Oh Mama, what festival of surreal perversion has American Horror Story: Freak Show laid out for us tonight? I’m a bit afraid to look, but here goes.
The episode begins with a shot of the skeletal remains of a conjoined fetus. Not a fictional, functional “Siamese Twin” like Bette and Dot, a real conjoined fetus with a fused together skull and a short, short lifespan.
Pictures of other human oddities, and their remains, are on display. We’re in The American Morbidity Museum, where owner Miss Hemmings is talking about how the medical community has always been fascinated by freaks of nature and how they must have been relieved to hide behind costumes on Halloween. She says at the museum they not only embrace the differences of their subjects of interest, they celebrate them.
“Dr. Mansfield” and his lab assistant “Miss Rothschild” enter and greet Miss Hemmings. They’re trying to sell a specimen to the museum.
While Miss Hemmings runs to get the museum’s appraiser, Rothschild expresses sympathy for the people on display, but Mansfield’s heart is cold, saying “They were losers in life. At least now they have some value.”
The appraiser was not impressed with the weird jar fetus thing Mansfield was selling, and in fact accuses Mansfield of faking his credentials and the specimen threatens to call the police. What Mansfield tried to pass off as an “authentic baby Sasquatch” is actually a fetal goat with the jaw of a cat sewn on it.
Mansfield fakes outrage and goes to leave, but Hemmings stops him and says she’d pay a lot for a real specimen, admitting her business is in trouble and that the offer is made on clear no questions asked, any means necessary terms. She says freak shows used to sell her museum bodies when performers died, and mentions our show in Jupiter, Florida and a show in Coney Island among the only ones left.
She tells the con-artists that the conjoined liver of Siamese twins Chang and Eng, one of the displays, is worth $5,000. Mansfield becomes determined to get a specimen, and doesn’t seem super likely to wait around for a freak to die of natural causes.
“Coney Island’s a bit cold this time of year. How about Florida?” Mansfield asks Rothschild.
In a suburban neighborhood in West Palm Beach, Florida, kids are trick or treating in costumes. A boy in a clown costume scares a small blond girl in a pink fairy princess costume, Jessie. As Jessie reluctantly goes to a door to get candy, her mother admits she’s terrified of clowns. Great instincts, Jessie.
Jessie’s mom complains to another mother about Jessie, and how Jessie’s brother chose a clown costume to scare his sister this year. He’s the one who just scared her. They also complain about kids from Jupiter trick-or-treating in West Palm Beach because of the curfew.
And then they walk off. Jessie returns to the sidewalk and sees Twisty, just walking around in broad daylight like he’s not the embodiment of all nightmares, watching her.
The smart little girl runs to her mom, who doesn’t believe her about the scary clown.
“I swear I’ll never understand that girl. I find clowns delightful,” the mom says.
Ethel the bearded lady is at a doctor’s office. She has cirrhosis of the liver. A kindly old doctor is telling her that even though she hasn’t drank lately, there’s no fixing it.
He won’t tell her that she’s going to die, but that’s mostly because, as he admits, the older he gets, the harder it gets for him to deliver the bad news. He’s also sympathetic to her hard life.
But she finally breaks him down and he tells her she has six months to a year, but it’ll be worse if she eats meat or drinks alcohol.
Ethel cries and the doctor says he’s sorry. She says she’s not crying because she’s going to die, but because he’s the first doctor ever to treat her with respect.
“I just can’t help thinking that my whole life might have gone different if I’d met you sooner,” Ethel says. The doctor takes her hand to comfort her.
At the freak show stage freaks will be freaks, especially on Halloween. The pinheads are laughing and running around. The half lady is bobbing for apples. Little Ma Petite is carving a pumpkin about half her size. Bette and Dot won’t join in the fun, though.
Jimmy enters, covered in dirt, and when asked where he was says he was digging a grave for Meep. Meep’s death is eating away at his soul.
“He was a child. They all are. I can’t protect any of them,” Jimmy says, as we see scenes of the freaks cavorting.
Bette and Dot try to talk Jimmy out of his guilt, but he just says he failed them and walks off.
This provokes an outburst from Dot, who shuts down the fun by yelling “Stop!” and scolding the freaks for partying and being disrespectful when Meep is dead. Her words make it seem like she cares slightly more about her crush Jimmy’s feelings than Meep, though.
Dot’s suggestion to work extra hard on the show for Meep tonight is shut down by Ethel, who starts drinking and explains that freaks don’t perform on Halloween because of the legend of 1800s Aristocrat Edward Mordrake.
This leads to a black and white flashback where Ethel tells the story of Edward, an aristocrat, scholar and musician who had a hideous second face on the back of his head. The face whispered to Edward incessantly of “things only spoken of in Hell.”
Edward couldn’t kill the face, so he went mad and went to the Bedlam insane asylum, but the voice kept telling him to do things. One night he escapes, through murder, and joins a freak show as “The Two-Faced Prince,” an act where he shows off his refinement and then scares the rubes by revealing his second face.
One night Edward snaps and murders every freak in the troupe. We’re treated to various scenes of their dead bodies, then Edward hanging himself. The face on the back of his head is still smiling, and looks like it’s still alive.
The freaks say if they perform on Halloween it will summon the spirit of Mordrake, and the new freak will have to carry the demonic whispering. Jimmy calls it bunk but Ethel insists it’s true and says it happened at a carnival she performed at, to a little person human cannonball who performed on Halloween and hung himself the next day.
Jimmy is worried, not about the story but about the drinking. He asks if it’s because of Dell and she says hurtful things, telling Jimmy now that there’s a man around the dump he’s free to go.
Dandy’s bizarre enabling Mom Gloria and her maid Dora are laying out a big Halloween-themed spread in the dining room. Dora is dressed in a humiliating Woody Woodpecker costume and hates it.
Gloria says she has to dress that way because Woody Woodpecker is Dandy’s favorite cartoon, and makes her show that she’s practiced Woody’s trademark laugh. Dora spits out a spiteful, half-hearted version that Gloria judges “will do in a pinch.”
Dandy is eager to go trick-or-treating and terrorize the neighborhood. When told there’s a curfew he says those are for poor people.
Dora brings out Dandy’s costume in a box which he eagerly opens. It’s Howdy Doody, which makes Dandy insane with rage. He starts destroying stuff. Dora stands up to him during his rampage, which probably isn’t a good idea.
We see Dandy in his mom’s closet, cutting up dresses to make his own costume. Oh yeah, it’s a clown suit.
Jimmy officiates Meep’s funeral, which is sparsely attended by only a handful of the freaks. Jimmy says Meep loved dressing up on Halloween and making kids scream by sneaking chicken heads into their candy bags.
The freaks pass around a bag of chicken heads and honor Meep by throwing those heads on his casket, then pouring on booze before they start burying him.
A taxi pulls up. Inside is the con artist who was earlier calling herself Miss Rothschild, sporting a completely different look and saying she’s there for a job. She says she’s a fortune teller, Mystic Miss Esmerelda.
In a bizarre fantasy sequence Bette and Dot are on an operating table, about to be separated. Bette is crying, but Dot tells her she’s being selfish because Dot has talent and a man who wants to marry her and have babies.
A doctor enters with a motorized bone saw to do the operation. A hysterical Bette is sedated but Dot’s so enthusiastic about being “separate and whole” she doesn’t need it. She asks God to “take good care of Bette” and then the doctor starts cutting with a huge splash of blood.
Bette wakes from this nightmare, but for Dot it’s a pleasant dream and she’s sleeping with a smile on her face. Dot hits her to wake her up.
“I was having the most beautiful dream, why did you wake me?” Dot asks. Bette says she was trapped inside it and it was a nightmare.
When Dot says Bette can’t hold her responsible for her dreams, Bette says it wasn’t a dream the last time Dot tried to kill her and asks if she’s not afraid she’d miss her.
“I’d miss you. Mean as you are sometimes,” Bette says.
Dot says she is going to work hard, earn money, and find a doctor who will do the surgery, which reduces Bette to tears.
“But one of us will die,” Bette says.
“And one of us has a chance at happiness,” Dot says.
Bette cries harder.
Elsa is smoking opium, talking to Jimmy in her tent. She says “Miss Esmerelda” is too white to be a fortune teller, but Jimmy says she’s the real thing even if she’s not Gypsy.
Esmerelda enters to do a reading as a tryout and sets up a crystal ball. We cans see her do a classic con-artist cold read technique, pretending to gather her strength while actually looking around the room for pictures and other tidbits about Elsa’s life to work into her act. She notes a musical score and a picture of actress Marlene Dietrich.
She looks into the ball and starts her patter. She talks about dark tidings, says Elsa was the victim of a grave injustice and greed and jealously and mentions a woman that looks like her, Marlene, who gets an ovation Elsa should have.
“That bitch. She stole my career,” Elsa says.
Playing her perfectly, Esmerelda looks into Elsa’s “future” and finds applause and love for her.
“It’s never too late. You’re like the aster that blooms in the fall,” Esmerelda says.
She says a stranger, an impresario, will arrive and make Elsa a star and then pretends to faint. Elsa hires her on the spot.
In Desiree and Dell’s trailer, both are pleased about taking over the show. They start to have sex, but Dell can’t do it.
“I’d get more satisfaction from a doorknob,” she pouts, which makes Dell violently grab her and tell her he deserves respect. She just stares him down and tells him to get his paws off of her or he’ll never see her again.
Ethel is getting drunk out by the lake when Dell comes by cursing.
“Fight with triple tits?” she asks snidely.
Dell gets mad and defends Desiree. Ethel offers him a drink, which he takes. She says she needs a favor, which he says isn’t the Ethel he remembers.
She asks if the fight was about Dell not getting it up, but he says it’s none of her business. She asks “what was our problem?” in their past relationship and Dell laughs and says “you had a beard, for starters.”
“So when we conceived Jimmy, you didn’t love me at all?” she asks.
Dell says “nah,” but admits he could have been a better dad.
Ethel says Jimmy is to never know Dell is his dad, which causes Dell to say she’s like a broken record. She asks why he led her on, made her think she would move to Levittown and live a normal life.
Dell says it was because he felt guilty. Ethel admits “cookie cutter” wouldn’t have worked.
She fesses up that her real problem is that “Jimmy’s lost” and foundering, then admits she’s dying and ask Dell to be decent and keep an eye on him. To make him get out in the world and make something of himself.
Dell said that in the morning he had been wondering what it would have been like to watch Jimmy grow up. He asks what Jimmy dressed for on Halloween. Ethel says he always wanted to be a soldier.
Dell gives back the hooch and they wordlessly stare at the lake.
There’s a POV shot of someone walking through a house. They pick up a creepy plastic clown mask from a table and put it on, then the scene is through the mask’s eye-holes as they walk downstairs. They stop at a serving table and take a knife.
The person in the clown costume confronts Dora, knife raised, as she’s working. She says she’s not scared, that she raised him since he was little and found the poor animals he killed and told his mother. That she’ll call the police if happens again, and asks if he killed the people in town.
Dandy growls and advances on Dora as she eggs him on. She tells him he couldn’t have possibly killed those people because he doesn’t have the guts.
A furious Dandy rips of his mask and keeps saying he’ll kill her as Dora keeps daring him, but she’s right, he’s too much of a wimp. He yells “I hate you” a bunch of times and runs away.
“Believe me boy, I hate you too,” Dora says and goes back to work.
Esmerelda calls Mansfield on a payphone. He’s in a seedy hotel room. She tells him she’s got to “cut out,” that she can’t handle being near the freaks.
“They give me the heebie jeebies,” she says.
Esmerelda tells Mansfield about meeting Bette and Dot while Jimmy is showing her to her tent. Esmerelda offers a free reading but a jealous Dot just says “I’m sure that’s not the only thing you give away for free.”
When Mansfield hears about conjoined twins, he says “We hit the jackpot” and gets excited.
“You never said anything about murder,” Esmerelda says, but Mansfield assures her nobody cares what happens to a freak and is already planning on how to display the body. He says he’ll be there after he takes care of some business. As he hangs up a young buff guy dressed in a Viking helmet enters for some kinky gay sex.
As Esmerelda hangs up, a cop pulls up siren blaring and warns Jimmy of the curfew starting at 8 p.m. and he’ll arrest them after. Jimmy is defiant and says its 10 til. Esmerelda tries to make up a story about her sick grandmother, but Jimmy pushes the issue.
“Why we gettin’ rousted? Because of Meep? Or what you cops did to him?” Jimmy asks, getting in the cop’s face.
The cop says “my watch is running fast” but Esmerelda defuses the situation and they leave.
Back in the hotel room the male prostitute, “Thor” is naked except for his helmet. Mansfield asks if he’s missing something and he Thor suggests a hammer, but Mansfield says “a sword” then insists Thor take off his pants. And that’s the creepiest Norse-mythology metaphor for a penis you’re going to run into on any show.
When he sees Mansfield’s penis Thor says “Holy Christ.” He does not seem pleased.
Jessie’s Mom and the other mom from the beginning are talking about how they can’t wait for Halloween to be over at a house. We see a shadow as Twisty walks by.
Jessie is sullenly playing with dolls on the bed in her room. The tea party is interrupted by her brother, who scared her in the clown outfit earlier.
Her brother is a dick, who says he might give her some candy if she promises to call him Master Mike and do all his chores for a week. Unfortunately for Master Mike, Twisty walks up behind him at just this time.
We hear Mike scream as the women run down the hall. When they get to the bedroom Jessie says “The clown took him” and points to an open window.
Bette and Dot are on stage at the freak show, rehearsing. Other freaks enter and tell them it’s a bad idea, that even a rehearsal might summon Mr. Mordrake. Dot calls Mordrake a myth and Elsa, who enters saying “I am the only myth around here,” backs them up.
Elsa wants the stage to rehearse some new material for the guy Esmerelda said would reinvigorate her career, but Dot refuses to yield the stage.
“We’re the headliners,” she says.
This starts a big fight, where Dot says they should discuss their salary but Elsa belittles them and calls them a “two-headed freak” squeaking out a crummy tune. I thought at this point a rap battle was going to break out.
She tells them to go back to their tent or she’ll take them into the swamp and leave them. Elsa angrily makes the freaks who were watching accompany her on instruments as she sings 2012’s “Gods and Monsters” by Lana Del Rey. Yes, it is a song that came out half a century after the show was set and Elsa seems to be auto-tuned, but this is part of the take-it-or-leave-it fantasy deal you make with this show.
As she sings “No one’s going to take my soul away” we see Mr. Mordrake, a foppish figure in a top hat, starts walking through the carnival grounds. He enters the tent and watches the performance. Green light and smoke pools around him, kind of like ground effects on a car. When she finishes and looks up he’s disappeared.
Ethel is her circus wagon. She’s startled by a ghostly face of a little person in the mirror. Then she sees what appears to be the ghost of a fat lady with a slashed throat in a party hat. Then the green light is seeping under her door.
She turns around and Mordrake is there. He apologizes for “his companion” and doffs his top hat to show his second face.
Edgar tells Ethel it doesn’t matter who summoned them, they are here and can’t leave until they have added to their freakish companions.
“You mean victims,” Ethel says.
Mordrake says he doesn’t want to hurt people, but he is the face’s slave. He makes an apologetic speech about choosing Ethel, in which he stops more than once to yell at and argue with his second face.
He says he must ask her some question and “If you lie, it will know.” He offers his hand and they both take a seat.
The face wants to hear the story of Ethel’s “fall.” This triggers a flashback to the height of Ethel’s fame, when her act was surrounding herself with pretty girls who hid her with ostrich fans and then revealing herself in a flapper dress and singing popular songs.
This was when she met Dell, who she says she thinks maybe did love her at first. Del becomes her manager and changes her act around to be more highbrow. It does not work out, we see Ethel being booed while trying to do Shakespeare.
Mordrake tells her the face, however, isn’t satisfied, and says it knows Ethel has a darker shame.
Ethel returns to the state’s pregnant and penniless. To make money Dell sets up a special performance of a “live freak birth.” He sells tickets as Ethel gives birth squatting next to a tree. When Dell sees Jimmy has claws, he passes him around to the crowd, offering to let people “hold the monster baby” for two bits.
Ethel cries remembering this pain.
“He’s never known anything but exploitation right from the start. I cursed my own child,” she says.
The face seems satisfied with this pain and Mordrake thanks her and offers a handkerchief for her tears. We see the ghosts of various other dead freaks surround Mordrake and Ethel says she’s ready to bet taken to Hell and she deserves it. But we hear the face whisper “Not the one” and they all disappear, leaving Ethel alone.
A clown approaches Twisty’s hostages in his bus ‘o fun in the woods. It’s not Twisty, though, it’s Dandy, who is wearing the creepy plastic clown mask and is no less scary. He’s singing a demonic trick or treat song. He offers the hostages candy as a “treat,” but then says “trick” and starts stabbing into the cage with the knife he stole. He doesn’t hit anyone.
“Too short,” he says. He attaches the knife to a pole and gets ready to poke, but Twisty shows up at this point with the boy he kidnapped. Dandy rushes outside to greet him and takes off his plastic mask.
“More fun,” Dandy says.
We close on Twisty’s face, he might be a little offended, it’s hard to tell. End of episode.
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