“Edward Mordrake, Part 1” is a pivotal episode for Freak Show, because it marks the first supernatural intrusions of the season. Before the eerie green fog and exquisite mutton chops of Edward Mordrake roll into Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet Of Curiosities, season four’s bumps in the night come from earthbound sources: the homicidal clown, the unhinged little rich boy, the intimidating outsiders, the bigoted police officers. Episode three declares a choice: American Horror Story: Freak Show will depend on terrors imagined and unimagined, on boogeymen with basis in folklore as well as the truth. Mixing the spectral elements with their real-world counterparts is easy; the hard part involves making any of this legitimately scary.

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But like the specters of mortality, jealousy, and deception facing the characters of “Edward Mordrake,” that challenge is nothing new for American Horror Story. After all, it’s television’s premier horror show that’s only horrifying 20 percent of the time. That’s a burden that’s been particularly difficult for Freak Show to bear, focusing as it does on people the rest of the world views as monstrous. That nucleus has done more to shift AHS’ perspective than any Dutch tilt, making for some of the series’ most potent character drama while leaning especially hard on Twisty and Dandy to act as the season’s genuine monsters. Strolling into camp dressed like the Tim Burton character Jack White was born to play, Wes Bentley arrives to help share the murderous harlequins’ load, a gentlemanly courtesy befitting the courtly reputation (and chilling legend) of the historical/apocryphal Mordrake.

The subject of great superstition within the Cabinet Of Curiosities, the Edward Mordrake of American Horror Story is said to have murdered his fellow sideshow performers before hanging himself—all of these heinous acts done at the urging of the “demon face” only he could hear. It’s a ghost story (rendered on appropriately ghostly faux-vintage film stock) and a neat Halloween-episode hook, the conclusion of which provides “Edward Mordrake” with its most visceral fright: the unnerving smile of Mordrake’s second self, an expression only slightly more unnerving than the dead-eyed scowl Bentley wore for most of American Beauty. (It also, depending on the angle, looks like a mini Joaquin Phoenix or a tiny Jack Black.)

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In the hardscrabble world of Freak Show, grinning is the mark of an authentic fiend. That’s true of Twisty’s Mr. Sardonicus impression, as well as the Michael Myers-aping disguise Dandy adopts in honor of his new mentor (and the “through the eye holes” Steadicam perspective that goes with it). It’s also the mark (but not, you know, the mark) of the other new villain introduced in “Edward Mordrake,” con artist Maggie Esmerelda. Working in tandem with Denis O’Hare’s Stanley, faux-psychic Esmerelda represents Freak Show’s sincerest threat of exploitation: Written to be more outwardly opportunistic than Dell or Desiree, she’s here to bump off Dot and Bette and collect the specimen—in the interest of “science,” but really for money. If Fraulein Elsa’s is meant to be seen as a refuge and a place of acceptance, then Esmerelda possesses the greatest potential for its corruption. She looks at the performers and only sees freaks; as Esmerelda, Emma Roberts affects the cunning cool of a red-lipsticked operator seeking profit in formaldehyde jars.

But like the cherry-red hue that pops against the rural carnival setting, the cool is all a front. True to the American Horror Story tradition of all extreme emotions, all the time, Esmerelda’s terrified to be in Fraulein Elsa’s employee, surrounded by reminders of human frailty. It’s in those primal fears that “Edward Mordrake, Part 1” puts most of its scary stock: “The real boogeyman is death,” the episode argues through Ethel’s dire prognosis and Dot’s dream/Bette’s nightmare. “A fraud is more terrifying than any clown with a pair of pinking shears,” it adds through the introduction of Esmerelda and Stanley, a notion underlined by the murky, real-life myth of Edward Mordrake. When Jimmy declares the Mordrake story “a bunch of bunk,” it’s probably the most damning accusation someone in the sideshow biz can make. Though Evan Peters is wearing prosthetics, Jimmy Darling came about his trade by birth—quite literally, as Ethel’s flashback explains. His is a world imperiled by and unwelcome to make believe, and the threat that television poses to Fraulein Elsa’s comes up at least twice in “Edward Mordrake.” (“Dragnet is going to be the downfall of American culture,” says one of the “Uncle Wiggily In Connecticut” moms, shortly before an adolescent boy is abducted by a criminal Jack Webb never could’ve put on TV.)

That attitude might ultimately determine the fate of American Horror Story: Freak Show and its “just a little peek” approach to its first three episodes. “Edward Mordrake” is that strategy in micro: It’s the long, lingering setup to something else entirely, the sort of serialized storytelling that’s only satisfying in the short-term because it’s promising something greater in the payoff. It’s more tension between the real and the imagined: Do you accept what Freak Show is giving you in the moment—sincere scenes of character drama, a creeping sense of dread—over the lurid excitement ostensibly waiting around the corner? By easing the viewer into the world of this season—punctuating the everyday lives of Jimmy and Elsa and Ethel and Dot and Bette with confirmation that terrifying, outrageous events do occur in this reality—the fourth season is doing a terrific job at emulating the opening act of a horror movie. But by spending most of its time with story threads that aren’t built for stunning cliffhanger resolution (Ethel has as much as a year to live; Esmerelda’s setting up a long con; Dot’s not going to up and saw herself in half next week) “Edward Mordrake, Part 1” gets the wind knocked out of it. Why get excited about a “To be continued” intertitle when one’s implied at the end of every episode?

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But that, as ever, is expecting too much narrative fortitude (and anything approaching a sense of suspense) from a television show that’s just not that into those sorts of things. The domestic dramas in Freak Show’s caravans may argue otherwise, but American Horror Story is much more interested in shock, blunt metaphor, and composing at least one or two spectacular visuals per episode. (This week, it’s that shot from behind Ethel and Dell, the matching blues of their wardrobe depicting them as two of a kind among the graying Florida wilderness.) The love of a good shock often stands in for American Horror Story’s inability to scare: It’s much easier to fleetingly startle than suggest that any of the primary characters are in mortal danger. “Edward Mordrake, Part 1” reinforces that difficulty, as Ethel’s game of chicken with a killer spirit yields a biography but no corpse. Freak Show is succeeding at making us care for these people; if only it could make us fear for them as well.

Stray observations:

  • This week’s proposed American Horror Story spin-off: A sitcom in which Ma Petite and Amazon Eve share an apartment and are constantly pranking one another. It’s a false jump scare, but the pumpkin prank from “Edward Mordrake, Part 1” is too delightful to be a one-off.

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  • Erik’s speculation corner: Assuming Elsa survives Edward’s second week on the show, Esmerelda will be the one who finally pushes her to do something about Dot and Bette, in what hopefully turns that storyline into a psychological-horror take on All About Eve.
  • This week in “Maybe society is the real freak show”: “The medical community has always been fascinated by freaks of nature.”
  • This week in American Horror Poetry: “Men will jump on the first available pussy.”—Dell Toledo, one five-syllable stanza away from composing an American Horror Haiku
  • Three consecutive weeks of musical interludes establishes a pattern, so we might just get a song-and-dance in every episode of Freak Show. Lana Del Rey’s “Gods And Monsters” is an inspired choice—but given the themes of “Edward Mordrake, Part 1” wouldn’t “Born To Die” be an even more appropriate choice?
  • Which came first: Patti LaBelle’s Woody Woodpecker impression, or Nora’s Woody Woodpecker costume? (Also, if Freak Show is going to do a musical number every week and not give one of those numbers to Patti LaBelle, then Freak Show can just fuck right off.)
  • Between Twisty, Dandy, Dell, Desiree, Esmerelda, and Stanley, Freak Show is reaching dangerously superhero-movie-sequel-like levels of villain overload. Each one of these characters has reason to do harm to the members of the sideshow family, and if they all wind up attacking at the same time, it could lead to a huge mess. Kudos to the writers, then, for recognizing this by restricting Dell and Desiree’s screentime while Esmerelda and Stanley got their due introductions.

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