American Horror Story: Freak Show – “Edward Mordrake Part 1” Season 4 Episode 3 Review

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I’m very confused by just about everything on this show.

American Horror Story has never been a subtle show. Even in this more leisurely season, the series still reveals its flare for the dramatic, horrific, and just downright bizarre. Coven got away with this, because while it was crazy, it was also hilariously self-aware. The problem with Freak Show is that it seems to be attempting to take itself seriously—just like Murder House and Asylum did. Still, it’s hard to do anything but laugh when you witness the ridiculousness of Wes Bentley in a top hat, talking to himself in a british accent.

There’s a bit more to it than that, of course, but it’s one of many perplexing incidents in “Edward Mordrake Part 1.” The episode centers around Halloween, a holiday that you’d think would be able to make itself right at home on a show called American Horror Story. Unfortunately, we’re only given a few chilling—and non sequitur—sequences with Twisty and Dandy before the focus put back on Elsa and her troupe. The things they’re dealing with are scary too, but in a very morbid sort of way.

Ethel gets a lot of screen time this week, which means Kathy Bates’ extremely distracting “Baltimore” accent was on full display. After visiting her doctor, she discovers she’s dying from cirrhosis of the liver. So, instead of trying to survive as long as possible for the good of her son, she decides to drink her way to an early grave and asks Toledo to look after him. You know, because it worked out so well the first time.

Later, Ethel enlightens Bette and Dot on the story of Edward Mordrake. As with many of American Horror Story‘s villains, he has a slight basis in reality. Mordrake was an English aristocrat born with an extra face on the back of his head. Apparently the face drove him mad by whispering demonic things to him all the time. He eventually fled to a freak show to find a new home, but was only met with more disgust from the audiences. Supposedly, he killed the rest of his troupe before hanging himself.

There’s a superstition that his ghost haunts any freak show that performs on Halloween, so of course he shows up after Elsa rehearses a new song. This week’s out-of-place jukebox number is Lana Del Rey’s “Monsters and Gods,” which references Jim Morrison several times, and yet no one bothered to ask who she was singing about. The whole scene actually irritated me a lot, because right before Elsa got onstage, she berated Dot and Bette for trying to take away her limelight, even calling them freaks. Why would a woman who’s so protective of her carnies resort to using a word they all hate? It seems very out of character for her.

Then again, maybe it’s not. Elsa proves in this episode that the only thing that matters to her is success in showbiz. When Emma Roberts’ fake psychic Esmerelda stops by the camp to dupe them into giving her a job—she’s working with Denis O’Hare’s conman to try and exploit the carnies for money—she gives the slightest mention of Elsa’s former glory, and just like that she’s in. Elsa was an intriguing figure when we first met her, and she certainly seemed cunning. This feels like a step backwards, but I guess the show wants to focus on the stars in her eyes and nothing else.

Anyway, back to Mordrake. He’s summoned after Elsa performs and for a second I thought there was going to be a repeat of Fiona and the Axman, but instead it went in a much more dreary direction. Mordrake visits Ethel, who sees the terrifying ghosts of his murdered cohorts, and makes her tell him about the darkest moments in her life. Ethel talks about her original act and how she first met Toledo. There’s a scene where she attempts to read Shakespeare with her wonky accent and it was just…the worst.

The real tragedy she tells, however, is when she and Toledo exploited the birth of her son for money. This I actually found interesting, a bit of backstory that adds a new dynamic to her relationship with Jimmy. He badly wants out of the circus life because it’s the only life he’s ever known. She’s tried to make it in the real world, and had to resort to a drastic shock performance in order to make a living. Of course, all this compelling work is undone by Bentley’s ridiculous top hat, mutton chops, and the back-and-forth he has with the face on the back of his head. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

There are a few subplots throughout this episode that are all equally absurd. The only one that had any potential was Dot’s dream of being surgically removed from Bette, with Bette dying in the process. The two sisters have a very frayed relationship, and the fact that one openly admits to wanting to kill the other is fascinating. The fact that Esmerelda and her conman friend are planning on killing and selling them makes this storyline even more exciting.

Other than that, there was a bunch of nonsense. Jimmy spends the entire episode grimacing, Desiree tries to come on to Toledo but he can’t get it up, and Twisty kidnaps another victim. There was an interesting moment where Dandy dressed as a clown and almost killed his maid, but the whole time I was just wondering why he’s so crazed, and why Patti LaBelle agreed to this role. Twisty and Dandy seem to offer up the most “horror” out of anything that’s happening this season, and yet they’re so disconnected from the rest of the characters that they might as well be on a different show.

I’m really trying to get into Freak Show, but each episode is making it harder and harder to do so. There’s a lot the show could do with the world it’s created, but I think it’s having more fun just being as ludicrous as possible. What a shame. Grade: C-

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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