic shift in plot, characters and style that there’s no fear of carrying baggage from one season to the next. Things I criticise one year are either fixed or completely irrelevant the next. Although the flip side is that often things I like one year are missing the next too.
I don’t think any of the seasons has lived up to the first. None has managed to deliver anything approaching the complexity and depth, or really create anything quite as scary and horrific. Freak Show I think comes the closest and even exceeds the first season in some ways, particularly with the beautiful design work and detailing of the 1950s freak show. But where Freak Show really excelled, particularly in comparison to Asylum and Coven, was in the rich and complex characters.
Freak Show is all about the people, those that are freaks on the outside and those that are freaks on the inside. The message that it’s not the people that look scary that we should be most afraid of is laid on very thick at times, but it’s also supported by some great character studies and gradually developing relationships and interactions. While there’s the ‘core troop’ of familiar faces in the cast, there are also plenty of new faces, some very familiar to television viewers, but also some actors who’s are completely new to mainstream television. With the addition of some impressive visual effects the characters are some of the most interesting and original that I’ve seen in a long time.
The story meanders about a bit, sadly going round in circles occasionally and dragging in places, looking back I’d completely forgotten some of the earlier stories that were possibly wrapped up a bit too easily while others looped around and around themselves or disappeared for a few episodes before being rather jarringly picked up. I think a bit more of an over-arching plot would have helped tie it all together and would have really helped with the last couple of episodes which felt rather like the end of the season surprised the writers room and they realised they didn’t really have a finale.
Season 5 has been confirmed, but there aren’t any real details of what it will be about. I’m hoping that there’ll be a bigger shuffle in the cast. I think particularly some new leading actors need to come in to really keep it fresh. Jessica Lange’s characters are becoming rather indistinct, Elsa Mars was probably the least well written and interesting of all the characters in Freak Show and I’m not sure who’s choice it was to land her and Kathy Bates with such terrible accents, but it really didn’t work. I think there’s a risk the series could start to settle down and lose the variability, and I think that would be a real shame. I think if the writers can look back to season 1 and remind themselves of how different and successful that was, and mix that with what really worked in this season, they could keep the energy up for whatever comes next.