Film and TV

American Horror Story: Freak Show: The Magic of Neil Patrick Harris

Right before the holidays American Horror Story unleashed not only one of the greatest episodes in the series' history but simply put one of the best episodes in television history. Naomi Grossman's story as Pepper the pinhead was a textbook example of what television can do that no other medium save perhaps comic books can; play the long game. So the comeback this week was already dealing with a handicap when it aired. How did "Magical Thinking" hold up?

The big news was the introduction of Neil Patrick (Fucking) Harris to the regular cast. The Notorious NPH is usually considered stunt casting despite his undeniable talent and as such you sometimes forget that he can act the hell out of a scene when he wants to. Here we see him as Chester Creb, a former soldier left with severe mental problems after World War II. He fancies himself a magician and a gecko farmer, but exhibits disturbing tendencies through the outlet of his ventriloquist dummy Marjorie.

I'm a big fan of the killer doll trope. I'm probably the only ten-year-old who had a poster for Dolly Dearest in his room so the introduction of Marjorie is a welcome bit of new horror in a season that has toed the line in one or two genres.

Marjorie in some forms features the return of Jamie Brewer to the series in an unexpected treat. Her unceremonious demise in Coven left us without a character and an actress that was really the best part of the whole season. She's lightly used here, but her interactions with Harris are magic. They are two vastly underrated actors playing off each other to see who can be the most horrific.

Harris largely serves as the new Big Bad, a title he's thankfully taking away from Dandy (Finn Wittrock). Fond as I am of Wittrock's skills he works better as a team than on his own as a threat. He's blossomed some by wreaking havoc on the life of Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters) in a move that ultimately leads Darling to selling his hands for a lawyer, but pitted with the unstable and frightening Harris as Creb there's a ton of magic to be made.

The metaphor that has been bludgeoned into the audience from the beginning is that apparent normalcy can hide the most freakish nature. It's heavy-handed, sure, but I am increasingly impressed how people like Harris and Michael Chiklis continue to embody that message in a variety of subtle ways. In a sense this is a story about privilege. It's a story about the power of being a default human and what that affords you. It certainly allows a whole lot of normal-looking monsters to run amok.

Though American Horror Story still hasn't recovered the initial oomph of the season start it is definitely coming into its own as far as drawing on the best talents of the people involved. A pretty gruesome new horror show is growing quietly in the wings, and I'm willing to bet that Neil Patrick (Fucking) Harris has the chops to bring the final curtain down. On with the show.

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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner