‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ Season 4 Episode 9: “Blood Bath”

American Horror Story has always suffered from its extensive, extremely talented cast. With so many star players and such a limited run of episodes, a few characters always end up being undercooked, undeveloped, and incapable of garnering any sympathy when they’re eventually, inevitably killed off. This week, we see a fatal conclusion to two characters, both superbly acted, but neither ever making much of an impact on the overall feel or trajectory of the show. We grieve more for the loss of the presence of the actors than for the loss of the characters, and that’s never a good sign. 

“Blood Bath” begins with Gloria Mott reclined on the couch of a shrink, discussing her recent spike in anxiety caused by Dandy. She talks, briefly, of her son’s childhood. “Words had no meaning for him. Particularly the word ‘no.'” He was socially awkward even as a kid. He befriended the gardener’s son, Emile. Emile, unsurprisingly, vanished without a trace.

The episode deals lightly with Dandy’s refusal to see a shrink and his mother’s inability to have any influence on his decision-making. This comes to a head when Regina, the daughter of the now-dead Nora, appears in the Mott household. She demands to know where her mother is, and Gloria comes up with probably the lamest, most elaborate excuse for her mother’s absence: she’s out of town shopping for squash. It’s embellished with all sorts of details — a nearby farm was wiped away by storms, Gloria has auction winnings waiting for Nora to pick them up in a different town, even farther away — and Frances Conroy’s delivery of them perfectly underline her character’s anxiety and her inability to convince anyone of anything.

The charade doesn’t last for long. Regina threatens to bring the cops into the situation, and Dandy offers his mom an ultimatum: kill Regina, and he’ll go see a therapist. But, before she can try to take him up on his offer, something else happens.

“You’re no better than the Roosevelts,” Dandy says, confronting his mother with the fact that her husband — his father — was her second cousin. His mother is drained. She turns her back to him, he pulls out a gold-plated revolver, turns it on himself. She insists otherwise. He agrees, aims at her, and shoots her through the forehead. Then, hammering home the title of the episode, Dandy bathes in his mother’s blood. Her character is unceremoniously killed, but Dandy’s bathing is ceremonious in its own, fucked-up way. Still, Conroy has always been underutilized in this series, but this season brings that wastefulness to new heights.

Meanwhile back at the camp, the freaks form a search party to find Ma Petite (who Dell killed for Stanley in the previous episode). They find her dress, tattered and bloody, and Elsa seems genuinely devastated. Ethel, however, thinks Elsa’s sobs were too enthusiastic to be real. She confronts her with a prepared speech about the one-sided, symbiotic relationship between Elsa and her cast members. “One shouldn’t dread spending time with her best friend,” she says.

Elsa goes to leave, Ethel shoots her in her wooden leg, and we fall into the story of Elsa’s prosthetics, given to her by Mossimo, an immigrant doctor (played by Danny Huston, apparently a new series regular). Ethel was unaware of all this, but she still isn’t swayed. She keeps her gun trained on Elsa even as she goes to fetch one last schnapps before she dies. It’s all a distraction, of course, as Elsa picks up a throwing knife and slings it straight into Ethel’s left eye. RIP Ethel, we barely knew ye and yer accent.

Hum. Yet another atrocity committed by Elsa, so yet another coverup. Maggie and Stanley, under the guise of helping to protect Elsa’s future Hollywood career, create a sham scene of a suicide for Ethel. It’s an absurdly complicated story, Ethel having supposedly tied one end of a chain around her neck and the other around a tree, then driving the car straight into another tree. This, of course, results in a perfectly severed head that Stanley can ship back up to Philly, but nobody asks any questions about that.

At the memorial scene, we discover that Ethel loved fellow Massachusetts-native Emily Dickinson. Jimmy reads a few lines of “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” which is an oddly fitting poem for a Bearded Lady. It’s surprisingly nice, if not a little short!

After the funeral, prompted by the deaths of two of their fellow women, the ladies of the campground form a pact. They decide to kill Penny’s father, who, you’ll remember, had her transformed into a lizard woman. In a scene reminiscent of the Manson murders — or, more recently, Mary Martha May Marlene — they quietly break into his house. They abduct him, take him back to Desiree’s trailer, and tar and feather him. The sequence is interrupted by Maggie, and she convinces Penny not to castrate and kill him.

During the memorial (and the subsequent abduction), Elsa travels to Tampa to recruit a severely overweight woman. She names her Ima Wiggles, because of course she does. Elsa suggests to Jimmy, who is drunkenly grieving the death of his mother, that Ima’s ample bosom will be a sufficient replacement for Ethel’s, because of course she does. And, of course, by episode’s end, Jimmy is, indeed, crying in her bosom.

The death of two great characters, a little development of two despicable characters (Ethel, Dandy), and a bit of a redemption for a c-level character (Penny): It’s weird. “Blood Bath” theoretically had a lot happening in it, and yet it seems so insubstantial. Surely, the next few weeks will center on Dandy-as-serial-killer, and Jimmy will probably smart to Maggie and Stanley’s grave intentions. But, man. Who cares? With such little time devoted to most of these characters, and with the prior seasons kind of desensitizing AHS‘ viewers to its shock-tactic ways, Freak Show is having very little emotional resonance. We’re rooting for none of these characters. The series become its own kind of sideshow, where the audience goes to see a bunch of weird shit happen and feels nothing after the fact — only, no matter how hard Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk try, it’s not even that weird.