I should’ve known it was nothing but an origin story.
The signs were all there: Deliberate pacing, narrative procrastination, an immortal Englishman given to sudden disappearances and a twisted sense of judgment. In the second hour of the “Edward Mordrake” saga, these early installments of American Horror Story: Freak Show display their colors, and those colors are sepia-toned and would look great paired with the words “Jimmy Darling Begins.”
According to an unscientific survey of the people who feel most strongly about our contemporary superhero culture, a character’s origin is the least interesting thing about them. Oh sure, it might’ve made a great hook in the character’s debut story, but it’s merely the beginning of a longer tale—and the longer that tale grows, the more flexible the origin becomes, and the stiffer its screen translations will be. There won’t be enough time to retcon Spider-Gods or bone claws into the backstories of Elsa, Legless Suzi, or Paul The Illustrated Seal, but then again there’s always the chance that what these characters offer up in the presence of Freak Show’s own Two-Face could turn out to be a spot of unreliable narration. For now, it is canon: The performers of Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet Of Curiosities have been touched by the American mythology (Suzi and Paul are Depression survivors) as well as urban legend (Elsa lost her legs to the producers of a snuff film). So it is told to Edward Mordrake, a subject of urban legend himself, who uses his Halloween visit to free “one pure freak” from the Cabinet’s orbit.
The liberated soul chosen at the end of Edward Mordrake’s Emerald Fog Storytime Hour is “Edward Mordrake, Part 2”’s purest surprise: R.I.P. Twisty The Clown. Because of this, the peek into Twisty’s past is the episode’s one necessary flashback, giving John Carroll Lynch enough space to do his tragic teddy bear routine before signing off. Lynch does sad-sack so well, and here that sorrow is amplified by the history of a man whose only desire was to entertain. But spiteful dwarves of stature and honor slandered his name and drove him from his calling (a veiled jab at American Horror Story detractors?); he was turned away by their counterparts in the Cabinet Of Curiosities, too. Pure of intention and merely hoping to give his hostages a life of juvenile delight, he truly was the most misunderstood of the characters introduced in these first four episodes—a true outsider among outsiders. Mordrake chooses correctly, folding Twisty into the type of family he’d so desperately sought on the mortal plane.
Arriving as suddenly as it does, Twisty’s death is an emotionally satisfying end for a character previously portrayed (and sold in the lead-up to the season) as Freak Show’s Big Bad. But the clown is merely the fall guy: In a move that makes a clearer demarcation between good and evil than the one time American Horror Story gave the ironic surname “Goode” to an evil character, Twisty’s corpse is the new fault line separating the Freak Show camps. On one side stands Jimmy Darling, branded a hero when heutilizes the innovative strategy of telling captives flee from their captor; on the other is Dandy Mott, whose irreversible damage is confirmed by the fact that he dons Twisty’s fake smile before properly disinfecting it. (In an episode that prominently features BDSM torture by toilet seat, Dandy’s swift adoption of his new mantle stands as the “grab the hand sanitizer” moment for the night.)
There’s always been an allegorical streak to American Horror Story, and Freak Show was primed to have clear-cut heroes and villains from the moment that bottle shattered in “Monsters Among Us.” What disappoints me about “Edward Mordrake” is the way it remakes the hypnotic, languid early passages of Freak Show into a setup for Jimmy’s Superman turn. Fraulein Elsa’s Metropolis-under-the-big-top required a savior, and here he is, in the All-American guise of recently minted Marvel mutant Evan Peters. In the wake of “Edward Mordrake,” so much of what came before, like the visit to the diner and the detective’s burial, was simply building to this somewhat mundane turn of events.
As is the show’s splatter-painting way, there are complications, at least. Jimmy has created a nemesis in the form of Dandy, but the forces he’s actively trying to fight are the cops who let Meep die. Still, his corner of Freak Show just became a whole lot more black and white, regardless of how much blood Dandy spills on his clown suit. Jimmy’s harboring secrets (namely that he hid out in the trailer while Edward took care of Twisty) and a full-on adversarial relationship with Dandy could be fun. (And this season could definitely do with an injection of fun.) But on a show that never has much room for nuance, a little bit more of the stuff got crowded out by the hero’s greeting that concludes “Edward Mordrake, Part 2.”
Within the show-business metaphor of Freak Show, the higher one’s position, the more people are willing to knock one down. Elsa quickly jumps on the opportunity to convert the townfolks’ gratitude into a full house, but Jimmy’s newfound local celebrity gives the fraulein one more obstacle to fame. As if the show didn’t have quite enough material to fully stretch “Edward Mordrake” to two parts, tonight’s episode abruptly shifts gears in the final scenes, dragging Dell out of his tent and renewing the animosity between Elsa and Dot and Bette. It’s an awkward tag of no real consequence—unlike Dandy’s return to the Mott estate, where he slits Dora’s throat, pulling an Edward Mordrake copycat crime that frees American Treasure Patti LaBelle of her obligation to American Horror Story. Before she goes, however, she offers the final words on “Edward Mordrake, Part 2”: “Enough of this, I’m not afraid of you” and the sure-to-be-immortalized-on-T-shirts “Get bent and take this tray.”
After playing a three-week waiting game, it appears that the American Horror Story: Freak Show Plot-Powered Episode Machine is whirring to life. There are established good guys ready to face off against established bad guys, and Stanley’s arrival at the camp means all the major players are now gathered in Jupiter. With ample flashbacks and zero musical sequences, “Edward Mordrake, Part 2” demonstrates Freak Show’s commitment to the slow-and-steady approach. But for that approach to mean anything, the character-based drop-ins should use Paul’s confession to Mordrake as their prototype, not Elsa’s. In telling Paul’s story of escape and empowerment, Mat Fraser constructs a character I’d truly miss if he was bumped off by a vindictive spirit. (When he asks Mordrake “Can you imagine this mug on a normal body?”, Fraser conjures more regret and anger than any of Elsa’s Norma Desmond soliloquies.) There’s a real terror in the conclusion of Elsa’s flashback, but her time in Germany’s finest sex dungeons, kink parlors, and fuck hotels is mostly bland provocation. If you want to see a more engaging origin story featuring that much black leather, might I suggest the first X-Men movie?
- This week in “Maybe society is the real freak show”: The world that rejected Elsa the singing sensation embraces Elsa the legless snuff film starlet.
- This week’s proposed American Horror Story spinoff: For Whom LaBelle Tolls, in which Nora’s ghost refuses to put up with any bullshit from the other characters of Freak Show, claiming Fraulein Elsa’s big musical numbers for herself and murdering anyone who dares challenge her.
- Erik’s speculation corner: Not so much speculation as informed conjecture: The death of Nora should bring her daughter (Gabourey Sidibe) to Jupiter in the next week or two, where she’ll help the cops track the mutilated animals and Nora’s body to Dandy. Naturally, this tracking process will last the remaining eight or nine episodes.
- “Edward Mordrake, Part 2” suffers from the same lack of scares as part one, but Finn Wittrock’s work with Twisty’s mask is properly unsettling. Watch his eyes as he puts it on—Dandy is an entirely different person afterward, and it’s all in how Wittrock allows the mask to effect his expressions.
- I understand that she’s playing up her star status for a man she believes to be her ticket out of the sideshow, Elsa’s disdain for the other performers in Mordrake’s presence is a weird turn for the character. There’s a downside to this season’s slower pace: When something like this happens, it’s as if the character has accelerated from 0 to “Cruella DeVil” in 60 seconds.
- When “Edward Mordrake, Part 2” director (and let’s not forget he helmed Pretty In Pink and Some Kind Of Wonderful, too) Howard Deutch employs American Horror Story’s favorite camera shot, is it called a “Deutch tilt”?