Everybody in Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities is an orphan — I’m pretty sure this exact sentiment has already been expressed several times this season, if not directly then surely through subtext. In fact, in might be the crux of Freak Show! This week, in traditional AHS fashion, that idea is done to death. But, by God, it makes for an episode that works tremendously both in terms of plot and emotional heft.
The episode begins with Elsa giving a eulogy for Salty, Pepper’s pinhead companion. Elsa seems to be genuinely grief-stricken, and quickly retires to her tent with Stanley, who claims to have received a telegram from the “Head of the Network” saying that a Friday night 8 o’clock slot is opening up. Elsa would be the perfect host, he says! He continues, sweet talking her into getting some rest while he takes care of the body of Salty. “What must a man do to earn your trust?” he says, just before we cut to his taking an axe to Salty’s head, which he then promptly ships off to the museum in Philadelphia.
For all of Elsa’s grieving and demanding that Pepper be taken care of, Desiree seems to have picked up the mothering slack. After Pepper throws a bit of a heartbreaking tantrum — an emotional bit that signals that this episode really belongs to Pepper and the actress who plays her, Naomi Grossman — Desiree leaves, joining Elsa in her tent.
Elsa launches into the story of her coming to America and the founding of her Cabinet of Curiosities, which began with the “adoption” of an 18-year-old Pepper from an orphanage. “It was the first time I ever felt unconditional love,” she says, and we believe her. Then comes Ma Petite, from an Indian town and a powerful man who, in Jessica Lange’s Berlin-esque mumble, sound like people and places from nowhere. We see that Pepper and Salty were wife and husband, and they raised Ma Petite as their own child. “A love story for the ages,” Elsa says. Oy, how quickly that dissolves.
But first! Let’s get this other, less effective (but still essential) stuff out of the way. Angus (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) and Desiree get a reading from Maggie, who seems to have taken up Jimmy’s mantle of “grieving camp drunk,” since he’s in jail. She correctly guesses that Angus is a traveling salesman. She sees them “starting a new beginning, somewhere far out west.” And, then, “everything goes to shit, because that’s what happens. Until one day you find yourself cooking up tar,” she says, referencing the tar and feathering of two weeks ago.
Later, Bette and Dot give Maggie money to pay for a lawyer for Jimmy, even though he turned down their romantic play. We then see Stanley visit Jimmy in jail. He offers to get him the best lawyer in town. It’ll cost him, though, and when Jimmy says he has nothing of value, Stanley begs to differ — his hands, he says.
This leads us to yet another history, this time of Maggie and Stanley, which we learn when she confesses everything to Desiree. At first Maggie says she and Stanley are just there to pick the pockets of the audience members, but then we see her take Desiree to Philadelphia, where she discovers the fate of Ma Petite, Salty, and Jimmy. (Or, at least, Jimmy’s hands.) Whether or not this is a flash-forward, a dream, or something that actually happened as is, we don’t yet know. Either way, it’s a huge plot point, and a sign, surely, of things to come.
But, back to Pepper. Elsa, grief-stricken and worried for Pepper’s relative sanity, tracks down Pepper’s sister (Mare Winningham), who, along with her husband, is one of the most reprehensible characters Ryan Murphy has ever created. “Pepper is a gift. A soul so pure,” Elsa says. Again, we believe her. “I fear she will perish from loneliness and a broken heart if she does not have someone who loves her.” She leaves Pepper with her sister, but the situation doesn’t last. And here’s the twist we all knew was coming: Lily Rabe reprises her Asylum role as Sister Mary Eunice McKee at Briarcliff Manor, to whom Pepper’s sister weaves a tale of an alcoholic, baby-killing, sexual predator.
The story is this: shortly after Pepper arrives, her sister gives birth to a little boy. Pepper becomes its sole caretaker, a job she seems to do well and with plenty of relish. Still, his crying has gotten to his mother, who has become a bed-ridden drunk. So, she and her husband devise a plot: kill the baby, blame it on Pepper, and have her institutionalized. And that’s exactly what happens.
Shortly after Pepper arrives at Briarcliff, Sister Mary Eunice sees the innocence in Pepper, and puts her to work reorganizing the library. As Pepper stacks the Life magazines, she pauses and starts to cry. On the cover, we see Elsa Mars, along with the headline, “TV’s Elsa Mars: She Still Owns Friday Night.”Boom!
Hard as I try to resist this show’s emotional manipulations, this story of Pepper, who is shown to be maybe just as pure as Elsa claimed, was the most effective emotional arc of the series. It’s mostly due to the work of Grossman for creating such a harmless, caring character in Pepper, and Rabe for imbuing Sister Mary Eunice with a compassion typically unseen in the world of AHS. Hell, even Lange did a passable job. And that’s saying nothing of Winningham, who, with only a martini, created one of the ugliest characters in the AHS universe.
“Orphans” is a rare win for Freak Show, and a good sign for the last three episodes, which will air in January.