[This is a review of American Horror Story: Freak Show episode 10. There will be SPOILERS.]
So far this season, American Horror Story: Freak Show has been what audiences have come to expect from the AHS series. Plenty of the singular moments built from pushing the envelope in different but expected ways, and by delivering what amounts to an exuberantly chaotic narrative that is deceptively slow moving all the same. Perhaps that is due to so many of the story beats being recycled from seasons past, or that the character inconsistencies from episode to episode has made it hard to tell who everyone really is, since they often seem to be a wholly different person from one hour to the next. But with 'Orphans', as it sometimes has in the past, American Horror Story zeroes in on the rarely seen sincere side of its characters, and the results are oddly affecting.
This may be one of those instances where some of the proverbial spaghetti being thrown against the wall in the writers' room sticks and produces what is ostensibly a one-off episode. Basically, the stars align and the quality of the end product not only justifies the temporary abandonment of established character norms, but also the departure from the main narrative (whatever that actually may be at this point in time).
Two things set 'Orphans' apart from the rest of the season. The first is the focus on Elsa's maternal side, as the episode examines her relationship with Pepper, when the Freak Show loses yet another of its members in Salty (Christopher Nieman), Pepper's life mate. This time, however, it's not by nefarious means – though Stanley, who once again makes use of the surprisingly deep pockets of the museum, unsurprisingly defiles his corpse. Instead, Salty is felled in his sleep by a stroke, throwing Pepper into a mournful state the likes of which are rarely seen on this series. The second device the episode uses to differentiate itself, of course, is the overt connection between Freak Show and Asylum. In fact, the storyline eventually transitions into Pepper's de facto origin story, where, with the help of an appearance by Lily Rabe's Sister Mary Eunice, the truth behind her institutionalization at Briarcliff Manor is revealed.
The connection between this season and the best season AHS has yet to produce again confirms Ryan Murphy's statement that the various stories, from Murder House to Asylum to Coven have all been taking place in a shared space. At the same time, though, it works against the concept of the anthology, by diluting the uniqueness of each separate storyline even more so than the already repetitive character beats. It's easy to see how irresistible it would be to say all these stories were happening underneath the same umbrella, as it would make recycling characters like Pepper and Sister Mary Eunice much easier, but shuffling one character off and literally placing her in the confines of another storyline also has the adverse effect of suggesting that the merits of Freak Show are only as strong as their connection to the larger American Horror Story Universe.
Still, however you happen to lean with regard to the shared universe concept, it is difficult to argue that 'Orphans' doesn't succeed in having a series of strong, emotionally resonant moments that are hinged almost entirely on Naomi Grossman's nearly wordless performance as Pepper. For a series that likes to play it loud and exaggerated (e.g. Finn Wittrock's over-the-top performance as Dandy), Grossman's performance – despite her amplified appearance – is a largely muted one that actually does more to make the episode memorable than any cross-season shenanigans. Perhaps it is her simple nature that makes the whole thing so affecting, or perhaps it is because Pepper has so few words that the writers were unable to find a way that she could undermine the aching emotional core of her being successively abandoned by those who should want to care for her. Either way, Grossman certainly delivers one of the strongest performances of the season.
As is the American Horror Story way, there's plenty going on in the background. But because it's buried underneath layers and layers of backstory, much of it will have to wait until later before it will prove to be significant. Maggie Esmerelda's brief Dickensian origin story helps outline her decision to reveal her and Stanley's secret to Desiree, but it works in the same way Desiree's relationship with Malcolm-Jamal Warner's Angus T. Jefferson does: as a framing device of the character's sudden shift in behavior, which, unsurprisingly, is facilitated by the needs of the plot at the moment.
If Maggie's intentions to help are legitimate, it may actually work in favor of the shocker of what looks to be Jimmy's hands sitting in a display case. The sting of having Maggie in a position to help Jimmy, only to have him help himself (and Stanley) by literally sacrificing parts of his body, would be made exponentially greater. The way the reveal was structured suggests some kind of trickery might be at play. So, for now, the development stands as a (potentially) major one that is made even more upsetting by the implication that Elsa will eventually achieve her goal of superstardom, while characters like Jimmy, Pepper, Ma Petite, and Ethel lose everything.
The revelation puts an unexpectedly tragic twist on the season that might just give it the definition and sense of purpose it needs to be memorable.
American Horror Story: Freak Show returns on January 7, 2015 with 'Magical Thinking' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Michele K. Short