American Horror Story: Freak Show – Edward Mordrake Part 1 Review
American Horror Story: Freak Show
commences its traditional Halloween episode with “Edward Mordrake Part 1”, which certainly feels like the first half of a two-part episode, it sets up potential conflicts and leaves some storylines precipitously dangling to be continued in the following episode. While it does a lot of groundwork, especially introducing even more new characters and exploring Ethel’s backstory, and the multiple storylines feel disjointed at times, it somehow manages to be an engaging hour of television.
With Freak Show
, the writers have taken a decidedly more subdued approach to the narrative, even though there are about a million characters and story threads running through the show, it has all unfolded in an uncharacteristically measured way. Unlike past seasons where practically all
the horror elements and characters and insane plot threads were introduced in the very first episode (resulting in frenzied, overwhelmingly complicated and convoluted premieres and subsequent episodes) Freak Show
is parsing out the intricacies of the season in a fairly restrained and deliberate pace. This is indeed a welcome change, especially following the utter mess that was Coven
. Even though the show’s campy sensibilities and acceptance of all things zany and bizarre and over the top kept the witchy season relatively entertaining, there is no denying that the writing in Coven
dismissed any attempts at creating character-driven stories, making for an ultimately empty experience. Even in a season with effective character stories like Asylum
, the narrative has always felt unnecessarily crowded and drawn-out. With so many storylines working at the same time, some were bound to suffer and remained unexplored.
With this slow-burn pacing, the series is taking time to explore the characters and their inner struggles instead of hitting us over the head with a barrage of shallow, shock value moments over and over. Some viewers, used to the relentless pacing of previous seasons, might be disappointed with this change in pace, but it has given the season an added layer of dread and mood. The way the narrative creeps along imbues an intriguing atmosphere of anxiety that goes along with the setting and tension within the characters themselves. This is an undoubtedly more subdued episode, even within the context of this season, with fewer scares and outright frights that the previous two installments. With a focus on the characters and their turmoil, the approach to terror is from a more psychological angle. From Ethel’s depressing and troubling story, to Bette and Dot’s conflict, to Dandy’s disturbed psyche, etc. most of the horror in “Edward Mordrake Part 1” is derived from very human fears.
However there is a major turning point for the season as a whole with the introduction of the first supernatural occurrence in the form of Edward Mordrake. It seems he is not just a myth and has made his way to the freak show ready to claim a soul for his collection. The addition of this supernatural element to the reasonably realistic universe of Freak Show
doesn’t come across as out of place or forced. It is a fun addition that fits in to the circus milieu and it wasn’t just a crazy complication used to heighten the takes or add more horror for no good reason. Mordrake’s presence does add another threatening force to the freak show and its members, but it also facilitates the telling of Ethel’s story, which is the central narrative of the episode.
Though she has been a fixture on the show since the premiere, she hadn’t been given much to do until now. Kathy Bates’ heartbreaking portrayal makes the wait worthwhile. Immediately, Ethel emerges as a deeply sympathetic character, one whose story we can invest in. The show also improves in showing the plight of the “freak”, as opposed to last week’s heavy-handed approach to showcasing the injustices the troupe members face. Ethel’s sad story communicated the struggles a person of her condition faces in an effective and direct way, without needing to underline its point or reiterate it incessantly. It is through Ethel’s story that we learn more about Dell, who continues to be just the worst and is shaping up to be an interesting and complicated character.
Mordrake was not the only new addition to the world of Freak Show
, the episode also introduces us to two scheming con artists hoping to cash in on the freak show’s many oddities. Dennis O’Hare and Emma Roberts make a fun pair and though we don’t get a lot of them in the episode, the potential conflict has promise. Despite of all the story threads at work in this episode and in the season as a whole, they are all coming together and are connected to one another. Esmeralda comes into the circus and gives Elsa a bogus reading, which leads to her reinvigorated self and drives her to rehearse which, in turn summons Mordrake’s soul leading to his encounter with Ethel, etc. There is a clear cause and effect thread going on that implies that the writers are paying attention to how the characters are connected to one another and that there might be a greater plan at work.
“Edward Mordrake Part 1” is an affecting hour of American Horror Story
, with an emphasis on character stories and development, it doesn’t have as much frights as previous episodes but it provides an involved narrative that is becoming more complex and engaging as it goes. What did you think?
- The Dandy and Twisty story is the only one that is almost entirely separate from all the happenings in the freak show, but it works as an isolated narrative for now. The first episode established Twisty’s interest in the freak show in a pointed way so we know the two story threads are likely to converge. There is no need to rush to that point yet. Twisty amongst all the trick-or-treaters was a lot of fun and incredibly creepy and I enjoyed how they went against convention and had him abduct the douche-y brother instead of the innocent little girl.
- It was also interesting to see that Dandy was incapable of harming Dora. The ending of the episode left us with a little bit of a cliffhanger. Will Twisty be angry that Dandy’s all up in his bidness? Or will he be glad to have an apprentice?
- “Curfews are for the poor people.” Ha!
- Following Ethel in the most sympathetic character list has to be poor Bette. The twins’ shared dream/nightmare was absolutely tragic and was a fun way to let us in to their shared psyche. The writers are having fun with Dot’s new sense of self, pitting her against Elsa in a fantastic tete a tete, and then showing her throwing some serious shade at Miss Esmeralda. “I’m sure that’s not the only thing you give away for free.” Burn! Sarah Paulson is amazing.
- Elsa was surprisingly susceptible to Esmeralda’s lame reading. I think we all thought she would e a more savvy, shrewd woman, but instead is entirely overcome by her dream for stardom. It is a more vulnerable position/character for Jessica Lange, who has always been a kind of queen bee, imposing figure. Can’t wait to see what is next.
- “I am the only myth around here.”
- Jessica Lange sings yet another song, this time Lana del Rey’s “Gods & Monsters”, a fitting tune for Elsa Mars performed wonderfully by Lange. I know some people are completely against the musical numbers, but I will always enjoy any time Lange is given the opportunity to unabashedly chew the scenery, and more importantly, they have all been narratively appropriate. They are not just place holders, or spectacles for spectacle’s sake, but have worked to serve the story. The initial Mars performance introduced us to her act and the style of the freak show and informed a lot about the character; Bette and Dot’s performance was crucial for Dot’s character development and incites the sisters’ struggles with each other, and this latest Mars rehearsal is what summons the ghost of Mordrake. They have all attributed to story progression in a significant way.