'American Horror Story' returns for a fourth season, taking us under the tent with perhaps its least subtle outing yet, introducing us to the oddities of the 'Freak Show,' led by Jessica Lange's glamorous Elsa Mars. Subtlety has never been creator Ryan Murphy's strong suit, but Murphy (who also wrote and directed tonight's premiere) seems to have fully embraced that approach, delivering what appears to be both the most horrifying and joyful season yet.

Tonight's premiere is a bonus-sized 90 minutes (or 63 without commercials), and we need every minute of it to introduce us to the tiny world of Jupiter, Florida and Elsa's wonderful cast of characters. Our entry into 'Freak Show' comes via Sarah Paulson's Dot and Bette, conjoined, two-headed twins, who are found when their mother is violently murdered, leaving them the only survivors (and perhaps suspects) at the crime scene. Murphy smartly uses the sweet and naive Bette and her cynical sister Dot as the audience surrogate, representative of divisiveness over both the freak show itself and the series following the disappointment of 'Coven.' Either you're game and eager like Bette, or skeptical like Dot about what's to come. Either way, Elsa's dragging us along for the ride.

Another incredibly smart choice is the use of Mica Levi's nerve-hitting score from 'Under the Skin' in the scenes with Dot and Bette. Murphy doesn't borrow the score simply because it sounds cool, but because it reflects similar themes from Jonathan Glazer's film -- in the case of the twins, what it's like to be a woman (or women), inhabiting a body that doesn't feel like your own; a body that feels foreign or alien to you, and that feels as though it was created for someone else's purposes. For the twins, it's the violent act of Bette losing her grip on sanity and stabbing their mother, an act that Dot cannot prevent in a body that should be her own, and so she retaliates by trying to kill her sister; similarly, something as simple as an act of masturbation feels like betrayal. Tragically, by trying to murder her sister, Dot is merely self-mutilating, and I don't think this will be the last time we witness such an act between the two this season.

As Dot and Bette enter the fray of the freak show, we meet many of our other characters this season -- like Kathy Bates' bearded lady, Ethel Darling, and her son, Jimmy, who uses his lobster-like hands in a side business, providing pleasure to sex-starved housewives. The freaks provide a valuable service to society, whether it's to the candy striper who wanders in and spends several days smoking opium and engaging in sex acts she later regrets, or to the wealthy woman (Frances Conroy) and her spoiled son who come to gawk: they not only reflect our truest nature back at us in vivid detail, but they allow us to be free and express ourselves in an environment where we are not judged.

Jimmy, for instance, is providing a service to women and introducing them to a pleasure they've never experienced and may never have known otherwise had they remained so close-minded, but it's mutually beneficial; he's lonely and, as Elsa berates him, what woman would want him when she sees all of him? The candy striper from the hospital may blame the drugs for her behavior, but, as Elsa shows her on that wonderfully racy film footage, she made her choices: on that screen is a girl who took agency and liberated herself from societal restrictions. The thematic implications of 'Freak Show' reflect the same implications of every season of 'American Horror Story': that society often punishes us for expressing and rejoicing what we truly are, and yet we suffer so much for repressing it -- only in 'Freak Show,' these themes are far less subtle, and the show seems much richer for it.

Simultaneously, there's the horrific business of Twisty, the serial killer clown played by an unrecognizable John Carroll Lynch, whose first murder echoes that of one of the Zodiac killer's attacks, in which he stabbed two picnicking lovers (one survived). I have no doubt this is an intentional nod, given that Lynch played a suspect in David Fincher's 'Zodiac.' Regardless, Twisty is quite possibly the most terrifying clown character in ages, particularly given how rare it is to see a killer strike in broad daylight. Even later, whether he's terrorizing captive children (very curious what he's up to here) or stalking in the shadows, or just sitting motionless on a merry-go-round, he's absolutely scary.

And yet amid all of the thematic weight and zaniness and horror business, there's so much delight in 'Freak Show': there is perhaps nothing more joyful than watching Lange's former cabaret singer Elsa Mars finally take center stage to sing a rendition of David Bowie's "Life on Mars?" complete with a shower of sparkly confetti. I just about lost my damn mind. This episode almost makes up for all of the disappointments of 'Coven' in one go.

Additional Thoughts:

  • Over at Badass Digest, I posted a wish list of wacky stuff I hoped to see this season. I'm happy to report that one of those things made it into tonight's episode: Evan Peters using his lobster-hands in a woman's special place like a puppet master.
  • "It's Lucky Strike. It's good for you."
  • I think the biggest mystery this season might be figuring out what Kathy Bates is doing with this accent. Is it Wisconsin Amish? Is she mimicking Mira Sorvino in 'Romy and Michele's High School Reunion'?
  • Pepper is back! We get to see Pepper in her pre-'Asylum' days.
  • I hope we get to know the world's tiniest woman and the very tall woman with the great legs much better.
  • Is Evan Peters channeling Johnny Depp in 'Cry-Baby'?
  • "Every Thursday night at 9 p.m. he turns on 'Dragnet' and climbs on top of me." Living the dream, sister.

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