There have been hints that American Horror Story seasons, despite re-using actors, take place in the same universe. Pinhead Pepper has been the biggest so far, the first character to appear in two seasons, Asylum and Freak show. This episode fills in that connection, explicitly linking the two seasons and revealing the history of one of the series’ most popular and unusual characters.
As the episode begins we learn that Pepper’s fellow pinhead, Salty, has died. Pepper is inconsolable, she won’t leave the bed the bed Elsa has set up for Salty in her tent, even though Salty is beginning to decompose and smell. Elsa shows Pepper genuine kindness and seems to share her grief.
For once there was a freak death at the circus that had nothing to do with Stanley, the grifter who is using Elsa to kill the freaks and sell their bodies to the American Morbidity Museum. That doesn’t mean he won’t be happy to take the body off her hands, though, and he offers to have Salty “cremated” as a ruse.
Elsa won’t go for it, she actually gets so annoyed with Stanley she almost sends him packing. But Stanley uses his false cover as a talent agent to prey on Elsa’s vanity and convince her to do it his way.
The exact enticement he uses isn’t revealed, but the next thing we see is Stanley in his barn near the freak show chopping Salty’s head off with a hatchet. He seems to enjoy the work. The head is covered in formaldehyde and becomes the latest exhibit at the American Morbidity Museum, right along Stanley’s previous victim, precious little Ma Petite.
Desiree tries to console Pepper by reading The Velveteen Rabbit” to her in Pepper’s tent. Dell briefly enter, his voice hoarse from his suicide attempt last episode, and tries to apologize for the bad things he’s done and get Desiree to take him back. But she tells him he would never truly be happy with her, not quite saying it’s because Dell is gay, and kicks him out because he’s upsetting Pepper.
Pepper reacts badly when Desiree tries to leave to get ready for the night’s show. She uses one of her few words, “stay,” and when that doesn’t work trashes her own tent, tossing stuffed toys and trinkets everywhere. Desiree just sternly tells her to pick it up and goes.
Desiree shares what happened later with Elsa. That leads Elsa into an extended flashback story that recounts the history of the freak show.
Elsa came to the U.S. shortly before World War II. Her English wasn’t so good, she says, so she ended up a chorus girl in a circus. We can see that even then Elsa was a ruthless schemer, as she sneakily pushes a rival into the dirt when preparing for a show.
Elsa wanted to be her own boss. She also knew that World War II was coming and that there wouldn’t be a lot of entertainment options for the people left behind. She gets an inspiration from watching the boss of her circus reject a sword swallowing act.
Elsa begins traveling the country with her white bag with a devil embroidered on it, collecting freaks just as we’ve seen her do several times this season. Her first find is Pepper, who although she is an adult is alone and unloved in an orphanage. She was abandoned by her only family, a sister. The orphanage is so glad to get rid of Pepper they just let Elsa take her.
It’s pretty much love at first sight, although a case could be made that the reason magnificent egotist Elsa loves Pepper is that Pepper stares at her with adoration and “unconditional love.”
Pepper is Elsa’s first act and she gathers more. But Elsa notices Pepper’s loneliness, she says Pepper has maternal instincts that weren’t being satisfied. Those are met when foreign royalty comes to visit the show, a king keeping Ma Petite as a “pet” and leading her about on a chain.
The king doesn’t want to part with Ma Petite, but Elsa eventually convinces him to trade her for three cases of Dr. Pepper. The first thing she does is remove Ma Petite’s chain and show her to Pepper, who is overjoyed.
Although Pepper now has a “child” to take care of, she doesn’t have a “husband.” Elsa contacts orphanages and boy’s homes across the country until she finds Salty, who is like Pepper but even more drastically mentally impaired.
Elsa holds a “wedding” for the pair, which we see in a flashback as if we are watching film from the event.
Thanks to Stanley, Pepper has lost her child and her husband, and she will soon lose Elsa as Elsa goes off to Hollywood. Desiree says that if they leave her alone she’ll probably end up jumping from the Ferris wheel, so they resolve to find the sister.
Maggie is getting drunk in her tent, looking at trading card featuring a picture of Jimmy the Lobster Boy, who is now in prison awaiting trial for Dandy’s mass murder spree last episode.
Desiree enters with her new beau, Angus, who says he went from being a “confirmed bachelor” to being in love with Desiree after seeing her dance. We see a quick scene of Desiree dancing, topless except for pasties on her three breasts. Some impressive prosthetics there, kudos to special effects guys.
The lovebirds want a reading and Maggie does her fake psychic thing with her crystal ball, which is really just a grifter’s cold-reading. She can tell the guy is a salesman by looking at his scuffed shoes. She can tell he’s a romantic by the silk rose he gave Desiree.
It’s going great until Maggie starts freaking out, overcome with her anger about Jimmy, and tells the pair they have no future together and one day Desiree will end up cooking tar on the stove and ripping open a pillow, a reference to what Maggie saw Desiree almost do to Penny the Lizard Girl’s dad in an earlier episode. The lovers get mad and storm out.
We next see Maggie drinking on the freak show’s scary, poorly repaired Ferris Wheel. Desiree talks to her about what happened during the reading and how she’s upset about Jimmy. It eventually comes around to Maggie giving a partial confession about herself and Stanley. She admits that she and Stanley are grifters, but instead of saying they’re there to murder freaks and steal their bodies she says they just pick the pockets of the crowd.
Maggie’s confession includes a flashback to how she met Stanley. A young Maggie is pretending to be a boy selling papers, but is actually picking pockets. She tries to steal a lady’s fur and gets caught by a cop, but Stanley sees and convinces the cop she’s actually an actor studying for a role in the play Oliver. Stanley cuts Maggie in on his grifts, gives her 10 percent, and never touches her, so Maggie has been happy with the arrangement until murder became the con. She says she never really had any parents.
Desiree is not stupid. She knows there’s more to it than theft, and says if she finds out Maggie had anything to do with the deaths of her kind “I will kill you dead.”
Maggie goes back to her tent to drink, where Dot and Bette are waiting. They have all of their savings in an envelope and they tell Maggie to use it to get Jimmy a lawyer. Maggie tries to blow them off, but both twins are insistent in their own way.
Bette is sweet and reasonable, pointing out that she and Dot scare people and Maggie could better go to bat for Jimmy and that Jimmy could end up like Meep, the geek who was tortured to death by inmates in the same jail after also being falsely accused of a murder.
Dot is threatening to the point of near physical violence. Still hurt by Jimmy’s rejection of them, she says she can see that Maggie is a phony and doesn’t love Jimmy, because she isn’t putting him first.
Dot tosses the money at Maggie and leaves, saying “You do right by Jimmy.”
Unfortunately, someone else gets to Jimmy first.
Stanley visits Jimmy in prison. First he bonds with Jimmy by telling him he was an orphan and got into trouble. Tears come to his eyes, who knows if they are genuine or if the story is true?
He asks Jimmy if he really murdered all of those ladies at the Tupperware party. Jimmy says doesn’t think he could have, but he was too blackout drunk to be sure.
Stanley spins Jimmy a big tale about how he can get him a lawyer. At first he seems to be offering him famed Scopes Monkey Trial attorney Clarence Darrow, but when Jimmy is too smart and points out Darrow is dead, Stanley says he meant they’ll hire Darrow’s son Donald. Fun fact, Donald Darrow never existed. Clarence Darrow’s one son was named Paul.
Jimmy says he has nothing of value to pay Darrow. Stanley makes a show of walking off but then comes back. He looks a Jimmy’s hands.
“I might have an idea about how to raise the funds,” Stanley says.
We cut to morning at the freak’s breakfast tent. Desiree, not much of a domestic, is practicing making a pot roast to please her man Angus. Maggie comes to her and they have a testy conversation until Maggie tells Desiree she wants to do the right thing.
They go to a tent to talk in private. Maggie says she wants to help Jimmy and the rest of the freaks, but she needs to show Desiree something first.
“I just have to connect the dots. Place blame where it’s due. Put the real villain away forever,” Maggie says.
Elsa takes Pepper to see her sister in Sudbury, Massachusetts. The woman is oddly unemotional and strange. She says she gave Pepper up because she couldn’t see how she could have a husband and babies while taking care of her, but then found out she couldn’t conceive anyway. It takes a lot cajoling, but Elsa convinces the woman Pepper can be a help around the house and she unenthusiastically takes her in.
Before Elsa leaves she has a tearful parting with Pepper. She kissed Pepper’s hand and tells her it’s a kiss she can keep and put on her cheek whenever she wants. Pepper does this after she leaves and smiles.
Maggie takes Desiree to see the American Morbidity Museum. They get there just as the director is giving a tour. You can see Desiree’s heart break as she sees tiny little Ma Petite in her jar. They then see Salty’s head and, what’s that, a new exhibit? The museum director pulls the cloth off the bottle. Inside are Jimmy’s lobster claws. Maggie faints.
The rest of the episode could serve as an extended prequel to American Horror Story: Asylum. It starts in 1962, ten years after Elsa dropped Pepper off.
Pepper’s sister has had Pepper committed to the asylum. In her office, Sister Mary Eunice is interviewing the sister, filling out a report about Pepper.
The sister says the couple’s problems with Pepper started when, at 50, the sister got pregnant and had a baby. The baby is born deformed. It’s never shown but it’s strongly hinted that it is also a pinhead, which makes sense from a genetic standpoint.
The woman allows Pepper to take care of her baby. She gives one version of events that casts Pepper in a terrible light, making Sister Mary Eunice more and more upset and angry.
But we see flashbacks that show that Pepper was actually an innocent victim, abused by her sister’s husband sexually and made to handle tasks she really couldn’t hack on her own. He biggest sin was spilling a martini she brought to her sister in bed.
The woman’s husband, a sinister figure, eventually comes up with a plan to get rid of Pepper and the baby. Pepper’s sister is on board, eager to be rid of her burdens.
When Pepper is bathing the baby the husband enters holding a knife. He pushes Pepper out of the room. She runs back inside and looks in the bloody bathwater. We see a shot of her face as she screams in anguish. Pepper is strapped in a straightjacket and taken to the asylum as the couple put on a show of grieving for the cops.
All of this is presented to Sister Mary Eunice as if Pepper is the worst kind of murdering pervert, so she’s initially very harsh when she visits Pepper and finds her banging her head in her cell. She starts yelling at Pepper about how she cut off the baby’s ears and killed it and Pepper repeats the word baby says the baby’s name “Lucas.”
Mary Eunice confuses Pepper’s tears of hopeless despair at being unable to communicate her innocence as remorse. She hugs Pepper and decides she will make her a special project.
Sister Mary Eunice takes Pepper to the Asylum’s messy library, where she sets her to the task of sorting magazines. Pepper has one pile for LIFE, one for National Geographic, and one for Reader’s Digest. She says if Pepper does well she might let her help in the bakery.
Sister Mary Eunice leaves and Pepper happily works on the magazines. As she’s sorting the LIFE’s she stops and looks at one of the covers. She stops and holds the hand Elsa kissed to her cheek, then kisses her own finger and touches the lips of the face on the cover of the magazine. It’s a glamorous portrait of Elsa, on an issue dated 1958. The cover copy says “TV’s Elsa Mars: She Still Owns Friday Night.” End of Episode.