I quite enjoy the American Horror Story tradition of a two-part Halloween episode, something that began in the Murder House initial season. In its third episode of the season, Freak Show gives us an hour of Halloween build-up before announcing, rather audaciously, “to be continued.” Ethel is dying-but-not-dead, Elsa Mars is even more determined to be a star, Bette and Dot fight over their success, and the ghost of Edward Mordrake (Wes Bentley) rises.
Denis O’Hare and Emma Roberts are also introduced in the episode, so we finally get to see what iterations they’ll take on this season. Roberts and O’Hare are in The American Morbidity Museum, peddling a gaff. They’ve been found out, though, and are on their way out with their baby-Sasquatch-in-a-jar in tow. Evidently the Museum is having a difficult year, what with the Ed Sullvian Show and all, so Roberts and O’Hare are assured that the museum *will* pay well for genuine artifacts, but it *won’t* ask questions. Queue their departure for Florida, to one of the last freak shows. (Major spoiler warning!)
Ethel’s gone to the doctor, and she only has 6 months to a year to live. Liver cirrhosis, though she hasn’t had a drink in several years. The scene between Bates and the good doctor who delivers the bad news is suitably poignant, and when Ethel wonders what her life might’ve been like it she’d been show kindness by such a doctor (or any other man) before, it’s a little heartbreaking.
And then we’re in a tussling, moving, hive of activity in a tent. Many of the performers are carousing, laughing. Except Jimmy, who cannot forget Meep’s death long enough to carouse, and Bette and Dot, who are still at war with one another. Dot is aghast at the commotion, especially when Jimmy is clearly still so upset. She suggests they rehearse and get ready for the evening’s Halloween performance…
But Ethel quickly stands, saying there will be no performance. She relates the story of Edward Mordrake (Wes Bentley), a British nobleman’s son who was cursed with a double-sided head. He was sent to Bedlam to be hidden, but he murdered an attendant and escaped. He wound up at a freak show, parading his aristocratic skills across the stage and performing music he wrote. The other head was a constant source of worry and trouble for him, though, always telling him awful things. One Halloween, Mordrake killed everyone in the freak show before hanging himself. And evidently, if a freak show performs on Halloween, he returns and takes someone with him.
But before Mordrake can visit, it’s time for Emma Roberts to make her appearance as Mystic Maggie, who is looking for a job at the freak show. She surmises, from a set of quick, appraising glances, what has been Elsa’s fate, and explains her past—that a woman stole the limelight from her, stole the applause that should’ve been hers for her beautiful music. Elsa is entranced, and when Maggie gives her hope for a new future—in a vision, she sees a dark stranger who comes to town and unlocks Elsa’s true potential–Elsa is convinced that Mystic Maggie has the Gift. When Maggie later talks to her partner (O’Hare) over the phone, she is shocked by his cavalier suggestions of murder—or at least she seems to be. But it’s fairly clear that she’s paving a path for O’Hare to walk down when he comes to town.
Dot and Bette are asleep in their tent. They’re having dreams, now, strange ones in which Dot has Bette surgically removed. And Dot is openly hostile, vowing to have the surgery performed, though she knows it will mean Bette’s death. And across the way, Dell and Desiree are in a fight—seems it’s been a while since they’ve had sex because of Dell’s erectile dysfunction.
Dell storms out of the house and into Ethel, who has again opened the bottle of liquor she was advised would only hasten her death. She asks him to take care of Jimmy, but Jimmy is never to know that Dell is his father. It’s another poignant moment, underscoring the ways that Ethel’s life–and Jimmy’s–could’ve been different outside of the carnival. But it’s also a really weird one, in which Dell proclaims loudly that he never loved Ethel but then stares into the distance wondering what could’ve been and Ethel wants him to hide his parentage but help Jimmy “become a man” somehow.
Dot and Bette, meanwhile, have decided to rehearse. They’re making everyone nervous, because of the Edward Mordrake story, but they don’t care. And neither does Elsa, who sweeps on-stage in a glorious green gown and boa to dethrone the girls. She needs to practice. Her dark and mysterious gentleman will be there soon, and Edward Mordrake is a myth. Unless he’s not. The moment Elsa starts crooning “Gods and Monsters,” we something’s coming. There’s a thick green fog, and there’s then there’s Edward Mordrake.
He departs, though. He’s looking for a soul to take with him, a “true freak.” Not entirely sure what that means, yet, but apparently it isn’t Ethel. She’s the first person visited by Mordrake, and he asks for her story. Ethel was a young woman and a favorite on the vaudeville circuit, but when she met Dell, he convinced her to start more highbrow acts reciting Shakespeare and the classics–which no one liked. It tanked her career, and we see a pregnant Ethel reduced to dependency on Dell. In one of the most cringe-worthy-but-not-gory moments of the season (maybe ever?), we see Dell selling tickets to the birth of his child, see Ethel give birth, and watch Dell hold up the baby, charging people to “hold the freak.” But this life of sadness somehow disqualifies Ethel from what Mordrake wants, and he leaves her, shaky but completely intact.
Meanwhile, in Twandy-land…
Dandy and Gloria are preparing for their annual Halloween celebration. So far as I can tell, this involves Patti Labelle donning a Woody the Woodpecker costume, doing lots of work, and Gloria standing around waiting for Dandy in a room that looks like the 1950s went to Pinterest for Halloween decorating tips. Gloria has gotten Dandy a Howdy Doody Halloween costume again, and he abhors it. He starts breaking things, and we finally see more of what’s underneath the facade. He stomps out and makes his own costume, a clown-suit with a mask. On his way out of the house, he threatens Dora (Patti Labelle) but can’t bring himself to harm her, and is in tears by the time he storms away to the trailer where Twisty is holding the others.
Dandy goes to the trailer and begins trying to stab the captives through the wire, but his reach isn’t far enough. He decides to use a stick to poke at them, and he’s in the middle of this operation when he’s interrupted by the arrival of Twisty, who has acquired a new hostage, the brother of a Young Girl Who is Very Afraid of Clowns.
My guess is that in our Halloween finale we’ll see some Twandy-inspired gore and a conclusion to Mordrake’s appearance at the freak show.
Episode Grade: B+ This one is a little messy, and it was difficult to structure a review around, as there are so many overlapping subplots and characters. It’s still a solid entry in the series though, and it lays a lot of groundwork for what could very well be a hell of a Halloween episode.