I can honestly say that "Test of Strength" is the first episode of this season of American Horror Story to honestly and completely bore me.
The show has struggled since the death of Twisty the Clown and the brilliance of Edward Mordrake's ghostly quest. Left without one of the show's prime sources of horror, it's devoted the second act to the story aspect of the title. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but unfortunately it is showing off some of the problems that derailed Coven last year.
First off, it was predictable. Really, really predictable. The cast members who are not going to make it out alive this season might as well be wearing red shirts. I understand it's because it's easy to make the audience fall in love with the small and the harmless, and therefore it makes more of an impact when they die but it somehow feels very cheap.
There's a reason Jason Voorhees rarely targeted children. Doing so would have been shocking, of course, but it also would have eliminated the social contract that we make with horror films. To enjoy the spectacle of death you have to have at least on some nasty, hateful level of yourself feel that the victims deserved it. It can be the horrible lizard brain part of you that judges a vain jock, obnoxious stoner, prude, or harlot at the level of a teenage boy, but it's still there. Among the freaks we've seen each death is the equivalent of watching someone pull the wings off a butterfly. You don't revel in the mayhem, you just want to call a guy in a lab coat.
More than that is that the show has abandoned itself to a moral and is about as subtle at wielding it as Dell is with his hammer. We get it; we are the real monsters, not those born with unfortunate medical conditions.
This played well when Dandy and Twisty worked off each other like a Satanic Abbot and Costello bit. Even Elsa's plots and schemes were bolstered by the revelation of her past and presently hidden freakish condition. Now though...
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Dandy has become transparent and one-dimensional without a proper monster to mirror himself in. deadly he may be, but he's equally annoying. Denis O'Hare as Stanley continues to schmooze with vile charisma, but that's O'Hare for you. He's utterly incapable of turning in anything that's not Vincent Price-level brilliance.
And then there's Dell... angry, repressed, stupid, Dell. He;s been revealed to be a man of morals so loose you could pull them like taffy and so eaten up with his latent homosexuality that his dick might as well be another fist. Add on the guilt he feels as a normal man from a family of freaks unwilling to recognize his son and you end up with a bottle of mental issues that normally you only see in Batman villains.
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That sounds exciting, and it is, but it's really just making him the muscle in another stupid trinity of baddies. Stanley is the brains, Dandy the beauty, Dell the brawn. It's Superman 2 and it's very, very tired.
Wait, wait, you say? Isn't Emma Roberts as Maggie the beauty? She's Stanley's accomplice, after all. Yeah, about that... you notice that of the normal people being bad only the conventionally pretty one is the one to step back at the last minute and refuse to kill? This isn't a knock on Roberts. She's a breath of fresh air whenever on screen, but if the show had done right we'd see her cute little self as the vicious, sadistic mastermind. It's not like Roberts couldn't pull it off.
There were a few highlights. A minor plotline delivered some real terror when Penny returned home to tell her dad she was leaving to be with Paul and the freak show. His revenge was terrifying to behold and heartbreaking in its implications. It looks to be setting up a wonderful revenge story next week.
Sarah Paulson also came out of the wings and laid down the pain for the first time in weeks. I really think that Dot is shaping up to be the replacement for Twisty as far as an abnormal antagonist is going. The dichotomy between her and her sister, especially regarding her ultimate plans to murder her and be free, is a compelling drama almost unseen in before in modern horror. I'm sure that the show is also building to a remarkable exploration of sexuality with Bette and Dot, which is the sort of groundbreaking thing that is called for now in a slow spiral towards mediocrity.