American Horror Story | Freak Show, Episode 3 RHAP-up

So we’re two weeks into American Horror Story and I’ve decided that I’m committed to this season. And not just because I’m recapping it.


It’s got a slower pace – but not in a bad way – and I feel really attached to two characters in particular. Curiously, but unsurprisingly, those two characters are both played by Sarah Paulson. Bette, free-spirited and naive, is perhaps Paulson’s biggest challenge to date. She’s a dreamer, a woman that dangerously wants to make her life seem more grandiose than it ought to be. Dot is essentially her polar opposite, more similar in nature and virtue to Paulson’s past AHS characters. Dot is sheltered, guarded and nervous, much less trusting of Elsa’s invitation to join the troupe than her sister. All things considered, Paulson’s work on this season is something special. Her ability to seamlessly slide back and forth between these two physically conjoined, but emotionally distant characters has been the stuff that Emmy gold is made of.


I’m interested to see where the rest of this season is going. But I’d like to see a little more gas, a little less break. I’m usually up for slower shows. I’m of the opinion that Breaking Bad’s slow ascent into legendary TV is because of the care it took to make us feel for both Walt and Jesse and have championed Mad Men from the beginning. But this is freaking American Horror Story: people watch either because they’re masochists or they like pooping themselves.


Anyway, let’s devour tonight’s episode (but not in the style of The Walking Dead, please) and hope that the rubber meets the road.


American Horror Story: Fake Show – We start off in the American Morbidity Museum, where a tour guide is showing some guests pictures and artifacts related to various people born with deformities.


“We not only embrace their differences, we celebrate them!” our guide says, hilariously. This quote fits right into the main themes of this season. Our society is showcasing and marveling at people’s differences, but remains self-congratulatory and preachy. Is it really celebrating differences to create a museum dedicated to people born with physical deformities?


Enter Dr. Mansfield and his assistant, Miss Rothschild. They’re at the museum to make an offer to the owner for what they’re saying is a baby Sasquatch. The owner counters that it’s really a fetal goat with the jaw of a cat sewn onto it. And he reminds them that he could get them both arrested for their attempt to sell him a falsely labeled artifact while pretending to be a doctor. Because ew: a goat with the jaw of a cat?!


But the tour guide is still willing to make them a deal if they can bring her something authentic enough, like the skeleton of conjoined twins. But where can they find such a thing? South Florida? Jupiter, perhaps?


Send In The Clowns – It’s Halloween in West Palm Beach. Two housewives are taking a girl trick-or-treating. But when she sees Twisty, she’s spooked. Her mom tells her not to worry about the clown – it is Halloween, after all – and can’t understand her issue. She even sort of likes clowns. I have a feeling she won’t like them for long.


Later, Twisty sneaks into the woman’s house and kidnaps her son, possibly because he was being mean to his younger sister. Aw, so cute. I think we need a “Twisty: Social Justice Warrior” supercut pronto.


Bad News Beards– Bearded lady Ethel visits the doctor, who gives her a positive diagnosis (which my girlfriend just informed me is a bad thing… which is an awfully confusing principle). She has cirrhosis in her liver. She’s initially optimistic and the doctor is convinced that hope is her best medicine at this point. Honestly, I’d think that hope has a very high mortality rate.


The doctor gives Ethel anywhere from six months to a year, basically the equivalent of the remainder of the season of American Horror Story. Don’t worry Kathy Bates, you can be resurrected next season. The doctor tells Ethel not to touch meat or alcohol – a life that isn’t even worth living if you ask me – and she looks crestfallen.


Reader poll time. More disheartening: death or giving up bacon?


You Meep What You Sow – It’s one of those rowdy nights at the freak show! Jimmy enters to inform everyone of Meep’s death, putting a serious damper on the happy-fun-country bumpkin soundtrack they’ve got going on. Everyone else seems relatively unmoved by the news. Except for Dot, who guilt trips everyone. She suggests that they show some respect for Meep’s death and even dedicate that night’s show to him.


Ethel details for the twins that there is no show on Halloween in honour of Edward Mordrake. He was an Englishman of noble birth, a poet and musician, born with a head on the back of his head. The second head whispered dark thoughts to Mordrake, so he attempted to murder it. But his attempts were fruitless, eventually driving him to madness. Mordrake was committed, eventually escaping asylum by slitting a guard’s throat. As the Two-Face Prince, he joined a freak show. One Halloween, Mordrake, unable to silence his demon second head, murdered every single freak in his troupe and then himself. Legend has it that should they perform on Halloween, the demon face returns and kills another freak.


Ethel swears by the legend, detailing that at one point in her life, she was forced to perform on Halloween and a member of her troupe committed suicide with a smile, just like Mordrake’s demon face.


It hasn’t taken Ethel long to break her vow not to drink. Jimmy can tell something is going on, but doesn’t immediately press the issue. Instead, Jimmy leads a burial for Meep. “We’ll all miss you, Meep,” he says, as they pass around a flask in his honour.


Liar, Liar, Now You’re Hired – As they finish burying their friend, a taxi pulls up. And who should get out but Emma Roberts, this time billing herself as Maggie Esmeralda… and she’s apparently a fortuneteller.


Jimmy, convinced that Maggie is the real deal, takes her to meet Elsa, telling her that she can read her fortune. Maggie starts to spit out generalities (i.e. “You suffered a terrible injustice! An ovation, but not for you!”). It’s funny how Maggie has roped Elsa in just by playing to her ego. Proof that if you look at a woman’s surroundings, her face, her mannerisms and you can basically predict her life story. She hits all of the notes – a musical past marred by disappointments, an unfulfilled dream, a dark-haired man that will make her a star. Elsa wants to believe Maggie. Hook, line, and sinker: she’s hired.


Maggie calls her partner, Stanley, and tells him she’s too afraid to stay at the freak show. When she tells him about the twins, all he can see is dollar signs. But Maggie doesn’t want to go to jail for murdering them. Stanley tells her he’ll be there soon, after he takes care of his business. And said business is a man dressed as a Viking God. When Stanley commands his boytoy to take his pants off for him, he can’t believe what he sees. Ha! This must be Denis O’Hare’s favourite role ever.


In town, a policeman tells Jimmy and Maggie that they shouldn’t be out after curfew. He tells them he has the authority to arrest them, but doesn’t because Maggie looks like a good Christian woman.


Sorry, in what universe does Emma Roberts look like a good Christian woman?


One Man, Three Boobs, No Movement – Dell and Desiree are having some alone time. When Dell is unable to perform, Desiree is pissed and gives Dell some serious lip. Not enjoying hearing it from a woman, Dell gets physical. But Desiree reminds him that if he ever gets physical with her again, she’ll leave him. Boom.


Dell and Ethel have a nice heart-to-heart sharing some hooch. Ethel asks if Dell ever loved her when they conceived Jimmy, but he doesn’t even bother to spare her feelings, telling her that he, like all men, just jumped on the first available woman. Ethel talking about her sex life has me wondering if the carpet matches the drapes. And now I’m going to wash my eyes out with soap or say a couple of Hail Marys or whatever the Jewish equivalent is. Hail Miriam? Hail Mayim Bialik?


Ethel confides in Dell that Jimmy is floundering, caught between the freak show and the real world. She then tells Dell the truth about her diagnosis, wanting him to keep an eye on Jimmy for her when she’s gone. Dell, full of nostalgia and wondering what it would have been like to have been a father, agrees.


The Scissor Sisters – In a dream, Bette and Dot are under the knife, apparently being separated. Dot is convinced that she’s getting married and going to be a star. But Bette doesn’t want to be separated, knowing full well that the operation will likely kill her.


When they wake-up, having shared the same dream, Dot is more than certain that she wants to save her money to have the operation that can split them. Bette reminds her sister that the operation will cost one of them their life. But Dot knows that neither sister is living a fully realized life as is.


It’s interesting to me how much these two have traded dispositions in just three episodes. Sure, Dot tried to kill her sister in the premiere, but Bette has always seemed like the one that wants to have a more magnificent life. I didn’t expect Elsa’s show to turn Dot into an individual so quickly.


Howdy Dandy – Gloria has set up the mansion for Halloween, even going as far as to force her maid, Nora, to dress up like Woody the Woodpecker for Dandy’s amusement. Dandy can’t wait to go outside and terrorize everyone (because he’s an awful human being), but he’s reminded that due to the curfew, he isn’t allowed to go out at night. So instead, they’ll have a costume party! Because every grown boy loves a good costume party, right? Right?


Gloria’s costume for Dandy (Howdy Doody) makes him so angry that he flies off the handle. After a #matmeltdown, Dandy takes the costume and begins to make his own alterations.


… And now he’s a creepy effing clown. When he picks up a knife and threatens Nora, she taunts him and tells him he doesn’t have the guts to kill her, even going as far as to dare him. I feel like this is a bad call. There’s literally no upside to daring someone to kill you. Best case scenario, you’re proven right that they aren’t going to kill you. Worst possible scenario, you are literally dead.


Somehow, calling Dandy’s bluff works out and he runs away. Call the whambulance, buddy.


Gods and Two-Headed Monsters – Later, Dot and Bette have their practice interrupted by Elsa, who is convinced that she needs to practice for the man that Maggie foretold her would come to the show that night. Dot is unmoved: she knows that she and Bette are the real star act now, not Elsa, and she even wants to renegotiate their salary. Ballsy move.


Elsa doesn’t like being upstaged, giving the girls a verbal beat down. She then busts out another performance – this time “Gods and Monsters,” by Lana Del Rey. Her siren song summons a green mist to the freak show, bringing with it the man with brown hair that Maggie prophesized about. Only, uh oh, it’s Edward Mordrake. Even Elsa looks like she’s shat her pants.


The ghost of Mordrake – complete with quasi-scary, quasi-adorable demon face – visits Ethel, along with the fat girl from Mean Girls that wanted to bake the rainbow and sprinkles cake. Or at least a ghost of her.


Mordrake tells Ethel that he won’t leave the freak show until she, or someone, comes with his ghost troupe. Eerie. Ethel doesn’t want to go ahead of the short time she has left. Mordrake has a proposition for her. He’ll give her some sort of Buzzfeed-esque quiz about her morality and then judge whether or not she gets to live or some sort of confusing spirit mumbo jumbo.


His questions:


  1. How many walkers have you killed?
  2. How many people have you killed?
  3. H-whyyyy?


Oh, wrong show.


Ethel shares her story with Mordrake, reminiscing about meeting Dell and having him mismanage her career. Jeez, woman, the demon face thing never asked for your life story. The demon face just wants the juicy stuff, lady!


So she reveals her big secret: she and Dell arranged a live freak birth. People could watch as bearded Ethel gave birth to something, even selling the opportunity to hold the boy with the freakish lobster hands. Ethel, revolted by her own complacency, is let off the hook. Ol’ Demon Face doesn’t think its her time to go yet.


Trick or Treat – Dandy visits Twisty’s bus, where he offers the girl being held there a treat, only moving in to swiftly try to stab her. She flinches, so he misses. But not to fret, young Dandy… clown mentor Twisty has brought back another plaything.


To be continued next week!


Overall – I think this episode was a marked improvement over last week. I would still argue that the various storylines are too disjointed and some of the characters are getting shortchanged (namely Desiree, who has an intriguing background and deformity, but isn’t getting any airtime).


The Edward Mordrake stuff was classic AHS, mixing in some supernatural elements to keep us on our toes. I really liked this, especially the insight it gave us into Ethel’s background and secrets. I think we could use similar time spent with Jimmy, Maggie, Stanley and Dell, in an effort to understand what makes them tick.


But not much here actually scared me, which is usually the goal of both a Halloween-centric episode and of everything that AHS does. I’d like to see them up the ante in that department, perhaps by upping the gross out factor of Twisty’s kills or going a step further with that demon face on Mordrake.


From a writing perspective, I think Dot’s transformation from shrewd, afraid girl into a real HBIC is a bit much over two weeks. Give a girl a moment to sing some Fiona Apple and she totally thinks she’s the new queen bee.


On the plus side, the star of this hour is Kathy Bates. I had written Ethel off as a secondary, background character. But she brought her to the forefront here and I was incredibly interested in everything she did. The accent, the pain, the way she carries that beard. All of it was spot on and perfect. Well played.


Overall Rating: B+


Stray Observations:


– The episode may not have been an A+, but Patti Labelle’s Woody Woodpecker impression was.


– Edward Mordrake and Professor Quirrell would totally be best buddies, right?


– I kind of winced when “Gods and Monsters” (the song Elsa sang this week) referenced Jim Morrison. In my imagination, the characters were just writing these songs and artists like Bowie and Fiona Apple were plagiarizing them in the future. But with this one, an eyebrow must be raised. Did Maggie the fortuneteller predict The Doors’ rise to notoriety? She’s a regular Sylvia Browne, y’all!


– I’m so sorry. This is my longest recap yet. If you read the entire thing, kudos. If you didn’t, well, I know who Edward Mordrake is visting tonight.

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