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When it was announced that American Horror Story: Freak Show would feature Pepper, a beloved character from a previous American Horror Story season, most of us were intrigued and excited about the idea. Even though we had been told that each season was set in its own contained universe, this tie in would serve as a fun “Easter egg” for fans of the show. Since Pepper was such a fan favorite character in Asylum, we could easily let go any narrative weirdness and accept the fact that this would take before her time in the asylum and who cares if Elsa Mars looks freakishly like Sister Jude?
This would be an opportunity for the writers to explore the character and give us more Pepper time. When it was later announced that that Lily Rabe’s character, Sister Mary Eunice, would be making a cameo appearance in an episode that would show how Pepper ended up in the asylum, we welcomed the idea with open arms. It was a fun way to connect the seasons and give the series an opportunity to build a mythology that goes further than the self-contained narratives of each season. Viewers who were new to American Horror Story could just watch and follow Freak Show’s narrative as if it were any other show (without really needing to watch the previous seasons), and long-time fans of the series would be rewarded for their loyalty and enjoy their little nod from the writers. Everybody wins.
This all sounds pretty great and potentially entertaining, however, the execution of it doesn’t entirely work. Primarily because this entire subplot is and feels completely reverse engineered. This was a cool idea Ryan Murphy and company came up with one day. Freak Show takes place before Asylum occurred and Pepper is a pinhead, so the writers thought: “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” But they didn’t go much further than that initial idea. Instead of integrating Pepper and her story into the main narrative of the show or make her a somewhat central character, they made no effort to do so. Throughout the season Pepper was at best a tertiary character, once in a while popping in for a line or two, (one time she really wanted some meatloaf, remember that?) but never really getting any time to shine, unlike other secondary characters like Paul and Amazon Eve, even Ma Petite, who were given larger roles to play on the show. That is, until this episode which suddenly transformed into the Pepper show making her journey the bookends in what became one of the most depressing hours of American Horror Story. Also making this whole endeavor a shamelessly transparent and desperate attempt at fan service.
The writers basically exploited the audience’s already established affection towards the character to do most of the heavy lifting. Otherwise, why should we really care to learn her tragic past and what happens to her after she leaves? And sure, Pepper’s story is an affecting one; Naomi Grossman does a wonderful job emoting under all those layers of prosthetics and makeup, her performance definitely sells the emotion. And the various flashbacks are beautifully shot adding stunning stylistic intrigue into the episode. Mare Winningham does a great job as Pepper’s sister and it is engaging to learn about Pepper’s time with her and how exactly she got framed for the baby’s death. And I will admit it was pretty thrilling to see Lily Rabe back in Mary Eunice mode. She was another fan favorite and despite the mechanical way she was brought back, it was still fun to watch. But even those brief moments of interest or emotional resonance don’t make up for the shoehorned story. It is not gripping enough or horrific enough to justify its place in the series.
In addition to the Pepper story, we get even more flashbacks showing Maggie’s first meeting with Stanley and how she came to be his partner and a present day Maggie wallowing in her misery following Jimmy’s arrest. The narrative development in this hour is minimal, though Maggie takes steps to put a rest to Stanley’s criminal ways by confiding in Desiree, it is all set up for what might happen in future episodes. “Orphans” is undoubtedly a filler episode, one that halts the narrative progression to tell a specific character’s story (which doesn’t have much impact on the rest of the characters or the central conflict of the show) and introduces clear objectives for other characters to pursue in future episodes.
What did you think?