American Horror Story: Freak Show
December 17, 2014
We begin with Pepper mourning her friend/husband/soulmate Salty who presumably died in his sleep. Maybe a stroke, maybe something more nefarious? Who can say. The point is: alas, poor Salty! I knew him, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. Pepper is devastated.
“Richard” urges Elsa to let him take care of Salty’s body as she has more pressing things to worry about, like heading to Hollywood to talk to the head of the network for her “new TV show.” A spot is opening up on Friday nights at 8 p.m., so she needs to get her beauty rest and not worry about pesky nuisances like burying one of her “monsters…”
… and cut to
“Richard” Stanley hacking away at poor Salty’s neck with a hatchet before shipping the head off to the Not!Mütter Museum for a place of honor next to Ma Petite.
Meanwhile, Desiree reads Velveteen Rabbit to a grieving Pepper for a while, but when it’s time for Desiree to get ready for the show, Pepper has a tantrum. Desiree is NOT HAVING IT, and orders Pepper to clean up her mess. (She’s going to make an awesome mom … if she survives the season.)
Desiree pops into Elsa’s tent to let Elsa know that Pepper is not handling her grief well. And though she ostensibly left Pepper to go prepare for the show, Desiree settles in with a glass of Schnapps to listen to Elsa’s 30-minute telling of Pepper’s backstory:
Elsa came to America in 1936 to flee Hitler and his awfulness.
Once here, she joined the circus, but could never get past the chorus on account of her weak command of the English language. But Elsa Mars is not one to be dissuaded from her visions of grandeur, so she decided to start a circus of her own, built from the people who were left behind during the war: women and freaks. To this end, Elsa, like the casting agents on The Bachelor, trolled places where human garbage were left behind, including orphanages where she discovered and liberated Pepper who had been left there by her awful sister.
Pepper was an instant hit at Elsa’s carnival, although I’m not sure how much of a carnival it could be with just Pepper dancing around on the stage and Elsa singing David Bowie songs, BUT I DIGRESS. The point is, though the carnival became successful and signed more acts, and Pepper was loved for the first time in her life, she still had other needs: notably maternal ones.
And so, when an Indian Maharaja improbably paid a visit to Elsa’s carnival — because why not, it’s Ryan Murphy’s universe, the characters just live in it — along with his little pet, Ma Petite, Elsa bought the tiny lady from him for three cases of Dr. Pepper. To be fair, Dr. Pepper is delicious.
And then Elsa just handed over Ma Petite to Pepper to be her living doll, because that makes good sense.
But Pepper STILL wasn’t happy, she wanted a boyfriend. To that end, Elsa found another microcephalic from a home for wayward boys — Salty — and brought him to the carnival. It was love at first sight. Elsa “married” Pepper and Salty, they raised Ma Petite as their daughter (which seems like a questionable decision at best and some revisionist writing at worst) and Elsa served as Pepper and Salty’s “fairy godmother.”
So now with both Ma Petite and Salty dead, Elsa about to leave for Hollywood, and Desiree planning on running away with Theo Huxtable, Desiree and Elsa decide that the best thing for Pepper would be to leave the carnival and go live with her awful sister.
The problem is, Awful Sister is less convinced that this is the best thing for anyone, least of all herself, when Elsa and Pepper arrive on her doorstep in
the Irish Channel Massachusetts. After Elsa delivers some fast talk with a large side of guilt, Awful Sister is like, “UGH, FINE, WHATEVER, she can make me cocktails and clean this dump I guess, but Awful Husband isn’t going to like it one bit.” As Awful Sister goes to make up a room for Pepper, Elsa kisses Pepper’s hand, places it against Pepper’s cheek and promises her that if Pepper ever becomes lonely she should just hold this kiss against her face and Elsa will be there with her. And with that, Elsa leaves.
Fast forward to 1962, where Awful Sister is sitting across of pre-Satan Sister Mary Eunice at Briarcliffe, thereby finally, officially crossing the American Horror Story streams as long promised. Awful Sister tells her version of events:
The trouble began when Awful Sister unexpectedly had a late-in-life baby, Lucas. Unfortunately, Lucas was deformed, and Awful Sister was confined to her bed. Fortunately, Pepper was around to help out. Unfortunately, Pepper became obsessed with Awful Husband and began walking around naked all the time. Especially unfortunately, Pepper then, for reasons unclear, drowned baby Lucas after slicing off his ears. And that’s why Awful Sister is leaving Pepper here, in the care of
Satan Sister Mary Eunice.
Of course, the truth is much more horrible: Pepper did help with the baby; in fact, she was the only one in the house who loved him. Awful Sister was confined to bed, but mostly because she was on a constant martini drip, and Awful Husband was just awful, all the time, to everyone. One day, after forcing Awful Sister to admit that she never bonded with Lucas, Awful Husband suggested he knew a way to “kill two birds with one stone,” and with that, he murdered the baby and pinned it on the pinhead.
And so, Pepper is left at Briarcliffe and placed in solitary where Sister Mary Eunice finds her sobbing and banging her head against a wall, mourning baby Lucas. Sister Mary Eunice mistakes grief for remorse, and decides to take Pepper under her wing, assigning her library duty. There, as she’s organizing the magazines, Pepper comes across a 1958 issue of Life magazine with Elsa on the cover: “TV’s Elsa Mars: She Still Owns Friday Night,” and she holds Elsa’s kiss against her cheek, before placing her own kiss on Elsa’s.
But before we get to that, after encouraging Elsa to send poor Pepper to her fate, Desiree and Theo Huxtable pay a visit to “Esmerelda” to have their fortune told. At first, “Esmerelda” is all, “Everything is going to be awesome and you are going to move out west together and have a cute house with a white picket fence.” But then “Esmerelda” is like, “J/K, everything goes to hell, love is a joke, nothing lasts.” Desiree and Theo Huxtable leave her tent in a huff.
Later, Desiree finds “Esmerelda” drinking her troubles away on the carousel and is like, “UH, EXCUSE ME, WHAT WAS THAT ABOUT?” And “Esmerelda” confesses that she’s not a fortune teller and that “Richard” is not a talent scout. In fact, they are con artists who teamed up when she was just a kid in Kansas City, and they’re here to pickpocket the carnival’s audiences. Desiree is unconvinced, as this seems a long way to go, literally and metaphorically, to just pick some pockets. In fact, come to think of it, a lot of performers have died since “Esmerelda” and “Richard” arrived at the carnival, and if Desiree discovers that “Esmerelda” had anything to do with it, she’ll kill her herself.
“Esmerelda” Maggie retires to her caravan where she is confronted by the Twins who give her all their separation operation money so she can bail Jimmy out of jail. She’s reluctant, but they are like, “UGH, GET OVER YOURSELF. BYE, GURL, BYE,” before stomping out of her caravan.
Unfortunately for Jimmy, “Richard” visits him at the jail first, and promises that he can hire Donald Darrow, son of Clarence, to represent him. Jimmy informs “Richard” that since Ethel had no estate, he has no way to pay Mr. Darrow’s retainer, but “Richard,” he has some ideas how to raise the money.
Back at the carnival, “Esmerelda” decides that instead of bailing Jimmy out, she’s going to harass Desiree some more. While Desiree is just trying to get a pot roast in the oven, “Esmerelda” interrupts her to insist that she has something to show her …
… in Philadelphia. Which is nowhere near Jupiter, Florida. So did “Esmerelda” use the bail money to buy two train tickets to Philly? This makes zero sense. BUT HERE THEY ARE, at the Not!Mütter Museum, in Philafreakingdelphia, where “Esmerelda” shows Desiree Ma Petite’s tiny pickled body and Salty’s pickled head, explaining that “Richard” was paid $3,000 for each. And that’s when Museum Lady excitedly unveils the Not!Mütter Museum’s newest exhibit: lobster hands, which causes “Esmerelda” to pass right out. I GUESS MAYBE YOU SHOULD HAVE MANAGED THOSE FUNDS AND YOUR TIME A LITTLE MORE RESPONSIBLY, MAGGIE. WAY TO GO.
I may have my problems with this season of American Horror Story, problems that I have previously noted (it’s not scary but it is tediously repetitive), but even I can admit that this was a lovely and inspired episode. For whatever reason — her innocence, her joy in the darkest of places — for some reason audiences connected deeply with Pepper when she was introduced in Asylum, even though she had maybe all of a dozen lines. This episode, while melodramatic and over-the-top (it is a Ryan Murphy project after all, he’s not going to hold Mare Winningham back, you guys), managed to flesh out Pepper as a character without changing her, without overcomplicating her. What is moving about the episode, the reason it works is that the writers resisted the urge to over-intellectualize Pepper. It would have been easy to make her a normal mind trapped in an imperfect body as a means to tweak our sympathies, but it was important that the writers not do that. Instead, they presented Pepper as a woman with diminished intellectual capacities but with endless emotional capacity. She hurt and she loved and she forgave and she survived every horrible, heartbreaking thing that happened to her, not because she was too innocent to understand, but because she had a stronger heart than those around her. It was a remarkable portrait of a remarkable character, and a lovely tribute not only to Pepper but to the audience who grew to love her. (And kudos to Naomi Grossman for her gorgeous, humanizing portrayal of Pepper.)
And you know what? I’m just going to leave this here and not be negative about the show for a change. There are only three episodes left — it’s too late for this season to be salvaged — so I’ll take what I can get, and appreciate this loving tribute to a lovely character for what it was.
But before I go, I will ask what you make of Elsa’s Life magazine cover: Is it real? Did Elsa really somehow land a television series despite her manager, “Richard,” being a fraud? Or was this Pepper’s fantasy, a way for her to cope with her abandonment by the only real family she ever had? I honestly have no idea. Thoughts?
American Horror Story: Freak Show aired on FX.
This post originally appeared on the Hearst site Tubular.