'AHS' Ch-ch-changes Are Much-Needed

With the curtain about to fall on American Horror Story: Freak Show , it's time to start looking ahead to AHS Season 5 and the changes that are supposed to come with it. Freak Show's corpse may not even be cold yet (neither are the corpses of 75 percent of its characters), but it's never too soon to start speculating, right? Half of the fun of Ryan Murphy's delightfully twisted program is predicting what each new season will look like. And this year, more than any before, has viewers scrambling to decipher clues in an attempt to be the person who can say "I told you so!" when the plan for Season 5 is finally revealed.

At the Television Critics Association winter press tour, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf had a vague but exciting AHS Season 5 teaser to share with the salivating journalists and fans:

One of the things I love so much about that is that it can be radically, radically reinvented in terms of tone, setting, period, characters, cast ... I think there’s going to be an unusually large reinvention in between Book 4 and Book 5 relative to, say, between Book 3 and 4.

That should be good news for anyone who complained that Freak Show was essentially Coven transplanted to Florida, with star Jessica Lange playing fame-seeking Elsa Mars, a thinly-veiled variation on Season 3's immortality-seeking Fiona Goode.

So what will this "unusually large reinvention" look like? Here are some ideas of the changes we can expect in Season 5:

It'll Be Different, But It Won't Go To Space

AHS fans are prepped to look for clues about what the next season will hold, so when Freak Show began and viewers were introduced to a character named Elsa Mars who lived in Jupiter, Florida, and sang a song called "Life On Mars," they were quick to speculate that Murphy was dropping hints towards a space-themed Season 5. Not so, says the showrunner. "We’re not doing space. Because space is not in America. It’s American Horror Story, not Intergalactic Horror Story," Murphy snarked in an interview with Entertainment Weekly . Cross that theory off the list!

In Season 5 Top Hats Will Be More Important

The usually cryptic Murphy did confirm one clue for AHS Season 5, however. While he didn't elucidate what they mean, we do know that top hats are supposed to be a big indicator for next year's plot. (Images of the old-fashioned hats appeared throughout the first episodes of Season 4, including on a coffee cup, on a diner menu, and on Edward Mordrake's head.) "That is a big season five clue!" admitted Murphy. "It’s an arcane clue, but it’s very purposeful, and it illuminates something that you’ll be like, “Oh! You dirty b******!"

So what do they mean? Most viewers take the clues as a reference to Operation Top Hat, a field exercise carried out by the United States Army Chemical Corps in Alabama in 1953. The operation involved the exposure of uninformed and unsuspecting personnel to mustard gas and nerve agents for the purpose of testing decontamination procedures. Talk about a true American horror story.

No More Time Traveling (Probably)

There is, unfortunately, one major problem with the Operation Top Hat theory: it took place in 1953, only one year after the events of Freak Show. After four seasons of widely fluctuating time periods, it seems unlikely that Season 5 would remain within the same era as Season 4. And it doesn't take a fortune teller like Maggie to guess when next season will take place anyway — it only takes an ability to recognize patterns. Seasons 1 and 3 were contemporary, while Seasons 2 and 4 took place in the past. It follows logically, then, that Season 5 will once again take place in the present.

Landgraf all but confirmed this during the TCA tour. When a reporter asked him if Season 5 would be contemporary, the CEO replied, "That's my hope, yeah." So what possible story could unite secret military operations, space, and a present-day setting? Area 51. Think about it: Murphy has now confirmed that all seasons of AHS are connected, and Pepper was the character used to illustrate this master plan, appearing in both Asylum and Freak Show. In Season 2, Pepper was abducted by aliens — by far the most random plot of that season — so if her story is the connective tissue of the AHS world, then it makes sense that the series would explore those aliens more in-depth.

New Faces, Everywhere

But simply having a season about aliens instead of freaks or witches doesn't really explain the "unusually large reinvention" that Landgraf mentioned. So what is it about Season 5 that will be so different? So far, what has set AHS apart from other anthology programs like FX's own Fargo and HBO's True Detective is that it has largely used the same cast every year. What if Murphy is about to abandon that pattern and give the show its first all-new cast since Season 1? AHS's biggest star, Jessica Lange, has already claimed that Freak Show will be her last season on the show. Lily Rabe is committed to The Whispers , ABC's new mystery series (which is why she only appeared in one Season 4 episode). And next year, both Sarah Paulson and Emma Roberts will be leaving AHS to star in other Ryan Murphy productions: Paulson in FX's pseudo-spinoff American Crime Story , and Roberts in FOX's horror-comedy Scream Queens .

With so many of AHS's biggest names leaving, it's not a stretch to imagine that Murphy will take this opportunity to start over from scratch and repopulate his universe with a whole host of fresh faces. With all the seasons connected now, a new cast would prevent more paradoxes (like "Why do Elsa Mars and Sister Jude look identical?") from occurring.

It Could Become The Twilight Zone

While a new cast could account for Landgraf's "unusually large reinvention," I have a different idea. After four years, the AHS formula is undoubtedly becoming a bit stale — so what if Murphy completely shakes things up for Season 5, giving his show a brand new format? What if the show is about to become an anthology series where not just every season is different, but every episode? What if, next season, American Horror Story becomes the new Twilight Zone?

This has the potential to give everyone what they want. The show could tackle aliens, chemical experiments, and everything else viewers have always theorized about. This would let the show tell fresh stories every week without having to maintain narrative steam through an entire season — something AHS has struggled to do since the beginning, but especially in the latter two iterations. This would give big stars like Lange the opportunity to return to the show without committing to an entire season. There could even be a unifying theme to the episodes, like people telling ghost stories to each other around a campfire, a la the late great Are You Afraid Of The Dark?. ("Summer camp" has been a favorite theory among AHS fans for several years now.) Those summer camp bookends could even have a micro-plot of their own, as the kids are picked off by a masked killer in the woods.

This idea would actually not be that big of a stretch. Freak Show, with its spaghetti-on-the-wall approach to storytelling, already felt like an episodic anthology series at times, especially in its extended, tangential flashbacks. There was an episode about an urban legend come to life; there was one about a killer clown and his tragic backstory; one about a German chanteuse whose legs were cut off by sadistic Nazis; one about an innocent outcast who was framed for the brutal murder of an infant; one about a magician whose ventriloquist dummy drove him to murder. Now imagine all of those episodes back-to-back without the forced connection of a failing freak show. You basically have a season of The Twilight Zone right there.

Images: Sam Lothridge, Michele K. Short (5)/FX