Oh, man. Oh, guys. American Horror Story, for the first time in its 4 year run, made me feel a bit weepy last night. “Orphans” marked the fall finale for the show, which will take a two week hiatus before returning with new episodes (some of which feature Neil Patrick Harris and Jamie Brewer!!) beginning on January 7th. As an episode it’s a bit saggy, trying to do too much with too many characters, but parts of it were so, so good. Maggie cried, Jimmy stayed locked away in prison, and now we know all about Pepper, including how she got to the asylum. And it’s heart-breaking. (Warning–spoilers below!!)
And oh, Pepper. At the start of the episode, Pepper’s partner, Salty, has died. Pepper is distraught. She won’t leave his body, and Elsa has a difficult time convincing her to eat. Theoretically, at least, Salty’s death was a natural one, a stroke. Pepper is distraught. She won’t leave his body, and Elsa has a difficult time convincing her to eat. When she finally convinces Pepper that Salty’s gone, to give up the body, she has no idea what to do with Salty. Stanley does, though. Cut to Stanley hacking away at Salty’s neck, smoke encircling them both, then seeing Salty’s head in a jar, and I’m finding the idea of a stroke a little….Suspect.
Anyway, Desiree steps in to comfort Pepper. She assumes a very motherly position, Pepper curled in her lap while she reads The Velveteen Rabbit. But when she has to leave, Pepper is enraged. So she goes to talk with Elsa, of course, and through Elsa we find out about Pepper’s background.
Just after the war, Elsa moved to the States and started the carnival circuit as a singer/dancer. She found it difficult to get noticed, though, difficult to be a star in
someone else’s world. And she didn’t like working for anyone. She decided to create her own show, her own collection of oddities that would be both family and underlings. Cue Elsa’s profound ambivalence toward the freaks in the show.
Pepper’s parents died, and her sister couldn’t care for her, so she was dropped off at an orphanage. This is where Elsa found her, at the age of 18, after befriending Pepper, the simply walked out of the door together. Elsa and Pepper went to Jupiter together, and the crowd loved Pepper. It wasn’t long before a rich Indian gentleman came to the carnival, and with him he brought Ma Petite. She was his “pet,” but Elsa convinced him to part with her for 3 cases of Dr. Pepper. Hmm. Anyway Ma Petite became a sort of surrogate child for Pepper.
But still Pepper wanted more. She wanted companionship. Elsa sent a series of letters, ultimately resulting in the arrival of Salty. And it was love at first sight. And there was a lovely, bizarre wedding for the two of them, and it was beautiful.
Cut to the present, where Desiree and her beau are making a night of it. They’re in Maggie Esmeralda’s tent, and she’s using her Powers of Observation to tell their future. Only she’s a little drunk and a lot psychotic, given Jimmy’s predicament and their overall relationship, so she yells about how everything will be awful and end and blah-blah-blah. Later, Maggie sits on the merry-go-round, drinking, in the same spot we once saw Twisty. Desiree confronts her, and for some reason, Maggie decides to entirely spill the beans about Stanley, about being on the grift…But not about what they’re actually doing there. At least, not at first.
Stanley is also doing some work of his own. He goes to the prison and meets Jimmy. He promises the best council…But only if Jimmy can pay for it. After Dot and Bette arrive in Maggie’s tent and give her a Stern Talking To and a package of money to pay for a lawyer for Jimmy, Maggie decides to tell Desiree the truth. Molly, you in danger, girl. It seems that the two go to the Morbidity Museum, where Desiree sees Ma Petite and Salty’s head on display and is properly horrified. Maggie’s turn to be properly horrified comes when a new exhibit is unveiled—Jimmy’s hands.
Back in the tents, Stanley convinces Elsa that she must find Pepper’s sister. Pepper is not the young, undisciplined handful that she once was. And she’s lost so much. If Elsa is going to be a TV star, Pepper has to go somewhere else first. Poor Pepper.
Elsa takes Pepper to her sister, Rita. And gads, Rita is an awful human being. Awful. She’s reluctant to take in her sister, and when she does, things go awfully. Rita’s husband, Larry, is mean to Pepper. Rita accuses Pepper of lusting after Awful Larry.
Cut to 10 years later, 1962. Rita sits with Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe). She’s talking about her sister, who she wants to admit to the asylum. In flashbacks, we see the 10 years between Elsa’s abandonment and Pepper’s commitment. Awful Rita and Awful Larry had a baby that was less than satisfactory. Pepper was stuck with most of the motherly duties, which seemed to suit her well. But it’s clear that Rita and Larry hate their new son and Pepper.
So they decide to Do Something. While Pepper is giving the newborn a bath, Larry interrupts them and shuts Pepper out of the room. He cuts off the child’s ears and drowns it in the bathtub. And they blame all of this on Pepper, who is taken to the local asylum: Briarcliff. Pepper is put in solitary confinement for a while, but after Sister Mary Eunice see “true repentance,” she makes Pepper her special project and puts her to work in the library. That’s when we see a copy of Life from July 1958 with Elsa Mars on the cover—she’s a TV star.
It looks as though we’ll see Elsa’s exit from the freak show and its new owner (Neil Patrick Harris) in the coming weeks.
Episode Grade: B+. The episode needed a little trimming here and there, and it tried to do a lot. But Naomi Grossman’s Pepper finally got her moment, and it was pitch-perfect: sad and gruesome, strange and revelatory.