[This is a review or American Horror Story: Freak Show, episode 4. There will be SPOILERS.]
'Edward Mordrake: Part 2' is all about backstory, making it something of a welcome departure from the first three episodes of American Horror Story: Freak Show. The fact that having a breather this early in the season is appreciated certainly says a thing or two about how the show often feels like it's burning the candle at both ends. Fortunately, instead of watching as potential storylines drip away, the events actually wind up establishing a new status quo that redefines where many of the characters stand in terms of the overall storyline.
Much more so than with 'Part 1', there is a clearer sense of what Mordrake is and what he wants. Last week's episode positioned him somewhere between a fearsome, homicidal specter and an angel of mercy. This time around he winds up mostly in the latter category, although his methodology could certainly see him placed in the former.
As Mordrake makes the rounds from tent to tent, he and the audience are treated to the backstories of Paul (Mat Fraser) and Suzi (Rose Siggins), while he contemplates the relative simplicity and lack of sorrow contained within Pepper and her sibling. While the flashbacks help establish what these people have been through, and serve as a means of understanding where they are now, the examination of the characters is something of a mixed bag.
Suzi's proclamation that "I didn't think of those legs as part of him," when describing the man she killed, undermines how effectively the scenes would have otherwise managed to portray both characters' anger at being laughed at or attacked. There's been a keen sense of self-awareness in the members of Elsa's sideshow when they've been out in public, and these glimpses into their past provides an explanation as to why. The only problem is neither flashback really demonstrates who these individuals are on a personal level. It instead seems content to stay solely within the confines of what makes them different. The added element of Mordrake collecting one soul based on how compelling the demon on the back of his skull finds their sorrow, only serves to suggest that the series sees the members of its titular freak show as pitiable, rather than strong individuals with distinct personalities and lives that are not simply defined by their differences.
The story shifts away from its examination of Paul and Suzi to tell the Elsa's story, which involves the sex trade in Berlin post-World War I, and her role as a dominatrix. Much of the sequence involves the writers and director testing exactly what they can get away with on a cable network. The results are certainly successful in terms of AHS' role as a television series committed to constantly pushing the envelope. And it is also successful in terms of the thematic investigation of celebrity and exploitation, as it pertains to the (unsuccessful) snuff film Elsa was the inadvertent star of. Her recounting of where various prints of the film had been is a macabre twist on stars tracking the distributions of their films.
But Elsa was never going to become one of Mordrake's victims, so there's no real tension in their exchange outside the question of just how far the episode plans to take her backstory in terms of graphic or explicit content.
As such, Mordrake sets his sights on Twisty, finally bringing an end to the torment of the kidnapped children being held captive in Twisty's Kidz Corner. Frankly, the idea of taking a horrifying serial killer and affording him a mildly sympathetic backstory is rather played out at this point. Sure, Freak Show could have been playing on tropes of the genre, but given the earnestness with which it portrays Twisty both before and after the suicide attempt that leaves him with a mangled face, it seems unlikely that the character was meant to be a comment on horror clichés. The unfortunate result, then, is the backstory transforms Twisty from a frighteningly unknowable element of horror to a tragic figure who isn't entirely responsible for his actions on account of a mental disability, effectively ceasing to make him or any other element of a series containing the word "horror" in its title capable of producing horror on anything but a visceral level.
The same goes for Dandy, who presumably assumes the mantle of Twisty, after taking his mask and killing Patti LaBelle in his dining room. Dandy's merely a petulant brat who's confused his insatiable need to be served with actual psychosis. To his credit, Finn Wittrock seems to be having more fun than anyone else on the show, so even if Dandy is a somewhat tiresome and thinly veiled attempt to critique privilege gone murderously wrong, it's still fun to watch the actor go at his scenes with such gusto.
By the end of things, Freak Show has two new villains in Dandy and Dell (who only shows up to establish himself as an outsider amongst a group of former outsiders), and a new stasis point for Jimmy and the freak show, after he's hailed as a hero for bringing Twisty down and saving their (oddly absent) children. So, as weird as it seems, the next episode will be something of a fresh start, which will make it interesting to see where the existing relationships fit into the new dynamic.
American Horror Story: Freak Show continues next Wednesday with 'Pink Cupcakes' @10pm on FX. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Michele K. Short/FX