‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ Episode 3 Review: “Edward Mordrake Pt. 1”

By October 23, 2014
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Every year, “American Horror Story” has delivered a one-two punch with their Halloween episodes. This year, it seems that the plan is more of a one-two slap? Maybe pet. Nudge, even? What I’m getting at is last night’s episode, titled “Edward Mordrake Pt. 1” didn’t quite deliver like previous Halloween episodes before it, although it still presented a bevy of entertaining moments. Before I continue, be mindful there are spoilers below. Proceed with caution!

Throughout last night’s episode, we were introduced to three new characters, a ghost story, a long con, and a piece of relatively sad news. And even though I wasn’t enthralled with “Edward Mordrake Pt. 1,” there were still some really interesting things that happened. No, that musical number was not one of them!

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In the first five minutes of the episode, we are introduced to Stanley (Denis O’Hare) and his assistant Maggie Esmerelda (Emma Roberts). We learn rather quickly that these two are con artists after attempting to sell a fake Sasquatch fetus to a local freak museum. It was Denis O’Hare’s shifty nature in the role of Stanley that immediately drew my attention. The two soon hatch a plan to infiltrate Elsa Mars’ Cabaret of Curiosities in order to make a quick buck with the museum.

It might be taken as a weak choice but throwing Maggie Esmerelda into the Freak Show mix as a fortune teller was one of the more entertaining moments in the roughly hour and a half episode. In her meeting with Elsa, we are shown quick shots of items throughout her tent that Maggie quickly takes a mental account of before going full Kaiser Soze into her crystal ball. Elsa eats it right up and Maggie is hired.

Another character this episode focuses on is Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates). While the accent she speaks in on the show is simply bizarre, something should be said for the transformation Bates goes through with this character. I might even go on a limb here and say Kathy Bates delivers the strongest performance out of the entire cast. We find out that Ethel has 6 months to a year to live due to cirrhosis of the liver. Her emotional response in the doctor’s office is more a reaction to the respect the man gives her than the actual news she receives. Yet instead of taking his advice, she picks up a bottle of hootch after swearing off the stuff some years ago.

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It’s during this back-on-the wagon moment that she explains the myth of Edward Mordrake to Bette and Dot. They bring up the idea of performing a show on Halloween and I almost expected everyone to go quiet and tell the story of Large Marge. Instead, Ethel delivered the mythical story of circus freak Edward Mordrake (Wes Bentley). Mordrake was a man of wealth in the 1800s who was born with a deformation that led to a second face on the back of his head. It’s this Edgar Allen Poe-like story that crafted the overall tone of the episode. After Mordrake’s untimely demise, his spirit was said to visit freak shows on Halloween to add to his list of victims. I’m not going to divulge anything further regarding this ghost story other than the tale of Edward Mordrake is based on a real myth. (NOTE: Tom Waits penned a song based on the tale called “Poor Edward.”)

The night of Halloween finds Elsa Mars energized after being read her false fortune by Maggie Esmerelda. Her eventual rise to fame has her thirsting to get back on the stage and…sing another damn song! While I’ve already stated my opinion regarding these musical numbers (that will apparently happen every week), I’m starting to understand Ryan Murphy’s reason for doing them this season. Moving forward, it seems every song chosen will be originated by artists who identify themselves as “freaks.” I see what you’re doing, Mr. Murphy. I may not love it, but it’s definitely interesting.

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During Elsa’s rendition of Lana Del Rey’s “Gods and Monsters,” Edward Mordrake appears on the fair grounds followed by a mist of green smoke. He soon visits the trailer of  Ethel “The Bearded Lady” and in the most gentlemanly way, coerces Ms. Darling to give him her pain. On the surface, Ethel’s pain is her life-ending medical condition. But beneath that, the deeper pain he seeks is revealed through a flashback that tells the story of how Dell Toledo and Ethel Darling met. From the Vaudevillian glory days to Depression Era desperation, we see Toledo selling tickets to witness Ethel’s live freak birth. This is how Jimmie Darling comes into the world. Earlier in the episode, Ethel has a heart to heart with Toledo, advising him of her health status while asking him to watch after Jimmie. The conflict and pain in Toledo’s face, mixed with this backstory, tells a deeper story about an abusive man who yearns to be something better. But a loving father? That remains to be seen.

Since this is a Halloween episode, I have to applaud last night’s episode for the homage to the horror classic Halloween. In the beginning of the episode, we see Twisty The Clown standing by a hedge as trick-or-treaters pass. A young girl, fearful of clowns, witnesses Twisty in broad daylight and this juxtaposition is extremely reminiscent of Michael Myers standing by the hedge in John Carpenter’s classic. What further drove it home, however, is Dandy’s clown costume. After a psychotic temper tantrum ignited by the receipt of a Howdy Doody outfit, he decides to put together his own costume. The reveal of Dandy as a clown is delivered in a set of scenes that also hearken back to a young Michael Myers in full clown garb. The mask, the camera perspective, the shot of him grabbing the knife – all reminiscent of the seminal slasher movie. And while Dandy does not go through with murdering the maid (played by a sassy Patty LaBelle), he does commit to terrorizing Twisty’s prisoners back in that school bus lair.

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The episode ends with a cliffhanger leading – hopefully – to a more action-packed Halloween-themed ending next week. The Edward Mordrake storyline is definitely an interesting one. Ethel’s storyline adds a very human element to the show as she seems to be the voice of reason that holds the troupe together. Also, the growing rift between Bette and Dot is depicted very well in their shared dream which shows the conjoined twins on a hospital table about to get sawed in half. Dot wants to be rid of her goofy sister and it seems like fame has immediately gone to her head. The fact that Mordrake left Ethel alive leaves me to wonder who will die next week.

What are your thoughts on last night’s “American Horror Story: Freak Show”? Share your reactions with me in the comments below!

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Aside from throwing words onto your screen here, he has written for the likes of FEARnet, Examiner, Dread Central and MTV Movies Blog. And yes, he was Percy on VR Troopers.