[This is a review of American Horror Story: Freak Show episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]
Halloween is obviously a time for telling spooky stories about ghosts and goblins, and for its part, American Horror Story: Freak Show wants to take part in the tradition. In a sense, it's a logical extension of the series' conceit. It's also in keeping with the Halloween-themed episodes of the past that have included plenty of trick or treating gone wrong, and more than enough examples of carnage on a night supposedly destined to be filled with it. And while Freak Show has its trusty clown Twisty to run around and fill that killing quotient, the third episode itself is far more concerned with the notion of telling stories.
Everyone has a tale to tell in 'Edward Mordrake: Part 1', and not only to do with the episode's titular two-faced murderous showman. Much of the episode revolves around Wes Bentley's wild-eyed Mordrake and the "demonic" face on the back of his skull whispering not-so-sweet nothings into his brain. Mordrake, his cranial affliction, and even his tragic backstory seem somewhat reminiscent of a moment in the history of "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named," putting an air of familiarity into the character, while Bentley's calculated line delivery (and hearty muttonchops) provide something akin to a clever spin.
Mordrake works in the way he's introduced: as a superstitious myth (or celebrity) keeping the series' main characters from putting on a show – they take Halloween off, so as not to awaken the spirit of Mordrake and call his murderous ways down upon them. It's a stretch that one might think would result in an episode without the strangely divisive musical performances but, well, you'd be wrong. If ever there was a reason to bring the spirit of Edward Mordrake to Jupiter Florida in 1952, Jessica Lange singing Lana Del Rey's 'Gods & Monsters' in a thick German accent has got to be it.
This is an episode about telling stories, however, and those stories connect people to their past, the truth, or sometimes just humiliation and pain. For part 1 of the Mordrake-centric two-part episode, the legend of the character is just that: a legend. But when told by Ethel – who recently received a terminal diagnosis from the only doctor who's ever treated her like a real person – it takes on a slightly ambiguous note that presents him less as a wildly talented and intelligent man, driven mad by an aberrant face on the back of his skull, and more as a figure of mercy.
In Ethel's sole encounter with Mordrake, he (by way of the demonic face) asks her to reveal her innermost pain. The story she tells establishes her relationship with Dell and her tragic descent from side show stardom after falling under his spell. It's a classic case of talent mismanagement that also hints at some of Dell's predilections when it comes to those he's romantically interested in, which turns sour when it focuses on Ethel's very public delivery of Jimmy. It's a sickening scene that's played way over the top as a way of assuaging concerns over what's unfolding on screen.
Overwrought as much of it is, Ethel's remorse at exploiting her son affords it some sense of dimensionality that keeps it from being merely exploitative itself – which is odd and interesting, considering that's not a line this show has any qualms about crossing.
Because it’s a two-part episode, nothing is resolved, only postponed. As such, 'Edward Mordrake: Part 1' does little to justify the 23 extra minutes it runs – until we see how things conclude in 'Part 2', anyway.
The rest of the episode is dedicated to bringing in even more new characters in the form of Dennis O'Hare and Emma Roberts as a couple of small time con artists first looking to make a quick buck passing off a fetal goat as a baby Sasquatch, then hoping to make a big score with Dot and Bette's unique physiology. So far, their inclusion serves as another example of the season's thematic focus on exploitation and people seeking ownership over another (usually famous) person's body. There's no way to tell how either character's pursuit of the Tattler Twins will play out, but Roberts' shift to the role of fortune teller Maggie Esmerelda is a nice way to get Lange out from under her tent and opium haze.
There's also some movement in the Dandy-Twisty relationship, as Dandy makes himself comfortable torturing the prisoners in Twisty's Kidz Corner before welcoming a newcomer to the mix. This is by far the least developed thread of the episode, and the one that feels most incongruent with the thematic elements. Still, things may turn around next week.
But that's just the risk you run in doing a two-parter like this: 'Part 1' might just come away entirely dependent on its conclusion. While that's certainly the case here, we'll have to wait until we see 'Edward Mordrake' in its entirety before deciding if this story telling excursion was really worth it.
American Horror Story: Freak Show continues next Wednesday with 'Edward Mordrake: Part 2' @10pm on FX. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Michele K. Short