American Horror Story: Freak Show
“Edward Mordrake, Part 1”
October 22, 2014
HEY! Have you ever been to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia? YOU SHOULD TOTALLY GO TO THE MÜTTER MUSEUM IN PHILADELPHIA. The Mütter Museum began as the collection one Dr. Thomas Mütter who donated his medical oddities to The College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1858. It has grown over the years to include:
- The corpse of a woman who turned into soap after her burial
- Dr. Joseph Hyrtl’s human skull collection
- The conjoined liver of “Siamese twins” Chang & Eng
- A specimen from John Wilkes Booth’s vertebra
- The jaw tumor of President Grover Cleveland
- A section of the brain of the man who assassinated President Garfield
- The tallest skeleton on display in North America
- Slices of Einstein’s brain
- Entire cabinets full of things people swallowed that they should not have swallowed
- A giant colon
- A book bound in human skin
- And more babies in jars than you can shake a stick at
IT IS AMAZING. I’ve been three or four times now and it freaks me out every single time. I’m not sure my sister-in-law has forgiven me yet for dragging her there last year. Seriously, if you’re ever in Philly, swing by, you’ll never forget it. (You might regret it, but you won’t soon forget it.)
Anyway, we begin the episode at the “American Morbidity Museum” which is totally supposed to be the Mütter Museum but I assume was not filmed in the Mütter Museum since they are filming in New Orleans. There, one “Dr. Sylvester Mansfield” and his assistant “Miss Rothschild” try to sell the museum lady a genuine baby Sasquatch, only to have Museum Lady’s researcher explain that they will not, in fact, be paying $500 for a fetal goat with a cat’s jaw sewn onto it, thankyouverymuch.
But once Researcher stomps off, Museum Lady confides in this “Dr. Mansfield” that the museum is struggling financially, and if he were to, I don’t know, maybe bring her something authentic from one of the freak shows down in Coney Island or Florida, she wouldn’t ask any questions. In fact, a liver like Cheng and Eng’s over there (told you it’s supposed to be the Mütter) is worth $5,000. Thus incentivized, “Dr.” “Mansfield” and “Miss Rothschild” decide to fly south to Florida for the winter.
In Florida, the children of Jupiter have flooded into West Palm Beach to trick or treat this Halloween as their neighborhoods have been shut down by the murder curfew. One little girl who, like any reasonable person, suffers from coulrophobia, is having to deal with her jerk brother dressing like a clown for Halloween, her jerk mother being dismissive of her perfectly rational fears, and one definite Murder Clown hiding in the bushes stalking her. Fun Halloween.
Back in Jupiter, Ethel our bearded lady swings by
a nice Garden District home her doctor’s office, where she learns that her liver’s shot. She has 6 months to maybe a year to live, and if she stays away from meat and alcohol, she can keep things from accelerating. Ethel bursts into tears, not because of the diagnosis, but because Dr. Empathetic is the first doctor who has ever treated her with respect and didn’t laugh at her terrible, terrible accent.
At the carnival, the performers are celebrating Halloween with apple bobbing and pumpkin carving and booze drinking, all except for Jimmy who is still mourning Meep. Dot screams at the other performers that they are being disrespectful to Jimmy and Meep, and that they should dedicate today’s show to the little chicken-slaughter’s memory. That’s when Ethel marches into the tent, pours herself a big glass of rogaine and explains that freaks do not perform on Halloween on account of one Edward Mordrake.
Edward Mordrake was a 19th century gentleman of noble birth, a scholar, a poet, a musician, and the owner of a creepy little face on the back of his head that whispered terrible ideas to him all the time, like, “You should totally get that tattoo, it’ll be cool,” and, “Skinny jeans will absolutely work on your frame, in fact, you’re actually supposed to go a size smaller than your usual size,” and, “You should consider moving to Williamsburg,” and “Have you ever considered recording your own dance single? I hear it’s easy with autotune these days.” Mordrake tried to kill the little face, but when that didn’t work, he went crazy, and his family sent him off to Bedlam.
But this didn’t last long, and Mordrake escaped and ran off to join the circus where he became the Two-Faced Prince. This didn’t last long, either, and for reasons unclear, one Halloween Mordrake snapped and slaughtered every performer in the troupe before hanging himself. Legend has it, the little bad idea face was still smiling. Legend also has it, any freak who performs on Halloween summons Mordrake’s spirit, and once he’s here, he doesn’t leave until he picks a freak to take back with him to Hell. And it’s all true, because this one time when Ethel was with Barnum, they were forced to perform on Halloween. That night, the human cannonball was found in his caravan, hanging with his head turned all the way around, smiling like that creepy little face. (Which, wait, hold up: does a human cannonball even count as a “freak” or is it more of a daredevil act? What exactly are the rules regarding this whole Mordrake business? Can he just take anyone affiliated with the carnival?)
Or at least I think that’s what Ethel was saying.
Jimmy, who has had just about enough of this Mordrake nonsense, takes his mother’s drink away, and WHEN DID SHE START DRINKING AGAIN ANYWAY? Ethel, who has decided to just go ahead and throw the shaving towel in already, is all, “you’re not the boss of me, and anyway, now that we have The Commish here to protect us, you can just go hang out at the Camellia Grill and eat all the meatloaf you can stomach. I’M OBVIOUSLY TRYING TO EMOTIONALLY DISTANCE MYSELF FROM YOU, GOODBYE.”
Over at the Mott house, Gloria has decorated the place for Halloween, and forced Miss Patti LaBelle into a Woody Woodpecker costume all in an effort to cheer Dandy up on his favorite holiday. When Miss Patti LaBelle presents Dandy the Howdy Doody costume she spent a month sewing for him, Dandy has a snit, breaks a candy dish, and sends his mother scurrying out to try to buy him another costume. But Miss Patti LaBelle, she’s not afraid of Dandy, and she doesn’t work for him, so he can just go ahead and clean up this mess and get out of Miss Patti LaBelle’s face, thankyou.
Instead, Dandy marches upstairs and starts Project Runwaying a new costume. Make it work, Dandy.
Back at the carnival, the performers bury Meep, tossing chicken heads into his open grave as a last tribute. Good night, sweet Meep. And that’s when a taxi deposits one
“Miss Rothschild” Mystic Miss Esmerelda, fortune teller, here looking for a job. Jimmy and his lobster are intrigued.
Elsewhere, Dot and Bette find themselves on an operating table, with Bette protesting that, “Uh …. hey… I didn’t sign up for this?” Dot demands that she stop being so selfish. Dot has talent, and is going to meet someone and have babies and ALL HER DREAMS ARE COMING TRUE, just as soon as she gets rid of 25 pounds or so of extra head. The twins wake up from what Dot calls “a beautiful dream,” and Bette is like, “YEAH, I WAS THERE, I SAW WHAT YOU WANTED TO DO.” But Dot doesn’t have any regrets. The sooner they can get the separation surgery, the better! “But one of us will die!” Bette protests. “Yeah. What a shame,” replies Dot.
“Miss Rothschild” Mystic “Miss Esmerelda” to Elsa’s tent so as to demonstrate her “abilities,” to a skeptical Elsa. “Miss Rothschild” Mystic “Miss Esmerelda” Keyser Sözes the tent, and starts saying vague things about “injustice” and “greed” and “jealousy” and “Marlena.” But all hope is not lost! “Miss Rothschild” Mystic “Miss Esmerelda” hears Elsa singing the most heartbreaking song ever to thunderous applause, and she sees a dark, handsome stranger, the man who will make Elsa a star. With that, “Miss Rothschild” Mystic “Miss Esmerelda” passes out, exhausted from all the nonsense she just fed Elsa. “JA! YOU’RE HIRED!”
In The Commish’s caravan, Desiree tries to arouse the little commish, but the little commish is not interested, which The Big Commish blames Desiree for, having come on too strong, and all. This leads to a shoving match, and you do NOT shove Angela Basset.
After Desiree storms out of the caravan, The Commish finds Ethel out in the field, alone and drunk. There, she wonders if The Commish ever loved her, and makes him promise her, SWEAR, he won’t tell Jimmy he’s his father. She then asks if The Commish remembers showing her the Levittown brochures. Was he just leading her on? The Commish wonders why she’s so sentimental, and Ethel confesses that she’s dying. And while she doesn’t want The Commish to ever tell Jimmy that he’s his father, she does want him to serve as a positive male influence in Jimmy’s life which MAKES NO SENSE AT ALL but whatever. The Commish wonders what it would have been like had he stayed and what Jimmy dressed as for Halloween. It was always the same thing, Ethel informs him: a soldier.
That evening, Dandy puts on his Murder Clown costume and heads downstairs to try to scare Miss Patti LaBelle, but it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than a plastic clown mask and a knife to scare Miss Patti LaBelle, boy.
And by the way, if Dandy kills anymore animals, Miss Patti LaBelle will call the police on him herself. Dandy lunges closer to Miss Patti LaBelle, and she’s all, “OOOOH, YOU GONNA KILL ME? I DARE YOU.” Instead, Dandy screams at her to shut up and storms off in a snit. Team Miss Patti LaBelle.
Meanwhile, Jimmy has brought “Esmerelda” to a phone booth so that she can call
“Dr. Sylvester Mansfield” Stanley and complain about being freaked out by the freaks, including conjoined twins Bette and Dot. Hearing that the carnival has conjoined twins, Stanley begins speculating how large a jar they are going to need for their liver, alarming Esmerelda who did NOT sign up for murder. But Stanley assures her that no one cares what happens to freaks, before hanging up on her so he can return to being pillaged by a rent boy in a Viking hat.
As Esmerelda gets off her call, a police officer pulls up behind her and Jimmy, harassing them about the curfew, and Jimmy gets all lippy before Esmerelda charms the officer into letting them leave. BYEEEE.
We return to the little trick-or-treater’s house, where over martinis her mother and her mother’s friend worry that Dragnet is destroying American culture. (Just wait until they see the 1987 Tom Hanks/Dan Aykroyd vehicle.) In her bedroom, our trick-or-treater is harassed by her jerk brother, when suddenly she sees Murder Clown just creep up from behind
and asks him what his interests are …
Our trick-or-treater lets out a blood-curdling scream, which sends Moms rushing into her room, wondering where Jerk Brother is. “The Murder Clown took him,” trick-or-treater tells them while pointing out the open window. I’m thinking she’s not going to be getting over her clown issues anytime soon.
Back at the carnival, Dot and Bette are about to start rehearsing, upsetting the other performers who are pretty sure that even rehearsing on Halloween will summon Edward Mordrake. But it’s a moot point, because Elsa marches in, fully decked out in a new slinky silk dress, ready to meet Mr. Career Revitalizer. When Dot declares that she and Bette are the headliners now, and want to discuss their salary, Elsa is all, “Oh, you zink you are to come for mich? Nein, my Fraüleins, do not come for mich. Now I vill rehearse mein new Lana del Rey sonk about zee Jim Morrison, ja?” And then she proceeds to sing “Gods & Monsters,” which promptly summons Edward Mordrake in a cloud of alarmingly green smoke. So it looks as though someone, indeed, is coming for you, Elsa. Vay to go.
But as quickly as he appears, Elsa’s Tall Dark und Handsome disappears, only to reappear in Ethel’s caravan, along with a number of his dead ghost buddies. Ethel is all, “The hell? I didn’t summon you.”
But that’s neither here nor there, Mordrake isn’t leaving the carnival without a new freak to add to his collection. And to that end, his creepy little back face is here to judge whether or not Ethel is a “pure freak,” vile of body and soul. Let’s begin! So, how did she find herself in this “degraded” state?
Ethel tells a sad story about how once she was the star of her own act, but then she hooked up with The Commish who had the bright idea to turn her act “highbrow” and have her do Shakespeare readings. This went poorly for everyone, partly because Shakespeare isn’t what people want from their bearded lady acts, partly because THAT ACCENT, OOF.
Mordrake is like, “Yeah, yeah, that’s sad and all, but I’m talking about your darker shame. Spill.” And so Ethel admits that things took a turn for the worse for her career when she became pregnant and couldn’t work at all. Broke, The Commish came up with a new show idea: have people pay to come watch her give birth to a baby freak, and then pay extra to hold the “monster baby.” Her darkest secret is that her son has never known anything in his entire life but exploitation, thanks to her.
With that, Ethel is like, “Welp, I’m dying anyway, might as well take me with you, I’m ready.” But Mordrake creepy little back face isn’t interested in her, she’s not the “pure” freak it’s looking for. Sorry to make you relive the worst moments of your life, kbye!
Finally, back at the Murder Clown Bus, Dandy appears in his new clown costume with a handful of candy for Boy and Teenage Girl. Except, SURPRISE, really he has a knife that he jabs at them ineffectively through the cage. When the knife doesn’t quite reach, he decides to attach it to a longer pole, but his DIY project is interrupted by Murder Clown and his new project: Jerk Brother. “WHEE!” says Dandy, “MORE FUN!”
This episode is the first of a two-parter, and as such is only half this particular story, so we’re not going to spend too much time down here. I will point out that Edward Mordrake is the name that is attached to a real legend involving a man with two faces — it’s unclear whether or not a real Edward Mordrake (or Mordake, depending on the source) ever lived. That said, there have been documented cases of people having “two faces,” like Chang Tzu Ping, and the Boy from Bengal.
But more important than whether or not Mordrake was an actual person is what he represents in this story. Like Bette and Dot, Mordrake is a symbol of the duality of human nature; he represents our capacity for both good and evil, of gentility and mad violence. Mordrake is a physical embodiment of the struggle between the superego and the id. And what is most important to note about both Mordrake and the twins is that they can not rid themselves of their other half. Mordrake did everything he could to kill the face, only to have the face drive him to suicide. So Dot may dream of separating from her sister, but as Mordrake’s story illustrates, it may lead to her own destruction.
Before we wrap up, I wanted to point out a couple of stray items in this episode that piqued my interest. First, I found the conversation that The Commish and Ethel have about their past and about Jimmy a little odd, notably Ethel revealing that Jimmy dressed as the same thing every year for Halloween: a soldier. While it would make sense for The Commish to wonder on Halloween what his estranged son dressed as when he was a child, it felt like Murphy and the writers were drawing a huge red arrow to this soldier business. Add to this The Commish and Ethel discussing their erstwhile dream of moving to Levittown. Levittown was the name of a number of suburban developments built after World War II for returning veterans and their families (we’ll just leave out the fact that this messes up the timeline, as the first Levittown opened in 1947, some five years before this conversation and long after The Commish had left his family). I find this focus on the military somewhat curious. Is this a suggestion that Jimmy will eventually join the military becoming that soldier he always dreamed of, which considering the condition of his hands seems somewhat improbable? Or is this another next season clue: that it might involve soldiers somehow or will take place on a military installation (*cough* Area 51 *cough*)?
Finally, I couldn’t help but notice that there were back-to-back scenes in which an African-American woman renders a white man impotent. I thought it was interesting that we learn that The Commish has sexual performance issues with Desiree right before Dandy attempts — and fails — to scare Miss Patti LaBelle, and is left withering beneath her contempt. I’m not sure what the significance is of pairing these two scenes, other than to draw the connections between sex and violence (let’s not leave unnoticed the phallic symbolism of that knife that Dandy is waving around, but ultimately is unable to put to use, either on Patti LaBelle or the children) and maybe draw some questions about racial power dynamics. But it is possible that the two scenes were placed next to each other to foreshadow something violent happening to these two women, possibly out of male frustration and humiliation.
That’s all I’ve got this week, kids, other than to share the exciting news that just broke today that Neil Patrick Harris and his husband David Burtka will be joining the cast for the second half of the season. Twisty approves!
American Horror Story: Freak Show aired on FX.
This post originally appeared on the Hearst site Tubular.