American Horror Story: “Test Of Strength” Review

Spoilers ahead!

I noted briefly a few weeks ago the Ferris wheel in American Horror Story: Freak Show and how it is always running with nobody riding it. Well, I figured out who is on the ride: us. If last week’s episode hung low on the wheel’s trajectory, then “Test Of Strength” is climbing to the top. And at this point, none of us can get off the ride until Freak Show closes its gates and the ride is switched off. In other words, this week’s installment of Freak Show is much better than last week’s. Not perfect, but much better.

“Test Of Strength” pairs off Dell and Stanley in a blackmail-fueled relationship that results in Dell A) getting his ass kicked by Amazon Eve, B) having a real emotional moment with his son Jimmy, and C) providing the first heart-wrenching kill of the season. I must admit, I was wary of Michael Chiklis’ character after some poor writing in terms of characterization. But I cheered when Eve threw him out of her trailer. I was happy when I saw Dell bonding with his son. I felt hatred and sadness when Dell crushed Ma Petite in the worst hug imaginable. And it’s because I felt so many emotions that I must praise this episode. I was rendered a passive viewer with last week’s episode. I was made an active viewer with this week’s, which is a major fault I see time and time again with American Horror Story: crazy plots are fun, but plots don’t make a good episode great. Characters do.

Characters do this. Can plots do this?

Characters do this. Can plots do this?

But, speaking of characters, the rest of the episode suffers from what I like to call “too-many-characters syndrome.” I’ll pose my thoughts as questions. First off, remind me again why Stanley is letting Maggie live? She’s already betrayed him a number of times, so I’d imagine he might be a tad worried she might spill the beans. Second, did anyone else forget that Penny is the candy-striper from the first episode? I maintain that her transformation into lizard-lady is horrific, but it would have been more effective if I wasn’t so confused why we were all of a sudden spending so much time with a character I hardly remembered. And lastly, though I’d like to see a spinoff series featuring Ethel and Desiree breaking into places, did we need to see that sequence at the doctor’s office play out? Tolerance of others is a huge theme, Freak Show, we get it, but you can quit beating us over the head with the same stick.

I commend the setup with Dandy for giving us a glimpse of what’s to come (hint: more killer clown). And I particularly like the ever-evolving relationship between Elsa and the twins. However, I do think the biggest stain on the episode, and this season, is the inclusion of the musical numbers. I was forgiving of Elsa’s rendition of Life on Mars? and the twins’ Fiona Apple cover as insights into the jealousy brewing between the three characters, but Jimmy sings Nirvana this week, and it’s out of place and self-serving (and since when does Jimmy sing?). It’s regrettable that I have to give this week’s episode a lower score than I would if the song was cut, but it truly is jarring when something so needless is thrown into a generally well-executed episode.

No.

No.

Random Observations:

  • Bette’s comment about her and Dot as a “before-and-after picture” is hilarious, made so not only conceptually, but by the incredible contrast in performances by Sarah Paulson.
  • Quote of the Week: “The screams of men who have been nut-shot are so specific.”
  • Cool re-use of the split screen effect from the top of the season.

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