With “Edward Mordrake (Part 1),” American Horror Story: Freak Show plays to its strengths, sounding its themes through action rather than talk. Jimmy’s (Evan Peters) already reliably tedious, half-true blathering about the equality and sameness of freaks is mercifully limited to a speech given over Meep’s funeral; mostly, we’re allowed to regard the freaks simply as characters, with accompanying pleasures and demons, rather than as potential monuments to retrospective political actualization. Narratively, this episode’s a mess, as it introduces half a dozen threads and is clearly doing a great deal of bookkeeping for the season at large. But this structural looseness, which favors vignettes that stand on their own, also affirms the central premise of aloneness: These characters are bundled together on a cramped makeshift campground yet they’re emotionally solitary, trapped within their individual obsessions. “Edward Mordrake (Part 1)” is aware of the reassuring safety, and of the stifling social enclosure, of living with family.
The best moments belong to Ethel (Kathy Bates) and Elsa (Jessica Lange), two aging women attempting to salvage a bit of dignity before having to shuffle off that great metaphorical stage for the last time. Early on, Ethel discovers that she has cirrhosis of the liver, brought on by a distant past of hard drinking, which sends her into a tailspin trying to sort out Jimmy’s rivalry with Dell (Michael Chiklis). Given six months to a year to live by an empathetic doctor, Ethel insists on speeding the mortal clock up with belts of booze, taking Dell aside to ask him to watch out for troubled, rebellious Jimmy when she’s gone. For his part, Dell, who’s just stormed out of an emasculating argument with his wife, Desiree (Angela Bassett), in their trailer, is unusually open to sentimental questions of legacy and fatherhood, and implicatively agrees to honor Ethel’s request.
This information sets the stage for the arrival of Edward Mordrake (Wes Bentley), who, Ethel drunkenly tell us, is superstitiously known to be a once prosperous Victorian gentleman with an evil second face literally growing out of the back of his head, leading to a stint in a madhouse, from which Edward escaped before moving on to a freak show whose performers he murdered before disappearing. The legend, passed around the rapidly dwindling contemporary freak shows, is that Edward is summoned if you put on a show on Halloween night, taking as his compensation for said summoning the life of one of the freak show’s performers, who will walk with him for eternity as a member of his roving damned caravan. His story suggests the legend of Bloody Mary, the movie Candyman, and the “curse” of performing Macbeth all rolled into one, and Bentley looks great in his long black hair and top hat, which collectively suggest a resemblance to Jonathan Pryce’s Mr. Dark if he were to be fused with Gary Oldman’s Dracula.
Edward would appear to be this season’s Papa Legba figure: an all-powerful something-or-another that exists to stir up the regular players’ already roiling passions. Seemingly gliding through the freak show on a gorgeous sheet of green mist, Edward stops at Ethel’s cart, affording her a glimpse of a few of his damned followers. Confused, Ethel truthfully says she hasn’t summoned him. Oh, but someone has, Edward reasons, before requesting that Ethel share with him her great pain, which unsurprisingly involves guilt over desperately exploiting Jimmy when he was just a baby. Dell and Ethel, washed up from their once promising careers, are revealed to have charged people a few bits to watch her give birth on the roadside in a sequence that’s as effectively grotesque, and wrenching, as anything in American Horror Story’s canon.
These scenes work for Bentley’s macabre majesty, which is new to his career, but mostly because they allow Bates to do what she does best: inform a text of great pain with a graceful straightforwardness that recalls her wonderful performance in Delores Claiborne. In some ways, Bates’s acting is bold, particularly in regard to that somewhat shifting accent, but she attaches that boldness to a touching awareness of the quotidian: She doesn’t define Ethel as a funny-talking bearded lady, but as a hard-working alcoholic who’s fucked up a lot of things in her life, and punishes herself daily for it. Bates understands a key thing about Ethel: The death sentence comes as a relief, because it offers potential catharsis to her decades of self-administered emotional (and, now, through the booze again, physical) punishment. Edward embodies that potential catharsis, until he sees in Ethel’s torment what everyone, but her, already sees: a reservoir of wounded, guarded decency.
Elsa’s arc isn’t anywhere near that moving because, as we’ve already established, it’s too explicitly reminiscent of the uncertainties that have plagued Lange’s prior American Horror Story characters, and it’s decidedly callow compared to Ethel’s existential crisis. Like Coven’s Fiona, Elsa wants to be a star forever, and, so far, that’s it. Callow, that is, until that terrific sequence in which Elsa inadvertently summons Edward with her rehearsal of Lana Del Rey’s “Gods and Monsters.” It’s one of those set pieces that succeeds despite the obvious calculation and contrivance (you can practically feel the series writing its own talkback chatter), for its canny, evocative marriage of material and imagery. The irony of an older woman singing a future younger woman’s portrait of fame disillusionment is suggestive of past and present pop culture merging, folding together into some sort of myopic wormhole that spins a never-ending cycle of commoditized female oppression. This association is intensified by the con artist (Emma Roberts) who calls herself Esmerelda and pretends to predict Elsa’s fortune, which is said to include the performance of a song from the future. Of course, “Esmerelda” turns out to be right.
Ethel and Elsa are the big reasons to see “Edward Mordrake (Part 1)”, but there are a lot of other engaging strands of incident and stylistic detail. As you might expect of a Halloween-centric American Horror Story, period fetish items abound, my favorites being an intensely green Boris Karloff Frankenstein mask and a variety of jack-o-lanterns sporting faces of expressionistic intensity, particularly those in the foreground of Elsa’s performance. Dandy (Finn Whitrock) donned a classic 1950s clown outfit in a sequence that begins with a shout-out to Halloween’s opening tracking shot and concludes with an amusing exchange with Dandy’s understandably embittered maid, Dora (Patti Labelle), that’s shot so close and characterized by dialogue so blunt as to suggest one of Rob Zombie’s suffocating stories of families run amok. (A comparison that’s encouraged by the even closer blocking of Dell’s intimate, profane argument with Desiree.) Freak Show presents a Halloween pageant that revels in the individual sense of inadequacy that’s often coaxed out by the family unit, no matter how close or healthy it may appear to be, though closeness is certainly no guarantee of healthiness.
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