American Horror Story’s fourth season has been a bit lacking in scares (or we’re getting used to them by now) but it makes up for the deficit with episodes like ‘Orphans.’ So far, the writers have managed to do justice to the side characters by revealing their backstory, which appears to be the right thing to do when dealing with such a unique cast. This tenth instalment focuses on Pepper (Naomi Grossman) whose presence in Freak Show has already raised some interesting questions concerning the series’ format.
Avid followers of the series, surely remembered Pepper right away from the second season, Asylum. We waited to see how Ryan Murphy was going to explain her presence in Freak Show but the leaked news of Lily Rabe’s return to the series as Sister Mary Eunice (yet another key character in Asylum) seemed to provide the answer. It appears that Freak Show is set quite a while before the events of Asylum, depicting Pepper’s life as a freak before her time as a patient in the Briarcliff Mental Institution.
Although American Horror Story maintained its status as an anthology series for its first three seasons, Pepper’s presence is a bridge connecting the second and fourth one together. It is only fitting that such a connection was made; both Asylum and Freak Show deal with social outcasts, individuals who have been unjustly treated by the system and they address these ugly realities in the form of sympathetic characters like Pepper. ‘Orphans’ is homage to the misunderstood and helpless, while simultaneously complicating our relationship to the pseudo-matriarch and showrunner Elsa Mars.
The episode begins with the death of Salty, Pepper’s fellow microcephalic companion. Devastated by the event, she refuses to leave his bedside or to let the body be taken away. Enters Elsa, who knows ‘her’ freaks better than anyone else on earth. Her understanding of Pepper’s sorrow is indicative of the profound bond she shares with her protégés. Elsa rescued her from an orphanage, where her only sister had abandoned her. The flashbacks are particularly touching, despite Elsa’s known ambition to create her own freak show. There is a reason why Jessica Lange has been the prominent actress for four seasons now. She is able to deliver problematic characters so fluidly that it seems impossible to imagine American Horror Story without her. Some viewers might see Elsa as a recycled version of Fiona Goode, whose only redeeming quality was her love for her daughter and loyalty to the coven, but I think there is something to be said in favor of Mrs. Mars. In Pepper and Ma Petite, she recognizes two wholly innocent souls (whom she calls gifts) and it is for that very reason that she cannot harm them. This is where Elsa’s redemption lies.
(Of course, one might argue that Pepper and Ma Petite, in their very innocence, never represented a threat to Elsa’s ambitions. This would explain why she was so strongly attached to them, but I refuse to believe her to be so devoid of human sympathy. If anything, American Horror Story wants us to feel sympathy for even the evilest of its characters. See Twisty the clown.)
Pepper’s grief over Salty’s death becomes a nuisance that must be dealt with. By now, Elsa’s aspirations for a television career have inflated beyond control, causing her to seek out Pepper’s long lost sister. Rita (guest star Mare Winningham) appears to be a passive, dissatisfied housewife who stares at Pepper as though she is one of the mutilated freaks in the museum Stanley and Emma deal with. The parting scene between Elsa and Pepper is one of the series’ most poignant moments. Both Lange and Naomi Grossman had just the right amount of drama, and that lasting shot of Pepper sitting alone in the small living room really lingers in memory.
The end of the episode skips ten years forward and documents the nature of Pepper’s stay with her sister. Rita exploits her as a nurse to her newborn child and her husband is irritated by Pepper’s very presence in the house. The two, feeling no attachment whatsoever towards their son, concoct a plan to get rid of him and her sister. He murders the baby and frames the innocent Pepper for the crime. That is where a pre-demonic possession Sister Mary Eunice comes in, bringing with her the fumes of Asylum as the episode ends in Briarcliff Institution. The last scene has Pepper stumbling upon a magazine cover featuring Elsa in the asylum’s library, touching the picture with a smile.
So it is safe to assume that Elsa does make it as a television star in the end. The question remains: at what cost?
The episode’s parallel story also revolves around another orphan. Maggie reveals her past as a pickpocket to Desiree and also confesses that she and Stanley are con artists. She brings her to the museum where Ma Petite and Salty’s head are stored, only to find out that Jimmy’s lobster hands are also on display. Whether or not Jimmy has sacrificed his hands to be taken out of jail remains yet to be seen when American Horror Story returns on January 7th 2015. With only three episodes remaining (and an eventual appearance from Jamie Brewer and Neil Patrick Harris), it will be interesting to see how Ryan Murphy is going to wrap this season up. Fan favorite psychopath Dandy Mott is still on the loose; Stanley still desires to kill and sell Bette and Dot; Murphy has also hinted at a possible return of Edward Mordrake and Twisty the clown. The remaining freaks have a lot of threats facing them and personally, I hope that Elsa’s blind ambition is not the biggest one.
featured image from insidetv