“American Horror Story: Freak Show”: Be a Pepper

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Clearly, an episode called “Orphans” is going to be all about characters abandoned by their parents (or surrogate parents, in some cases). For a show that has since Season 1 been about parents and children – usually in the most monstrous, toxic combinations imaginable – this is not new territory. Instead, this installment of American Horror Story’s real ace-in-the-hole was in that it was the first ep in four seasons that has directly tied to another season – in this case, the dark, brutal Asylum story. How did the crossover fit into Freak Show’s candy-colored melodrama? Let’s dig in and find out.

“The death of a beloved monster…”

Elsa (Jessica Lange) eulogizes an apparently dead Salty, as Pepper (Naomi Grossman) mourns on his deathbed. Well… that happened! Paul (Mat Fraser) gently tries to coax her away, but she won’t budge. Eve (Erika Erwin) tells Elsa that they have to do something to get her off of the bed. Elsa says, “Most pinheads die before they hit 40.” He apparently died in his sleep: “A stroke… one presumes.” We see a flashback of Pepper finding Salty’s body, and it is HORRIBLE – already I can tell that Naomi Grossman is going to own this episode, sell it at a profit, buy it back on Craigslist at half price, and own it again.

In private, Elsa blurts to Stanley (Denis O’Hare), “He was so stupid!” She tried to teach Salty with flashcards – but he wasn’t smart like Pepper. What, is she accusing him of being stupid enough to have a stroke? Elsa tells Stanley that she wants him out of the camp. He instantly hands her a telegram from the “head of the network” saying that he wants to meet in three weeks. There is a spot opening up – “After Perry Como?!” He says she needs to rest, but she says that Pepper needs her now. Stanley says that he will take care of Pepper. Elsa refuses, saying that Pepper will want a proper burial. Stanley insists that she let him take care of the body, and eventually she relents.

Stanley chops Salty’s head off. It ends up in the American Morbidity Museum, in a jar full of embalming fluid.

Opening Titles

Desiree (Angela Bassett) reads to Pepper. It’s The Velveteen Rabbit, my favorite book as a child. Dell (Michael Chiklis) pops in to collect his paycheck for the week and tell her that she’ll make a great mom someday. She wiggles her super-sized rack at the thought. He apologizes and tells her he wants another chance. She says he owes her nothing – they both saved each other and each deserves a shot. She says she could never make him truly happy, and goes back to tell Pepper that she has to put her face on for the show: “The show must go on!” Pepper throws a grief tantrum – it’s really, really horrible. But Desiree is tough: “Now you clean allll this shit up!”

Desiree visits Elsa, who visits her schnapps. Elsa tells her that Pepper has known nothing but abandonment her entire life. They toast: “Prost!” “Gesundheit!” Desiree notes that lots of freaks have been dying lately. Elsa, oblivious, reminisces that she came to the US in 1936, after Hitler made things hard for performers in Germany. She shoved and tripped her way to the top in the Boston circus, Showgirls style – they called her “the Teutonic chanteuse” and she dressed like Karen Black in Day of the Locust. She saw the future of entertainment – freaks! – and started her own show. With her freak show-branded carpet bag (I officially insist that FX start selling those in their online shop, along with Sons of Anarchy water bottles or whatever the hell else they have) she visited an orphanage and found Pepper there. Wait – why did Pepper have that hairstyle, like, always? That wasn’t just for the show? Who shaved that shit? Elsa plays blocks with her. Pepper is 18. Her sister – though she loved her – couldn’t manage her. They let Pepper leave with Elsa – her “first monster.” Elsa felt unconditional love for the first time.

Eventually Pepper develops maternal needs that could not be satisfied – but soon a maharaja visits (really?!) bringing Ma Petite (Jyoti Amge) to them. What is this, Moulin Rouge? (Toulouse nods sagely in the background.) The maharaja will not part with “his favorite pet” – wait, why are these people at a two-bit sideshow again? – and Elsa gives him… a Dr. Pepper? He trades Ma for three cases of soda. Pepper sees Ma and is immediately in love. But eventually she wants more – romance! So Elsa finds her a “spiritual husband” in Salty. Love at first sight, a wedding, shaky super 8 footage. Elsa was their fairy godmother, and theirs was a love story for the ages – they never hurt a soul. Desiree says Elsa has to find Pepper’s sister. Elsa admits that maybe it’s time for their angel to go home.

Maggie (Emma Roberts) drinks alone (atta girl!) thinking of Jimmy. Desiree brings Angus (Malcolm-Jamal Motherfucking Warner) to get his fortune told. OMG – they show Desiree dancing with her three ya-yas out! Angus fell in love with her as soon as he saw her threevage. Maggie gets all Mentalist in her fortune, reading his “tells” and calling him a romantic salesman. Maggie watches them coo, then says that everything will go to shit, because that’s what happened to her. Desiree drags Angus away, and he says he doesn’t believe in sorcery anyway. Maggie says it all ends the same, whether you believe it or not. A romantic!

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Later, Maggie drinks alone on the carousel. Desiree confronts her. She admits she’s no fortune teller, and Richard/Stanley is not a talent scout. Okay – that was easy. She was apparently a thieving newsie and Stanley saved her from getting nabbed, and offered to give her ten cents on the dollar. She didn’t have parents, so she went along. Another orphan! Desiree wonders what they could possibly want with a bunch of freaks, and she says they’re picking the audience’s pockets. Desiree says that’s bullshit, and Maggie hisses, “Go to hell, triple-tits.” Desiree comments on the dead freaks, and Maggie stomps away to find the twins (Sarahs Paulson) in her trailer. They give Maggie the money they’ve been saving (wait, are they actually still performing?) and tell her to save Jimmy. Maggie gets sassy and Dot thinks, “I’m going to punch her in the face.” HA! Maggie calls Bette “simple-minded” and Dot shuts her the hell up. She throws the money at her and hisses, “You do right by Jimmy.”

Jimmy (Evan Peters) is in jail, where Stanley visits him. Jimmy isn’t thrilled. Stanley says he lost his mother when he was young – an orphan! – and got into some trouble, though not the kind that Jimmy is in. Jimmy can’t remember what he may or may not have done in his drunken rage. He doesn’t think he killed the Tupperware ladies, and Stanley doesn’t think he did, either. He mentions getting Jimmy a lawyer (Clarence Darrow’s son?!) and asks for money for a retainer. Jimmy says he has nothing of value, and Stanley walks away. He comes back and says he might have an idea of how to raise the funds… and we zoom into Jimmy’s… hands? Crotch? Oh dear…

Desiree cooks, both in Ethel’s absence and in preparation for being a hausfrau. “It’s just a goddamned pot roast – how hard can it be?” Maggie taunts her and then says she wants to do the right thing for once. She drags her to a tent to talk. God, Angela is really overdoing it this ep, isn’t she? Maggie wants to put the “real villain” away forever.

Elsa drinks Sanka with Rita, Pepper’s sister. It’s Mare Winningham! This is Sudbury, MA. She gave up Pepper because she always wanted “the babies” – she never actually had any, because she had “piped clogs” – rather, “clogged pipes.” (She been drinkin?) Elsa says that Pepper can even make a mean Singapore Sling – Rita admits that she does like her many cocktails! She still refuses to take her sister back. Elsa insists, “Pepper is a gift.” Rita makes a completely insane face at Pepper, muttering, “Larry’s gonna hit the roof… He’s gonna have conniptions!” Okay, she’s a drunk – and not in an “atta girl” kind of way. Elsa abandons Pepper just like everyone else has. Good grief this is brutal. Elsa leaves her with a kiss in her hand to hold to her cheek. Fucking Pepper cannot catch a break.

Maggie takes Desiree to the American Morbidity Museum, where she sees Ma Petite in a jar. Stanley sold her for $3,000. And they also see Salty’s head. Cam Tucker’s mom declares proudly that their latest acquisition is a pair of “lobster hands.” Maggie faints.

Pepper’s sister chats with… Sister Mary Eunice! (Lily Rabe). It’s 1962, and she’s there to commit poor Pepper. Sister Whoopsies Eunice walks her through the rest of the intake questionnaire. Rita says that at nearly 50, she had a baby – named Lucas – out of nowhere. She says Lucas was “different” than a normal baby, but to them he was a perfect miracle. Well, he probably came out pickled like a cocktail onion. Eunice writes it all down. She says she was bedridden, but Pepper helped out. We see her drinking martinis in bed – okay, even I haven’t gone that far. Larry eventually barges in and she tells him to take the baby downstairs. He says, “some women just shouldn’t have kids.” Rita tells Eunice that Pepper walked around naked to seduce him. What? This part isn’t shown – obviously not true. Eunice says the shock therapy and caning can help with that. Pepper’s sister adds that Pepper is a murderer.

Okay, Mare Winningham is kind of amazing. She dances around trying to get Larry to take her out for steaks, and it is hilarious. Larry barks, “Rita, this is no life!” and adds it’s like “a permanent freak show around here.” Rita says Pepper is “so dumb I hurt.” They agree to kill the baby and frame Pepper for it “Two birds with one stone.” Okay, seriously?

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Rita tells Eunice that she asked Pepper to give the baby a bath. We see that Larry cut the baby’s ears off and drowned it, while Pepper tried to stop him. They frame Pepper for all of it. This. Is. Horrible. Pepper gets committed. It’s awful to see, and these are disgusting people, but we already heard all of this two years ago. What’s going on in Florida, again? Sister Mary Eunice visits Pepper to take her to a decontamination shower. Pepper whispers, “Baby…” She is crying. Eunice sees “real remorse” and “redemption” in her eyes. She thanks the Lord for the lesson in humility and lets Pepper tidy up the library, noting, “You are my special project.” She is determined to bring out the best in her. Pepper sorts magazines, one of which is a 1958 issue of Life… with TV star Elsa Mars on the cover.

Okay, nice move.

SCENE

Notably Dead: Salty, Lucas, everyone’s parents, apparently

Notably Absent: Dandy (Anyone miss him?), Penny the Amazing Lizard Girl, Ima Wiggles

Freak of the Week: Uh, I think that goes to Pepper.

Quote of the Week: Even though Jessica Lange clearly handed Angela Bassett the Overacting Stick for this episode, her delivery of “Now you clean alllllll this shit up!” was probably the funniest moment of the entire season.

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Blood – 3/10

Poor Salty. And Lucas!

Beasts – 0/10

Did the maharaja have any animals in his entourage? Or did he only have “human pets”? Groan…

Buns – 0/10

Okay, maybe I missed Dandy just a little bit.

Rating

I’m surprised to be saying this, but I think this might be my favorite episode of the season so far. Maybe it’s because it didn’t feel remotely like an episode of Freak Show – it was Asylum through and through. The writers had faced quite a challenge, because most of us already knew Pepper’s story, beat for beat – we learned both the truth and the lie back in Season 2 of how she ended up in Briarcliff. So the fact that they managed to make the telling of the tale so gripping is doubly impressive. I give the lion’s share of the credit to Naomi Grossman’s raw, dedicated performance as Pepper – she more than earned what was essentially her own episode this week. I kept having to remind myself that Pepper does eventually find some comfort at Briarcliff before being transformed into a hyper-intelligent being by the aliens. So she has that going for her. Which is good.

Elsewhere things were the usual mess, with Maggie spilling the beans on her and Stanley’s murder operation after a few drinks (really?!), Desiree romancing Angus (because what we really need now is another new character), and regulars Dell, Jimmy, Dot/Bette, Paul and Eve getting mere cameos. Mare Winningham and her husband may as well have been in a different show entirely, but at least it was an entertaining show. (While we’re on the topic, why are they having Mare play these horrible women?! Last year she rapes her son’s reanimated corpse and now she’s a baby-killing lush?) But the final image of the episode – Elsa on Life magazine – was a brilliant twist. Even though Stanley is a con, Elsa somehow becomes a star, regardless. I’m actually curious to learn how. And it drove home what we’ve known all season and what her abandonment of Pepper brought to horrible, tear-stained life: “Some women just aren’t meant to have kids.”

I’d give it four out of five Pennywises:

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Next episode: NPH! In the meantime, I wish all you little monsters a safe and happy holiday season. See you in January!

Writer-filmmaker Brian Juergens launched CampBlood.org, the world's first website devoted to horror films from a gay perspective, in 2003.