Earlier in the fall, I promised more reviews would be forthcoming for FX’s American Horror Story: Freak Show, and while it’s been awhile since I’ve written about it, this season has continued to rank either tied for first place with season one or the lone frontrunner of the series. It’s been such a character-driven piece, with surprising twists geared towards growing the personalities, rather than just for the sake of story. Amid this great run, this week’s installment, “Orphans,” is one of the best.
“Orphans” tells us the story of Pepper (Naomi Grossman), a microcephalic (or pinhead) whom also appears in season two, Asylum, which is set about ten years later than Freak Show. Pepper is the first character to appear in more than one season of American Horror Story, and playing a mostly bit part with the other supporting “freaks” up until now, I wondered why they bothered to bring her back. This is, until this week’s episode, which also sees a too-brief return of Asylum‘s Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), more than justifies her presence.
Pepper is adopted be Elsa (Jessica Lange) from an orphanage, the first of the troupe. Others of the group that follow are recruited specifically for Pepper. But as the freak show falls apart, Pepper loses her closest companions, sending her deep into grief. Self-involved in her own career, Elsa foists Pepper off on the sister that abandoned her, Rita (Mare Winningham, who had a different one-episode role in last year’s Coven). Rita and her husband, Larry (Matthew Glave, Army Wives, ER), are even more selfish than Elsa, and concoct a plan to frame Pepper for murdering their annoying infant, landing Pepper in the asylum and revealing that he back story we thought we knew about Pepper is utterly wrong.
What is so impressive is the sympathy Grossman earns in this amazing turn. Even after two seasons, I am ashamed to say that I still find it hard to look at Pepper. In “Orphans,” I care about her, though, and so will anyone who watches her painful journey of abandonment and neglect. Pepper briefly has a good life, and it’s ripped away in the worst possible manner. Much of this success is built into the storytelling, and much of it is due to Grossman’s talent. It’s one of the most moving stories I’ve seen on television in awhile, and it continues Freak Show‘s trend (and more largely Ryan Murphy’s) of forcing people to face their preconceptions and become more compassionate towards those who are different than us.
Pepper’s arc, which actually ends several years in the future of the current story, though I’m not expecting everything else to jump, beautifully ties into Elsa’s. Someone who acts like Elsa does now, willing to leave behind all she’s built and those she cares about, doesn’t quite line up to the person who put together the troupe in the first place. “Orphans” shows us her connection with Pepper, and how that leads to the inclusion of Ma Petite (Jyoti Amge) and Salty (Christopher Neiman). Elsa has changed, and not for the better. Though, there is a big hint of a happy ending for her.
What causes Elsa to fall so far? I assume part of it is that she’s lost so much, including Ma and Salty, and so knows she can no longer hold onto the world she’s lived in. Another part has to be the chance at fame that Stanley (Denis O’Hare) dangles in front of her, and given her age, it’s probably the last chance she has to realize her dreams. Once upon a time, creating a family was her dream, and she lived it. Now, she realizes she wants more. Lange is having another masterful turn in the franchise in Elsa.
The third thing of interest this week is Maggie (Emma Roberts) revealing the truth to Desiree (Angela Bassett) about Stanley’s plan and misdeeds. Maggie is going through a redemption, sparked by falling in love with Jimmy (Evan Peters), which lasts even after the two have a falling out because he has changed her. Desiree is a bit adrift, looking for her own bettering of circumstances, and makes a strong ally by nearly any measure. With Ethel (Kathy Bates) sadly gone, these are now the two women I’m most excited to see play in the sandbox.
American Horror Story: Freak Show still has three episodes left. Given the consistent quality this season has demonstrated, and the impact “Orphans” makes even without Dandy (Finn Wittrock), the year’s breakout star, I am extremely optimistic about Murphy ending things right. American Horror Story is really in its stride here, living up to potential it doesn’t need to, given the excellent efforts the past two seasons are, while still being lesser than this. If Freak Show can stick the landing, it will be memorable and begging for future re-watches.
Taking a quick holiday break, American Horror Story: Freak Show next airs January 7th at 10 p.m. ET on FX.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00QG015K2][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00ADQPA38]