American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: “Edward Mordrake, Part 1”
What weird facial hair will Wes Bentley have next?
What better way to kick of the annual two-part American Horror Story Halloween episode than with an allusion to Halloween? Everyone’s favorite homicidal clown makes his first appearance in this episode standing ominously next to a sidewalk, much as Michael Myers did in the 1978 horror classic.
Twisty is scoping out trick-or-treaters in West Palm Beach, and a girl with a fear of clowns is conveniently the only one who seems to notice him. It turns out he’s not the only clown who’s shown up to torment her on this night—her rather nasty big brother has decided to be a clown for Halloween only because he knows it’ll frighten her.
Back at a doctor’s office in Jupiter, Ethel is dealing with a killer of a different sort: liver disease due to a lifetime of alcoholism. She has 6-12 months to live, and her response to the news is startlingly moving. Kathy Bates imbues her bearded lady character with heartbreaking pathos as she tells the doctor—who has been courteous and conscientious, if not particularly warm at first—that she is crying not because she’s going to die, but because he’s the first doctor who has ever treated her with respect.
Then, under the big top, we’re witnesses to yet another raucous party which is, yet again, in the wake of an event one would think the performers would be more solemn about—the heinous prison murder of Meep the Geek from episode 2. Again, it falls upon Jimmy to be the voice of righteousness, saying that he was digging a grave while everyone else carried on. Dot joins in, saying the freak show should pay their respects to Meep by dedicating their Halloween show to him. Cue the record scratch, because as the vets quickly explain to the twins, the freak show most definitely does not perform on Halloween.
Why not? Well, it’s a little weird. You see, in the 1800s, there was a British fellow named Edward Mordrake. Mordrake was born with a demonic second face on the back of his head that puts evil thoughts into his mind, much like Professor Quirrell in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Mordrake’s story is explained in a delightful black-and-white sequence with silent movie-style cinematography and an extremely campy horror soundtrack: He tried everything to rid himself of the second face, including drowning it, but when nothing worked, he ran away from his aristocratic lifestyle to work at a freak show. He was ill-suited to carny work and went so crazy from it that he murdered his entire troupe, no doubt with prodding from his evil companion. He finally was discovered to have hanged himself, his limp body slowly rotating to reveal the demonic second face smiling ecstatically.
What were we talking about again? Oh right—it seems the freak show does not perform on Halloween because there’s a belief that Mordrake’s spirit will haunt any performer that dares to on that night. Okay then. Now, I’ve always thought that circus performers, magicians, and anyone who peddles the illusion of the supernatural are usually the most skeptical people of its actual existence (think Houdini, Penn & Teller, etc.). I found it a little weird that this superstition would be as prevalent as it clearly is in the world of Freak Show.
I want to stop for a minute to point out something I think is an overlooked element of American Horror Story—its penchant for incorporating relatively little-known, but pre-existing, history and/or myths in its stories. For example, the Axeman plotline in Coven was atrociously executed, but it introduced a serial killer character so theatrical in his methods that I was shocked to learn he was a real person. Similarly, the basic Mordrake story of a man with an evil second face is virtually certain to be apocryphal or extremely embellished, but it is a real legend that predates AHS by more than a century.
Cut to Bette’s subconscious, where she is having a horrifying nightmare about being surgically separated from Dot. And by separated, I mean her head is about to be separated from their shared body, thus separating her soul from the realm of the living. Dot, who was revealed in episode 2 to have the singing voice of an angel (or at least Fiona Apple), has clearly inspired an inferiority complex in Bette.
Crying, Bette wakes Dot up, at which Dot drowsily laments, “I was having the most beautiful dream!” I laughed out loud at this—the irony of Dot, remarking on a completely unrelated good dream, coincidentally appearing to embody Bette’s worst fears in the moment, was hilarious. Surely, the show couldn’t be trying to say that they were really having the same dream, right? Right?
Um, no. It soon becomes clear that that’s actually exactly what was happening. Dot explains, with cold seriousness, that one of them dying so the other can live a more normal life is a completely agreeable idea to her. And thus, my favorite scene in the episode became my least favorite.
Not just because of the absurdity of suggesting that conjoined twins with (obviously) separate brains inhabit the same Unimatrix Zero-like dreamspace, but by establishing that Dot is not just a grouch but some kind of sociopath. The idea of having a steely disregard for someone you have spent every minute of your life with is just really sad to me.
Enter two new characters to the freak show grounds: Esmeralda (Emma Roberts), who claims to be a fortune teller; and Stanley (Denis O’Hare), her partner-in-crime. The two are con artists; they are originally seen trying to sell a baby sasquatch (really a goat fetus) to the “American Morbidity Museum,” which really should be a real thing. Esmeralda performs a cold reading on Elsa with a crystal ball and an accurate gambit that all Elsa wants to be told is that she can still be a star, and with that, Elsa accepts Esmeralda into the troupe immediately.
Meanwhile, Ethel is disregarding her doctor’s order to never touch alcohol again by getting wasted in a field as Dell approaches. What follows is a depressing scene in which Dell insists he never loved Ethel, while Ethel dreamed of someday living in the suburbs with him. Despite having no compassion for the mother of his son, Dell does seem strangely wistful about Jimmy himself. He says, about the son whom he did not participate in raising whatsoever, “I could have been a better dad.” You don’t say?
At Mott Manor, Dandy has created his own clown costume for Halloween. He’s no Twisty, but he’s still pretty creepy. He threatens to kill his family’s housekeeper, Dora; she dares him to do so because she knows he won’t. Unlike Dandy’s subservient mother Gloria, Dora clearly takes none of Dandy’s crap. Dandy screams “I hate you!” over and over to her, for no clear reason. Her response: “Believe me boy, I hate you too.” I sure hope Dora—who is played by Patti LaBelle—develops into a bigger character. She seems like the foil Dandy desperately needs.
Elsa will believe a con artist’s fake prediction of her future, but she dismisses the Mordrake superstition as ridiculous bunk. So, she proceeds to mount her own elaborate performance despite the lack of an audience for the episode’s now-routine musical number. On this week’s edition of American Horror StorGlee: Lana Del Rey’s “Gods and Monsters,” with all the original’s f-bombs tastefully eliminated.
All kidding aside, I thought this was by far the best of the anachronistic musical sequences thus far, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s so good that Edward Mordrake shows up for it. The top-hatted ghost appears by strolling into the freak show enveloped by green-tinted fog—we’re in full-blown horror camp mode now.
The first stop on Mordrake’s haunting tour is Ethel’s trailer. He explains that his purpose in visiting freak shows is to find a “true freak” whom he can add to his traveling cast of ghosts. So she tells him her story: She was huge in vaudeville, a flop in Europe when she tried to recite Shakespeare in an ill-advised attempt to be more cultured, and exploited by Dell who was her manager at one point.
Mordrake’s demon face knows she hides “a deeper pain, a darker shame,” which turns out to be the fact that Dell sold tickets for people to watch her give a “live freak birth,” which makes no sense at all. Why would people want to see this? How would they have known that Jimmy would be born with a “freakish” condition himself? Apparently Mordrake’s evil side isn’t really buying it either, as it declares she is “not the one” to join his deathly troupe.
Finally, we come all the way back to the brother and sister from the beginning of the episode. Twisty invaded their house and kidnapped the mean brother, and as he did so, he exhorted the sister to be quiet in a weirdly friendly way; clearly, he believed he was doing her a favor. He brings his latest victim back to his schoolbus prison in the swamp, where he, once again, runs into Dandy, who declares this to be “more fun!”
I personally did find this episode to be more fun than the last (if very flawed at times); we’ll see if AHS keeps it going in the second part of “Edward Mordrake” next week.
- The American Morbidity Museum’s collection includes the liver of Chang and Eng—real-life Thai conjoined twins who were the origin of the condition being called “Siamese.”
- To support the Mordrake legend as real, Ethel mentions being “with Barnum in ’32,” which I have to believe is a subtle reference to Tod Browning’s film Freaks, which was released in 1932.
- The solemnity with which Meep was eulogized was pretty comical given what was mentioned. “He was a simple man who liked nothing better than giving kids severed chicken heads instead of a candy on Halloween.”
- Elsa’s obsession with Marlene Dietrich is getting pretty weird. I’m hoping her relationship to Dietrich becomes a real plot point instead of just namedropping.
- Denis O’Hare’s Stanley, with the line of the night, as delivered to a male prostitute: “Take…off…my…PANTS.”
- Esmeralda “predicts” that a man will soon come into Elsa’s life who changes everything. Despite Esmeralda being a complete charlatan, her vision seems to come true with the arrival of Mordrake. It’s hard for me to put my finger on exactly why, but I really enjoyed that chaotic interplay between reality and fiction.
Dan Wohl used to blog about baseball for a living, now works for a tech company, and hosted a horror-themed radio show called “The Graveyard Smash” during college. He lives with his girlfriend in Burlingame, California, a town which utilizes the American Horror Story font for signage at its public library. You can find him on Twitter at @Dan_Wohl.
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