American Horror Story used to be one of my favorite shows, but this last season was, frankly, a hot mess. I’ve gotten used to AHS’s particular brand of sloppy writing: plot holes all over the place, rushed storylines, and more attention being given to writing sassy dialogue than actually producing a cohesive plot. And until now, that’s been fine with me! Every season of American Horror Story introduces strong, witty characters who have given me plenty of one-liners to quote again and again with my friends. So in that regard, I would say the show is pretty successful. I can probably attribute part of the reason that the show lost me this season to the fact that it was lacking in the humor area. That, combined with the finale, has left me feeling pretty blasé about continuing to watch the show.
I always knew that one of the big points of this season’s theme would be to show that the real “freaks” are not those who are physically deformed and/or different, like the performers in the freak show, but in actuality are those who have immense wealth and privilege and think they’re above the law, like rich boy Dandy Mott (played amazingly by the hunky Finn Wittrock). This message ostensibly seems like a pretty good takeaway, but the way that the show framed Dandy’s mental illness really bothers me. We learn early on that Dandy’s family has had a long history of inbreeding in order to keep their money to themselves, consequently causing mental illness to run in the family. Thus, Dandy was born a psychopath. He had lots of interesting scenes that provided some insight into the inner workings of a psychopath’s mind, but overall, it seems like the writers used his condition as a horror tool in the same way that we’ve seen over and over in other TV shows, films, and books.
Freak Show took place in the 1950s, so it’s probable that Dandy’s condition may not have been as well understood or treated as it might be today. Still, I find it somewhat unsettling that the writers were so quick to cast Dandy aside as the freaky psycho not worthy of any sympathy when, like the “freaks,” he never asked to be born that way. Right before killing him in the season finale, Angela Bassett’s character Desiree tells him, “you may look like a motion picture dreamboat, but you’re the biggest freak of all.” What does this say about his mental illness? This season of American Horror Story was set in the 1950s, but I firmly believe that many of its messages can be interpreted through a contemporary lens. In the same way that its plot suggests that we should not judge others who look different from ourselves in the present day, it also suggests that psychopaths are not worthy of sympathy.
This tendency to demonize the mentally ill pervades our culture in a way that makes people feel ashamed to seek help or be honest about what they’re dealing with inside their own heads. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I truly believe that we as a society can and must accommodate people dealing with severe mental illness, and I look forward to advances that will make it more and more possible for them to live safe, happy lives. An important step in doing so is removing the stigma attached to mental illness, which I believe AHS has only added to via its treatment of Dandy this season. Am I reading too much into it? Maybe. Still, I stand by the fact that this season was a disappointment. Better luck next time, I guess? Here’s a link to a super interesting TED talk given by a scholar living with schizophrenia—this is the sort of stuff that contributes positively to mental health discourse. Take note, Ryan Murphy.