Lily Rabe (Michele K. Short/FX)

So many of American Horror Story: Freak Show’s characters identify as orphans. Jimmy Darling’s mother died, leaving him in the hands of the woman who killed her and the father who only recently acknowledged him. Maggie grudgingly reveals in tonight’s episode that “I didn’t have parents, not really. I had to fend for myself.” Stanley tells an imprisoned Jimmy of his own troubles with the law, which began when his mother’s death left him “all alone in the world.” Dandy is an orphan—one of his own making—and so was Regina, though only briefly. Pepper is an adult orphan, as is her bawdy, boozy sister.

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Despite its title, “Orphans” isn’t really about children who’ve lost their parents. It’s about parents: about people who should be parents, and about parents who shouldn’t be. It’s about people so overflowing with love that they find a way to share it despite society’s denials, about people who fancy themselves devoted parents to beloved monsters, about monsters masquerading as loving parents.

Despite her self-serving fantasies of being an adored mother to the performers she’s assembled, Elsa not only infantilizes the adults under her auspices, she consistently denies the humanity of her “children.” She calls them “my monsters” and “my pets,” sells them off to curiosity-seekers, conspires with Stanley to kill them and sell their corpses. She may imagine herself a mother, but she’s a monstrous one.

Elsa can fool herself about her motives for ridding herself of Pepper, and maybe she can even fool Desiree. But however she dresses it up with loving gestures and promises (“No matter how far away I am, I will always be your family”), it’s just one more iteration of the abandonment Pepper has known all her life, the abandonment Elsa herself decries as she tells Desiree she’ll deliver Pepper to her long-estranged sister, who also reveals herself to be a monstrous mother.

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As she’s shown tonight, Pepper is both mother and child, doting on Ma Petite and tending to her newborn nephew Lucas with tenderness and sweet attention, but also clinging to Desiree as she listens to her bedtime tale. Desiree—who mourned the motherhood she believed both her body and her society denied her, and who rejoiced to learn she could conceive—also displays the compassion, the patience, and the firmness of a good mother, but this is really Pepper’s episode, and Naomi Grossman’s.

From the opening, where she nestles next to Salty’s corpse, still determined to give him the love that spills unceasingly from her, to her raging grief, to her playful feints and smiles upon meeting Elsa in the orphanage where her sister consigned her, Pepper is touching, even heartrending. In a show known for its spectacle and excess at the cost of emotional realism, Grossman’s almost wordless performance strikes a ringing note of feeling.

Naomi Grossman (Michele K. Short/FX)

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Pepper speaks mostly with the language of expression and gesture, and Grossman calibrates hers with great delicacy, whether she’s throwing toys around in a fury, gently cradling an infant, or tidying old magazines in the disused asylum library. Her expressive eyes and pursed mouth speak more eloquently than all of Elsa’s flowery narration. When she merrily waves goodbye to her fellow orphans, the fleeting concern that crosses her face as the car starts up broke my heart, and seeing that fear and doubt again at her sister’s home as she urged Elsa to “stay” broke it doubly.

Against Pepper’s silent pathos, her sister and brother-in-law’s cruelty stand out starkly—even more starkly than they might have. Subtlety is neither AHS’ forte nor its goal, but this is a little broad even for Ryan Murphy’s oeuvre. It’s one thing to portray a reluctant, negligent parent accidentally, or even intentionally, killing a child and putting an inconvenient sister away for it. But to suggest that this repulsive, unloving couple would readily conspire with apparent glee over the murder of their infant son—a histrionically violent murder at that, snipping off his ears before drowning him—stretches credulity. These two don’t seem like they agree on much, and this is an odd place to start.

Finding fault with the plotting isn’t the same as finding fault with Mare Winningham, who plays Pepper’s lush of a sister. Her loopy performance, with its odd word emphases and dissonant moments of brightness, gives the character (did we ever hear her name?) a glimmer of depth and reality. At first, she seems to harbor a half-hearted affection toward Pepper tempered with casual cruelty, but it quickly hardens into cartoonish brutality. By the time her husband Larry gets into the act, they might as well be twirling their mustaches.

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The truth is, twirling mustaches are just about American Horror Story’s speed. Though it sometimes makes forays into affecting drama, AHS is really a melodrama, a snarl of overblown emotion, unraveling story threads, and often feeble shocks. But seeing Pepper’s anguish, it’s easy to forget and start expecting more from this show.

Stray observations:

  • Desiree is stricken to see her companions in the museum, but it’s Maggie who faints dead away at the sight of Jimmy’s hands on display. She’s the only one who’s surprised, right? AHS’s never-ending cycle of foreshadowing, telegraphing, revealing, and revisiting supposed shocks is wearing me down. The promo for the next episode teases the scene of Jimmy’s amputation, in case we didn’t… quite… get it.
  • Lily Rabe appearing as Sister Mary Eunice, her character from AHS: Asylum, bolsters Ryan Murphy’s claim that the show’s seasons all tie into a single continuity.
  • This week in American Horror Poetry: “Go to hell, triple-tits.” That’s real economy of language, much like the poets use.
  • The Maharaja traded Ma Petite for three cases of Dr. Pepper; Stanley sold her body for $3,000. Elsa can drive a bargain, all right, but not like Stanley.
  • The cover of Life magazine reads “Elsa Mars: She Still Owns Friday Night.” Apparently, though Stanley’s promises are empty, Elsa survives and finds a road to stardom, just as she dreamed.
  • Desiree is reading Pepper The Velveteen Rabbit, the tale of a stuffed toy who wishes only to be loved enough to become real.

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