AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW Review: 1.03 “Edward Mordrake: Part 1”

Kathy Bates finally gets the episode she deserves on AMERICAN HORROR STORY. 

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I'd surround myself with the prettiest girls I could find, and then I'd dare the audience to look at anything but me.

And they loved me.

I have to say that, in general, I do not agree with American Horror Story's new eighty-minute policy for episodes. For a series that always seems to run out of story by the end of the season, do we really need an added twenty minutes each week? But I'll say this for "Edward Mordrake: Part 1": it never felt like it dragged, and instead offered the strongest episode yet of the season. I think this is due, in large part, to the hefty arc given to Kathy Bates, who used her added screentime to great advantage. Thus far, Ethel Darling is my favorite character, and the amount of attention spent on her present woes, placed in context with her past tragedies, felt like the more narratively successful American Horror Story strategy of old. "He's never known anything but exploitation right from the start," she says of poor Jimmy, and it's a poignant story that affected me more than I might have expected. 

I really enjoyed the scene between Ethel and Dell by the river this week, and it's certainly nice to see the softer side of Dell after his hateful bullying and cartoon villainy of last week, but his sudden remorse in regards to Jimmy feels like one of the greatest character inconsistencies of the series, and that's saying something on a show like American Horror Story. That said, I much prefer this Dell: prone to attacks of violence, still, but masking deep sensitivity and a certain humaneness within. I'm still ready for Angela Bassett to get her meaty episode like Kathy Bates' of last night, but she had one hell of a scene with Dell in their trailer: turns out he's impotent, of course, as so many muscle-bound, rage-filled, tough guys are, and when Desiree expresses her impatience with this ongoing problem and he manhandles her, she rises up like the queen she is and puts him in his fucking place: "Get your paws off of me, or you'll never see me again." Dell cowers and whimpers and Desiree just marches out of there without looking back. Yeah!

Freak Show may be the first season of American Horror Story in which I find Jessica Lange's character to be one of the least interesting of the ensemble, when so often she is my favorite. And it's not Lange's fault - her singing performances are still the most mysterious, hypnotic kind of weird - but Elsa is so far written with less depth and intrigue than Constance, Sister Jude or Fiona were. But with the introduction of Emma Roberts' lovely Maggie Esmeralda (working for Stanley, possibly the first character Denis O'Hare has ever played on this show that hasn't been entirely thankless, and this time we discover that not only is he sly and charming, he's well-endowed! And he gets some Thor butt action!), we learn something very interesting about Elsa's past. Was she once conjoined with a more talented twin, and cut her way to freedom the way Dot wants to cut off poor, tuneless Bette? If this, or something similar, is the case, than Elsa's manipulating of last week makes more sense and feels less like conflict for conflict's sake.

Either way, I feel better about my difficulty keeping Bette and Dot apart, as they seem to weekly switch between which twin is the potential villain and which is the hero (or more likely damsel, as Jimmy's sure to be the hero). Dot's grown quite uppity since her "Criminal"-induced applause, and she isn't taking too kindly to the beautiful Esmeralda's appearance, especially since Esmeralda has captured Jimmy's eye. Poor Jimmy's been self-flagellating since Meep's death, and I hope Esmeralda offers him a nice distraction - even though she's there for nefarious reasons, looking for a specimen Stanley can sell to the American Morbidity Museum, I have a feeling she's going to find herself feeling more at home in the freak show than she anticipates. 

And finally, "Edward Mordrake: Part 1" offers the first half of our annual Halloween two-parter on American Horror Story, with a totally delightful Wes Bentley playing the long-suffering, two-faced aristocrat of the titleAHS' version of Mordrake now haunts freak shows that dare to perform on Halloween and takes a freak home to Hell with him at the end of the night, and for a moment we fear it's going to be the cirrhotic Ethel who shuffles off this mortal coil. Thankfully, no, as her tale must have stirred Mordrake's evil second face as much as it stirred me - and we'll find out who the victim is in next week's conclusion. 

Last thoughts: 

Nora, Gloria's maid played by Patti LaBelle, is AWESOME. She looks totally bitchin' in that Woody Woodpecker costume and, as much as I love Dandy ("Curfews are for the poor"), I loved watching Nora face off with him - and win - even more. She's fearless, and I like that about her.

Especially because when Dandy puts on that ancient clown costume, everyone else becomes fearful. It's nice to see that Dandy, who intimidates Twisty and his mother and every other person of his acquaintance, has finally met his match. 

And, as always, I love the brief trick 'r treat scenes on the Halloween episodes of American Horror Story. It's a little thing, but every scene feels creepier and more jubilantly autumnal with a good trick 'r treat tableau.