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'American Horror Story' recap, 'Test of Strength'

Kathy Bates as Ethel Darling on "American Horror Story: Freak Show."
Kathy Bates as Ethel Darling on "American Horror Story: Freak Show." (Michele K. Short / FX)

It's possible the real "test of strength" referenced in this week's "American Horror Story: Freak Show" title is whether you can watch the last five minutes without covering your eyes.

So much for young love. At the Motts, Jimmy is taken upstairs to see Bette and Dot. Gloria and Dandy insist that the girls aren't prisoners when they're living in a fancy mansion eating ice cream. Jimmy says they've got to go, like, right now. Neither girl seems completely sold on this idea, until Dot realizes Dandy read her diary and knows about her secret plan to get surgery that will forever separate her from Bette. For her part, Bette chooses her sister, despite the fact that Dandy says he loves her, and claims that she'll always choose Dot, no matter what.

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Bette also tells Jimmy Dandy's the one who really saved those kidnapped kids, a bit of information that makes Jimmy start wondering about the identity of the second killer clown he saw. He's not sure it's Dandy, but it's obvious he's wondering about whether it might be.

This was a much less exciting confrontation than I was expecting.

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Welcome to the Jimmy episode. Back at the freak show, it's time for Evan Peters to do a weird contemporary cover: Nirvana's "Come As You Are." It's not particularly inspired, but it fits as an anthem of sorts for Jimmy, whose one constant has been his obsession with idea that freaks should be able to live regular lives in the everyday world. We're treated to several shots of Paul the Illustrated Seal – still not dead, apparently – along with a brief scene featuring Dell looking for Poor Murdered Hot Andy in that random gay bar, as Sleazy Stanley looks on. Dun dun dun.

Elsa labels Jimmy's performance adequate, but Jimmy throws the Dot/Bette situation in her face, calls her a liar and says he's doing what he wants. (Seriously, isn't this Elsa's show? Fire some people, girl.) However, to the surprise of no one who actually saw the previews for this episode, Dot and Bette (really: Dot) decide it's time for blackmail. The girls suddenly back up Elsa's story, explaining that she was just giving them a life of luxury like they'd asked her to. Elsa smiles and says welcome home.

Dell Gets Blackmailed. Stanley decides that 1) he's going to blackmail Dell and 2) the most fun way to do that is to make a lot of terrible gay puns. Since he knows Dell's a regular patron of the High Noon bar and its various … offerings, the strong man basically has to do whatever he tells him or risk his secret. The deal: Stanley needs a dead freak (apparently he doesn't trust Maggie to do anything anymore) within 24 hours.

Dell seems to select Amazon Eve as his target virtually at random. It's possible that this particular plot twist – Stanley blackmails someone to kill for him – would be more effective if it featured a different crux character. We know very little about Dell and – while Michael Chiklis is a compelling actor – he mostly seems cruel, rude and unsympathetic. We've already seen him beat people up for no reason and break a guy's hands for the sin of trying to be kind. Of course, Dell is going to murder someone for personal gain. There's, like, zero conflict there.

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Anyway, luckily Dell is pretty terrible at murdering, because his random attack on Amazon Eve does not go well. He tries to chloroform her, but Eve, who seems to think this is your run of the mill sexual assault, defends herself admirably, and throws him out of her trailer.

Time for some father-son bonding. Jimmy wants to go to the police as soon as he learns of the attack on Amazon Eve, but the women of the freak show (led by his mother) have already formed a kind of strange power alliance, insisting they can give that degenerate what he deserves, i.e. kill him. Go, ladies, go! Jimmy, insanely, insists he can get Dell to leave.

So, Jimmy goes to see Dell and they decide to get drunk. Jimmy warns Dell about the impending Lady Lynch Mob, but the two spend most of their time discussing Jimmy's lobster hands and what his life has been like with them. Dell tells him he doesn't have anything to be ashamed of. They drink until Jimmy ends up barfing in the alley, and Dell picks up a brick and debates murdering his own son. Luckily for Jimmy, this is the moment he drunkenly confesses he already knows Dell is his father. He starts crying again – Lord, save me from Evan Peters trying to emote – and it's painful to watch. Then they hug it out, because what's 25 years of neglect against shots?

Instead of Jimmy helping Dell get out of town, the two keep drinking aggressively, because they're completely obliterated and singing loudly by the time they stagger back into the freak show lot. Dell's even loudly claiming Jimmy as his son and telling him not to let women like Elsa boss him around. Shockingly enough, Elsa remains unimpressed, as Dell puts Jimmy to bed in his trailer, "Goodnight Moon" style.

Elsa makes a deal. Elsa, Bette and Dot discuss next steps now that they've reached an uneasy détente over the whole "Whoops, Sorry I Sold You That One Time" situation. Elsa asks the girls what they want – Bette wants to be a comedian, as well as a makeover and twenty percent of the box office. Elsa says what they're doing is blackmail and points out that they've come quite a long way from their first meeting. Dot says maybe they should take fifty percent of the box office instead.

Later, Bette is pleased with her new blonde hair and glamorous look, while Dot is attempting a side deal with Elsa. If she can track down Dr. Oscar Sugar, the surgeon responsible for that successful twin separation and convince him to operate, Elsa's secret is safe.

Elsa turns to Stanley to help find Dr. Sugar, since it's the only way to keep the twins from destroying her. Stanley just casually suggests that maybe a mercy killing would leave them all better off.  Elsa's impressed – she's heard stories about managers who'd kill for their clients, and now it appears she has one.  Ethel, of course, has heard all of this.

This Penny storyline. Why? Boring Penny returns to her father's house to collect her things because she plans to stay at the freak show and make a life with Paul, who really should be dead by now. Her father, however, says his daughter embracing such a deviant lifestyle will bring shame to him and hurt his business. So, he deals with that by basically turning her into a freak herself.

He pays a scary tattooed dude to come to their house, somehow drug Penny into oblivion and fully tattoo her face while she's unconscious (seriously these must be good drugs) with a detailed snakeskin pattern. He even has her tongue forked. Gross, right? But, here's the problem, literally no one cares about this character. And there are enough freaks in the cast *now* that we don't really need another one, not when you think of how little we already see of Desiree, Ethel or Maggie. The addition of this twist just seems unnecessary.

Worst scene ever? The most disturbing moment of the evening happens in the last five minutes, when Dell brings Ma Petit a present in the middle of the night (an act which for some reason does not strike her as odd).

It's a pretty new dress and she tries it on happily. Dell tells her she looks like a princess before he picks her up and literally hugs her to death, in a scene that's actually more disturbing than Twisty stabbing people. Nothing about this is OK, and Dell can definitely die in a fire whenever, show. Just saying.

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Odds and Ends:

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• Maggie's concern that Jimmy actually never wants to leave the freak show, no matter what he says about it, is an interesting one, and an idea I hope they explore further, especially now that the has a "normal" girlfriend. (Also: Does he still think she's a legit spiritualist?)

• Seriously how is Paul not dead? He received zero medical treatment but has somehow nevertheless napped off a stab wound?

• Still can't believe Angela Bassett had, what, a dozen lines?

• Related: Cast balance definitely seems to be an issue this year. Major players disappear for entire episodes and new characters are added even when several regulars have very little to do. "Coven" also suffered from this problem, particularly as the season went on, so this is not encouraging. I'm really upset about the lack of Desiree, apparently!

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