“Orphans” finds American Horror Story: Freak Show taking a surprisingly earnest detour from its usual preachy, ultra-violently “relevant” shenanigans. The episode is mostly concerned with pinhead Pepper (Naomi Grossman) in the wake of her husband Salty’s (Christopher Neiman) sudden death in his sleep, which is to say that, for the first time in eons, the series is centered on an actual narrative idea that serves to unify most of its tangents. Acting out, thrashing about the freak show, Pepper is inconsolable. Her depression, coupled with the fact that the freaks are finally appearing to notice that they’re dying left and right since the arrival of Stanley (Denis O’Hare) and Esmerelda (Emma Roberts), spurs Elsa (Jessica Lange) to talk strategy with Desiree (Angela Bassett), which leads to a conversation about the formation of the freak show as the two knock back schnapps.
Yeah, it’s a little late for flashbacks, and “Orphans” is full of them, which causes it to weirdly resemble a clip show even though the material is new. You may wonder why we weren’t told some of these things earlier, because Elsa’s freak-show origin story has the poignancy that has often eluded the season. We see the future ringleader in Boston in the late 1930s, and then, later, somewhere else on the brink of America’s involvement in WWII. Contriving to fill a niche in the wake of the men shipping oversees, Elsa decides that freaks could draw audiences into a show that could still contain the elaborately theatrical performances that she strives to build a reputation on. Pepper is Elsa’s first freak, whom she finds at an orphanage (the former is really 18, though mentally delayed). Realizing that Pepper has biological needs like most women, Elsa soon procures Ma Petite (Jyoti Amge) from a maharaja, amusingly buying her with crates of Dr. Pepper, and later finds Salty so that the two, together, can serve as Pepper’s child and husband, respectively.
“Orphans” is the best Freak Show episode since “Edward Mordrake (Part 1)” because it evinces a similar occupation with life as it’s actually defined in, well, a freak show. That’s perhaps the biggest disappointment of this season of American Horror Story: a freak show is an ideally odd and disturbing backdrop for a series that’s focused on the disreputably under-acknowledged portions of America’s exploitive history, but the setting has often felt beside the point. The day-to-day textures of carny life are often vaguely rendered or missing altogether (the plots rarely revolve around the actual struggles of the freak show), so as to make room for soap-operatic exertions that are generic to American Horror Story at large. “Orphans,” with its despairing, unusually slow pace, allows one to feel Pepper’s pain and loneliness: There’s a newfound sense of gentleness, a delicacy, in her interactions with Elsa that are authentically surprising and moving. Lange’s performance is the first of hers to really register since, once again, “Edward Mordrake (Part 1),” because she has something to actually play apart from the accent and all the other bits of business: She’s allowed to paint a portrait of love that’s inextricably linked to exploitation.
It feels right, then, that this should be the episode that explicitly connects Freak Show to Asylum, something that’s been mentioned by creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk for a while now. “Orphans” could be an episode of Asylum, as that season thrived on unexpected allowances for empathy that existed among the reliable acts of brutality. In a purposefully and effectively jarring flash-forward, we see what becomes of Pepper once Elsa decides to reunite her with her conventional adult sister, Rita (Mare Winningham), for the sake of providing the former with what’s left of a possible new family. Things initially look promising, but it’s revealed 10 years later that Pepper’s framed by Rita for the murder of the latter’s unexpectedly born and deformed baby and sent to Briarcliff Mental Institution, where she’s checked in by a pre-possessed Sister Eunice McKee (Lily Rabe). In a quiet scene that ranks as the single most powerful moment of Freak Show to date, Pepper is seen sorting magazines in Briarcliff’s dilapidated library when she comes across an old Life magazine with Elsa on the cover; apparently the freak-show has-been actually did make something of her ludicrous showbiz dreams. It’s an anecdote that ineffably fuses sadness with hope: Pepper briefly feels great encouragement and connection with Elsa at the paradoxical expense of emphasizing the great unbridgeable distance that’s now between them.
There are other grace notes in “Orphans.” It’s nice to finally see Bassett given some scenes to play, particularly her moment when she grabs Esmerelda by the shoulders to warn her of whatever conspiracy she might be involved in with Stanley. Bassett informs the episode’s “B” plot, which has to do with Esmerelda’s blossoming guilt over Jimmy’s (Evan Peters) imprisonment and her subsequent betrayal of Stanley, with a gravity that Roberts’s awkwardly weightless performance isn’t able to achieve on its own. The imagery is also crazier and more evocative that it’s been in a while, particularly a great shadowed close-up of Jimmy’s face, as it’s bathed in darkness behind bars, looking at Stanley through the cage with pleading eyes. The prison cell is subsequently shown to be eerily big and small at once, composed of odd, canted angles that are explicitly reminiscent of German expressionism. (A similar effect is later achieved in a car.)
Even the episode’s title is better than usual: “Orphans” is direct, mysterious, and casually resonant of the social estrangement that’s gripped and ruined several characters simultaneously. This was probably intended as a slow, low-stakes placeholder to air right before the show’s holiday hiatus, but “Orphans” is an unexpectedly generous Christmas gift that proves what American Horror Story can still be, when it dares to sidestep inane smart-assery and go for the heart, in addition to the throat.
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