‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ 4.10 “Orphans”

“American Horror Story: Freak Show” episode 4.10, “Orphans;” Starring Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, and Naomi Grossman; Guest Starring Mare Winningham and Lily Rabe; Written by James Wong; Directed by Bradley Buecker.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve been able to write my review directly after the show airs. Sometimes it’s because my cable is being a turd and I wasn’t really able to have a proper viewing, but sometimes it’s just because I heave a deep sigh and think “oh lord I don’t know how I can write about this claptrap one more time.” And ye tho’ tonight there were some pixelated stutters in my broadcast, I immediately grabbed the laptop and started clacking away. Because this was good TV. Actually, this was freakin’ great TV.

The plot really only consisted of two, two and a half elements; half of the pinhead duo passed quietly in his sleep, presumably due to a stroke (or maybe a sheister with a giant wang), and Maggie decided to come clean with Desiree and requested her help to nail the real Bad Guy, the aforementioned shiester with a giant wang. There were a couple minor events that will be dealt with in the remaining episodes of the season, but the show really consisted of one tale: The Coming and Going of Pepper the Pinhead. And since it was so good, I’m going to avoid my usual bratty snark and employ the tried and true corporate HR performance improvement pep talk strategy; one like, some areas that need a little work, and then another like. 

It’s true! The “likes” outnumber the snarks!

Christ on a cracker the makeup team on this show is so damn good. Jessica Lange is aged back 20 years with nothing but practical effects and maybe a Cybill Shepherd lens, and it is flawless. A topless Desire did a little shimmy tonight and her tertiary breast was only discernible by placement, not because of interruption in texture or form. These are ridiculously talented people. And I’ve already raved on numerous occasions about the process of turning Naomi Grossman, a strikingly beautiful human being, into the plain encephalitic Pepper. I would love a behind the scenes featurette that showcases these magicians at work.

And now the snark. I will preface this by saying it is entirely plausible that it’s my own pessimism and harumpy bad attitude that caused me to misinterpret the timeline of Elsa Mars, but when the hell did she lose her legs? Up until tonight, I thought she lost them during WWII, but tonight she said she came to the US in 1936. And I’m sorry, I don’t care how talented that randomly Italian doctor/sculptor guy was, those were not prostheses stretched out in front of Pepper in the orphanage. So I’m super confused and need to know if it’s because of my own lack of attention or just poor exposition. 

OK, brace yourselves, I’m gonna rave about “American Horror Story.” 

The main story tonight was all about Pepper, and Naomi Grossman joined the super exclusive “AHS Women Who Make My Eyes Pop and My Jaw Drop with Their Awesomeness” club. She plays a character who doesn’t even utilize full sentences but managed to rip emotion out of me like a rotten tooth.

Elsa found Pepper in an orphanage and swept her off to the carnival life. She recognized in Pepper an intelligence that everyone else took for granted, but also a purity of soul. Elsa’s “first monster” always held a safe place in Elsa’s heart, and Elsa seemed to nurture her more than any other performer that came after. She even recruited more performers just to soothe Pepper’s natural instincts to mother and to love, and in doing so we learned the origin stories of two more characters. It was a brilliantly crafted story full of emotion, completely lack in tangents, and possibly contained a couple clues.

Pepper’s wedding video footage was in color. It was certainly a style choice, as AHS isn’t truly known for adherence to historical accuracy if it’s not relevant to the narrative (*cough* MUSICAL NUMBERS *cough*), but I feel like that, in itself, has just got to mean something. Also, the two freaks who were brought in to make Pepper’s life better were two that have ended up in the morbidity museum. 

Unfortunately, Pepper’s story is a grand tragedy. Elsa felt the best course of action after the death of Pepper’s “baby” and husband would be to return her to the biological sister that surrendered her all those years ago. It was a move I really didn’t feel justified while watching the episode – it seemed like Elsa would understand that the freak show is indeed Pepper’s family – but after thinking about it I really think this lends more support to my theory that Elsa knows exactly what Stanley McMegaweiner is up to, and is hiding all the freaks out of harm’s way. But Pepper’s sister (Mare Winningham, in an incredible performance as a soulless alcoholic housewife) makes some pretty deplorable life decisions, and Pepper ends up – well, we know where she ends up, don’t we.

The show revisited the cold symmetry and harsh angle of “Asylum” with complete easy and familiarity. I’m a sucker for religious iconography combined with anything industrial or metered, so “Asylum” has always been my favorite installment when it comes to visuals and style. The grays and perfectly defined shapes of the Asylum played a nice contrast with the bright hues and draped swoops of the carnival. Pepper lived some presumably miserable years with her sister and brother-in-law, and in the early sixties went to live at The Asylum. 

 Naomi Grossman is a powerhouse. She was brilliant and told this story using almost only her eyes and her gait. And when, at the end of the episode, she lifter her hand to her cheek while smiling at a cover photo of Elsa Mars on Life Magazine, I choked out a sob and told my pets “I’m not crying, shut up, you’re crying.” 

And then previews for the next episode ruined it all and made me glad I get a break until January 7th. I might go back and look for clues, but I’ll probably just watch an embarrassing amount of Star Trek instead.