CONCEPT OF THE FREAK IN VIDEO MEDIA
The cathartic effect of the freak
Look at us! WE WILL ALWAYS WIN. A man came through here and started killing us and putting our kind in glass jars. He filled up a museum with OUR KIND. That's where you think freaks belong...in parlors behind glass - a human car crash to stare at to remind you how lucky you are. Well maybe that's true. But lemme tell you this, pretty boy. You may look like a motion picture dream boat, but YOU ARE THE BIGGEST FREAK of them all... Assholes like you think you can get away with anything. We sentence you and your whole rotten world to death. Look at us! We will always win. And you know why? Because we freaks will always stick up for each other to the death because we have no one else to turn to.... Jimmy Darling (Lobster Boy) and Desiree Dupree (Three Breasted Woman) to Dandy Mott right before the kill him in American Horror Story - Freak Show.
When watching fiction and dealing with imaginary characters, who, by the way, really aren't that imaginary, we tend to identify with the outlier, the freak, the misfit. Something exists in our own psyches that sympathizes with these characters. Take, for example, the quote above. In American Horror Story - Freak Show, Dandy Mott (rich, narcissistic, inbred, handsome psychopath) who had already killed his maid and mother - played with their corpses as marionettes - had purchased the Freak Show from Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange). Dandy is an eccentric who feels that his sole purpose in life is to kill because that is the one thing he does well, he proclaims. When he takes over the Show, he antagonizes the freaks, blaming them for lack of patrons. When the freaks confront him, he calls Amazon Eve a "cow" who eventually punches him. He is insulted, blames the freaks for everything, and then, the following day, routinely and calmly walks the boardwalk of the Show and shoots every freak except for the Siamese Twins (whom he loves), Lobster Boy (in hiding from the police), and the Three Breasted Woman (who was able to escape). These three (or four, counting the two headed Siamese Twins) remaining freaks capture Dandy and place him in a Houdini-like water torture chamber/death trap and sit and watch as he drowns in the tank.
The Mott family is a highly respected, extremely wealthy family in Jupiter, Florida. They are characterized as "normal." However, due to his mother's failure to raise him correctly and the familial inbreeding, Dandy is an eccentric who feels that his sole purpose in life is to kill because that is the one thing he does well, he proclaims. Dandy is the freak - even more so than a two headed woman, lobster boy, or 23 inch tall woman - all who have learned, through their disabilities, the "right" way to treat each other and other people and desperately want to fit into society.
Mott states that he is only doing what God put me on the earth to do...to kill. And, you can't kill me... Look at me... I'm a god. He says this after he systematically kills just about everyone in the show. After being embarrassed by the Siamese Twins (two headed Bette and Dot Tattler), Paul, the Illustrated Seal, Amazon Eve (world's tallest woman), Toulouse (dwarf), Legless Suzie (you can probably guess that one), Ima Wiggles the Fat Lady, and the Lizard Face Woman (after killing them all), he is captured, tortured, and killed. As he drowns in the tank, Lobster Boy, Siamese Twins, and the Three Breasted Woman sit and eat popcorn with huge smiles on their faces. As Dandy sucumbs to the death trap, Lobster Boy looks at the other characters, satisfied, and says that was a pretty good show.
What is really "human" and surprising is that we do really feel great empathy for the freaks. "The meek shall inherit the earth." That's a way of looking at it when Lobster Boy tells Dandy that We will always win. Lobster Boy (Even Peters) knows in the show that the Freak Show is a collection of outcasts and misfits that no one else wanted. They are a family, and they are kind and caring to one another. They have dinner together, they hang out together, party together, and move along as if the outside people are the real freaks. They are neither embarrassed nor ashamed to travel into Jupiter now and then for supplies. They celebrate their differences. I have a strong feeling that is why we are drawn to them. How many of us "celebrate" our frailties. Instead, we look away. They are monsters, and they know it and are proud of it. As adopted mother Elsa Mars affectionately and maternally calls them, her little monsters.
After watching four seasons of American Horror Story (Freak Show, Murder House, Asylum, and Coven), I have come to see that the success of the shows fall on the creators who attempt to show us exactly what we need to see - that we are all freaks in some way, none of us perfect, and if you don't really think you are not perfect, there probably is something wrong with you - hence a freak - basically because you have not been placed into these types of situations. I had the same experience from watching other FX shows, namely Fargo, The Bridge, Sons of Anarchy, Tyrant, and Justified (am having a difficult time with The Americans for some reason). In these shows, all of the main characters are exiled or abandoned by mainstream culture in some way or form. I call to mind Sons of Anarchy (probably the best 7 year run of any off main street series for which one could wish).
Again, in this 7 season event Sons of Anarchy, the main characters are a renegade motorcycle club living outside of Oakland, California. These are not people you wish to cross, but as a group and as a series of individuals, they act and interact with each other as most families do, dysfunctions and all. Jax, the main character and president of the club, is torn between leading a regular slightly less criminal life or that of an outlaw. Because of a series of events too long and complicated to write about, Jax chooses the role of gangster, fighting his emotions all the way. At the end of the program, after killing his own overly protective mother (who prior to this killed his wife), he drives his motorcycle into an oncoming semi on the highway and dies just as his father died. Right before he shoots his mother in the back of the head, he hesitates, puts the gun down: yet, his mother (very talented Katey Sagal who plays Gemma - biker caretaker and mother figure) tells him to
Go ahead. Do what you have to do. This is who we are...
bringing to light that they have chosen to live a life outside the grid, and the issues in which they are involved are issues they are expected to emulate. Remorse is there for the violent death of his mother, but Jax comes to the realization that he is just like his father, a confused renegade who would have loved to have chosen another life, but accepts to live the life he knows. Of course he has kill his mother as repayment for her killing his wife, Tara Knowles (Maggie Siff).
Kurt Sutter, architect, developer, producer, and writer of Sons of Anarchy constantly referred to his character of Jax Teller as a modern day Hamlet - an isolated man surrounded by people who just don't understand him. Hamlet is a character in crisis and must make a decision about avenging his father's death. Jax, likewise, after reading an unpublished manuscript and several journal entries his late father wrote, feels torn between the life he has been given to live and the life that might not involve the violence he faces (and causes) every day. Add to this that Jax has a family - two kids and an estranged wife - his decisions are extremely serious. He is often pondering his legacy, and he warns his best friend, Nero Padilla, and also the mother of one of his children Wendy Case (Drea de Matteo) to never tell his sons what he had become. He did not want his sons to suffer the family legacy. Sutter has a brilliant way of bringing these faults to the forefront. He closely shows the angst his characters feel. That is important because angst is a common, human experience. The point is that we can relate - even though were not motorcycle rogues, freaks, etc..., we constantly are put in situations where the only way to survive is the way we were taught.
Jax's FINAL RIDE
Jax's father, John Teller (JT - never shown in the series) is revealed throughout the drama as a man of superior intellect and values; again, he was the president of the Sons of Anarchy, and he does the necessary acts a president of a rogue group should do, Sutter was also responsible for developing the award winning The Shield which carried similar themes. The rogue cops who are personally likeable yet they are nefarious as well. Sutter portrays JT as wanting to engage in more legal activities. Again, something Jax ponders throughout. If you notice yourself in any of these characters, that is what is meant to occur. That's the point.
Again, I would like to discuss the politics of the aforementioned dramas, but not in the typical election Republican/Democratic way, but in the negotiations between and among people who are thrust into environments that they did not chose. All of the shows mentioned above on FX and to an extent Walking Dead (more mainstream) are placed in crisis situations where only personal politics can win. In Freak Show, not one of the carny freaks would have selected that lifestyle for themselves if given the choice. However, since they are given this cross to bear, they work within the confines, political structures, to survive. If this means that someone (a policeman investigating the death of a detective) has to be killed, then that politically is the way they deal with their plight. When someone is killed in this show, other than Dandy (BTW, Dandy, played by Finn Wittrock, and exceptionally talented actor) the freaks never feel "good" about it - they kill to protect themselves. The amazon dwarf Meeps (whose act consists of eating the heads off live chickens) is arrested for a murder he didn't commit and is subsequently killed in jail by other prisoners and jail personnel, and his body is brought back to the Show and discarded for the freaks to see. Meeps did nothing wrong. In fact, he is quite incapable of murder; yet, he pays for a crime by giving up his life.
In the above situations, the super rich, (as shown through Dandy and his mother), know exactly how to manipulate the poor, freak show carny who is eventually fingered for the murders (no pun intended).
Jimmy (Lobster Boy) is later arrested. However, unlike Meep, Jimmy has the makeup, intellect, and survival skills that he doesn't submit to the "anti-freak" ESTABLISHMENT. Lobster Boy is angry at society. The point that needs to be clarified is that Jimmy is not bitter that he has lobster hands. He celebrates them because they become a symbol of his individuality, Later on in the series, Jimmy has his hands cut off, and Elsa has an old friend from Germany who can make him new hands. In a very weird but understandable twist, Jimmy chooses to have wooden lobster claws made to replace his lost hands. He is extremely bitter that he cannot be accepted by society. It's almost if he flaunts his individuality (and isn't that what we do?) Unlike all of the other freaks (other than the Three Breasted Woman), Jimmy's freakish fault does not keep him from mingling in the the world of "the normal" - he just wears gloves.
Jimmy's mother is the Bearded Lady (Kathy Bates) and his absentee father is a carny strongman Dell Toledo (Michael Chiklis) who shows up unexpectedly at the Show and attempts to take over. The strongman has hidden secrets - he is a homosexual - and his relationship with his new wife, the Three Breasted Woman, is faltering. Dell seems to bounce back and forth in the Jupiter, Florida scene. He's not exactly a freak because he has no physical abnormalities; he is the "typical" wannabe who is attracted by money and favors. He garnishes favor with Stanley, who has come to the freaks to attempt to kill them and supply the Museum of Medical Horror with freak remnants. (An actual sad part of the show occurs when Ma Petite, the world's smallest woman, becomes the target of Stanley's obsession). Dell, the strongman, kills the diminutive 23 inch woman (Guinness Book of World Records Smallest Woman - Jyoti Amge) which serves as one of the more ironic twists in the series. Strongman killing a 23 inch little woman.
The point, Sutter and all of the creators of those shows listed above, including the Coen brothers (Fargo) know this formula works very well. If you are a fan of literature, large and small screens, you understand that human beings, for the most part, are attracted to the disabled, isolated, freakish, non-societal characters. If this is not true, then why is Pulp Fiction listed in all circuits one of the top movies of all time - because it was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, who knows what attracts middle America. We (including myself) relish rooting for the "outplaced outcasts" who are not societal role models. Reservoir Dogs. Inglorious Bastards. Kill Bill, From Dusk Till Dawn, Natural Born Killers, Django Unchained all are filled to the brim with freaks and outliers.
Two other directors - David Lynch and the Coen Brothers - utilize the same formula. Hence, if these creators movies are so popular, it is because we humans relate to frailty. Frailty, thy name is us, the common folk. Why would anyone root for Vincent Vega (John Travolta), Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), Butch (Bruce Willis) and even to a certain extent Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). And what about The Wolf (Harvey Keitel). One would be hard pressed to find more evil characters than these mentioned, murderers, cheaters, thieves, etc... But we find ourselves identifying with them. In Reservoir Dogs, I really didn't want to see Harvey Keitel die at the end of Reservoir Dogs. Again, that's the point.
If I might take a step back a bit. Isn't this what Greek Tragedy is all about - how the protagonist handles his weakness, pride, hubris. Those who watched Greek theatre always new the main character w as going to fall on his own sword due to the flaws. That, again, is the point.
To make my point more emphatically, in the FX series Fargo one cannot help but like Lorne Melvo (Billy Bob Thorton) and were a bit saddened that the new Fargo series won't have him as a character. In the FX series, Melvo's alter ego is Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman). Melvo manipulates Nygard into becoming someone he isn't (his dark side). And that is fun for Melvo. And, it should be academic for us. If we laugh at the antics of the buffoons on the screen, it should be a quiet laugh because we can see ourselves in these people.
This definitely explains Thorton's award winning performance in Sling Blade. You cannot honestly say you felt sorry when he killed Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yokum, who, by the way was excellent in his first acting performance). Watching Sling Blade, it is not right that Karl Childers (Thorton) has to be institutionalized because he cares, really cares, enough to rescue a family in distress by killing the abuser, which ultimately puts him back in a mental ward.
So we enjoy watching the freaks because the freaks are us. A thesis could be written on the collection of characters we met in the FX series. All of us feel that sense of not fitting in, of not being accepted, of being an outlaw not following rules. Our ego (Freud) plays a major role attempting to mediate between our savage needs and our moral compass. That's exactly why we can sit back and enjoy these television shows. For one or two hours a week, we can cheer the bad guy, the outlier, the bastard. Case in point.
If that is not the case, then why was Walter White in Breaking Bad character so interesting? Excuse me? What's that you say? You "hated" him for five seasons - all the while being glued to your television for five seasons just to see what "exciting" illegal act or murder he was going to pull off. Yeah right. I sincerely doubt that you didn't cheer for him now and then. Catharsis works.
Next: The World of Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) and Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story)