Haunted house. Asylum. Witches. Freaks.
Those are the four subjects of the series of American Horror Story so far. I laid them out like that earlier this week, and it struck me how far they’ve taken individual tropes of the horror genre and run with them. It’s an impressively simple idea, giving each series its own flavour, and just running riot.
This sort of anthology show isn’t really done any more. Aside from AHS, I mean. Seeing the same troup of actors in different roles, different situations, links them, but through the talents of the people involved. It’s an impressive beast if you think about it.
And since I’m reviewing it, I do tend to think about it.
This episode is very much focused on Pepper. After Pepper’s soulmate Salty dies in his sleep, leaving her distraught, Elsa recounts the history of how she came to know Pepper, which is wrapped up in Elsa founding the freak show. Meanwhile, Jimmy needs a lawyer, and everyone from the twins to Maggie wants to help him; and, of course, Stanley is out to make a profit.
Pepper, as I said, is the core here. It was an interesting decision to bring her back from Asylum to Freak Show. The linking of the series was definitely not something intended from the start, but it could work. I suppose.
Pepper is a good start, because she’s so damn sympathetic. If you can watch this episode without tearing up a bit at some point, then I worry for you. From the orphanage where Elsa finds her, to pride of place in Ms Mars’ growing collection, to her eventual tragic return to her blood family. Seeing how Pepper ends up at Briarcliff is a tale of tragedy.
What I didn’t expect was the characterisation of Elsa which comes through Pepper’s tale. Clearly she does — or did — care for her charges. But there is the definite sense of her own greed and lust for fame having taken over as she grows older. This has been reflected throughout Freak Show, but it is clearest here. Pepper is that glass in which we see the darkly real Elsa.
Thing is, she isn’t entirely unsympathetic. True, we see all of this through the filter of her own interpretation, but she does seem devoted to Pepper, providing for her needs. The return of Ma Petite, even in flashback form, is a good touch, and the final parting between Elsa and Pepper is heartbreaking.
Around this, the story continues to unfold in the quiet corners. The twins — or rather Dot — are still devoted to Jimmy even after his rejection, and basically force Maggie into coming to his aid. Oddly, once given a bit of a boost she does, though it takes a drunken binge, and a fight with Desiree where she almost reveals what she and Stanley have been up to.
Which is a bit odd, because in one of the best non-Pepper sequences she takes Desiree to the morbidity museum where she sees Ma Petite, Salty — and Jimmy’s severed hands. Yes, he has let Stanley mutilate him in order to pay for a lawyer. Maggie is too late.
This is the best episode yet. Without a doubt. It hits both of AHS‘ favourite notes — heartbreaking moments of bleak desperation, and sudden, sharp shocks. It was very flashback heavy, but they were well chosen — mostly; I’m not sure we needed the Maggie and Desiree flashbacks. And again we had the reappearance of overarching themes; Pepper is innocent and good, despite appearances, and her sister is the monster. The cruelties against poor Pepper are almost too hard to watch.
And that’s the point. That’s what American Horror Story does at its best.
- Everyone’s favourite ditzy blonde nun, Sister Mary Eunice, makes a return. A brief return. I miss Asylum.
- I felt sorry for Del at the beginning, when Desiree knocks him back. But then I remembered he killed Ma Petite.
- What precisely is Stanley going to do with Elsa when they go to Hollywood? Presumably he has something planned, but at this stage maybe not.
- But then, at the end, we see an old magazine which confirms Elsa Mars does (did) make it in the world of television. So who the hell knows?