American Horror Story: Freak Show Season 4 Review “Edward Mordrake, Part 1”

American Horror Story Season 4 Episode 3 Edward Mordrake Part 1 (2)

On the first part of the by-now traditional “American Horror Story” Halloween episode, “Freak Show” told the eerie tale of one “Edward Mordrake,” a man with literally two faces, including one in the back of his head that whispered sinister things to him. Apparently, the man was of noble birth, a poet, scholar and musician that would have been a great success but for his obvious problem, which eventually drove him insane and landed him at the Bedlam asylum, which he later on escaped from and joined a carnival, where he found refuge in a place with people similarly afflicted.

Alas, even this wasn’t enough, and on Halloween, Edward hung himself, but not before killing every freak in the carnival. Because of this, no freaks would perform on Halloween, lest Edward appear to spirit them off. Needless to say, Edward did indeed make an appearance here, though as of yet, no one has been chosen to join his own assemblage of freaks, though Ethel, who related Mordrake’s tale early in the show, was questioned by him about her past, in an attempt by Edward to determine whether she was a “true” freak.

I guess she passed the audition because Edward ultimately left her alone, albeit understandably, as her tale was more sad than evil. It seems that Ethel was once a big celebrity on the vaudeville circuit, surrounding herself with lovely ladies and putting on a show that wouldn’t soon be forgotten by those who saw it, given her obvious attributes.

Alas, she ran afoul of a young Dell, who took Ethel under his wing and took her to Paris to class up her act with recitals of Shakespeare and the like. It failed miserably and it was back to the States for the both of them, where Ethel got pregnant and had to resort to promoting her birth as a freak show unto itself. It had always haunted Ethel, using her child as a source of exploitation literally since the day he was born, but I guess it was enough to satisfy Mordrake, because he let her live. I guess we’ll have to wait until Part Two next week to see who he finally chooses. I’d nominate Dell, but it seems unlikely they’d kill Michael Chiklis this early on, so it probably won’t be him. (Ditto Elsa.)

Meanwhile, we were introduced to Stanley (Denis O’Hare, “True Blood”) and Maggie (Emma Roberts, “Scream 4”), two con artists who were approached by a Mrs. Jennings, who told them she would pay good money for authentic freak-related stuff for her “American Morbidity Museum.” Jennings pointed them in the direction of Florida, and off they went, with Maggie going in first, posing as a fortune teller by the name of Esmerelda.

By using a style reminiscent of the one adopted by the main character on “Psych,” she was able to impress Elsa enough to hire her on the spot, mainly by telling her what she wanted to hear, i.e. that she’d be a big star someday. She also told her that a mysterious man would help her, which one assumes will be Stanley, though Elsa mistook Mordrake for the man in question, who arrived as she belted out the cover of the week, Lana Del Rey’s “Gods & Monsters.”

On the Dandy front, as his mother tried fruitlessly to make Halloween perfect for her son and failed miserably, Dandy took matters into his own hands, opting to make a clown costume of his own and attempt to terrorize the maid, Dora, who was dressed like Woody Woodpecker, his favorite cartoon character. (A game Patti LaBelle even did the laugh!) She let him know in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t afraid of him and knew full well what he’d been up to with all those dead animals out back, threatening to call the police and accuse him of the local murders, even though she thought he wasn’t capable of them, being too much of a wuss to do anything of the sort. She dared him to kill her, but Dandy didn’t take the bait- yet. He did, however, pay a visit to Twisty’s prison bus to taunt the captives with the promise of candy. (Yep, I know his name now- my mistake for the whole “Clowny” thing!)

Twisty himself was off terrorizing trick-or-treaters, in particular a young girl named Jenny, who was afraid of clowns, despite the fact that her mother found them “delightful” and her older brother Mike was dressed as one for Halloween. A sighting of Twisty didn’t exactly help matters on this front. Later on, Twisty paid the girl a visit, but rather than messing with her, he took off with her brother, whom he caught tormenting his little sister over candy. He brought Mike back to the bus to add to his collection, and that was that.

This was a fun, if not particularly scary episode, with some nifty nods to various sources, notably a series of homages to the classic John Carpenter film “Halloween,” including an ad-hoc recreation of the film’s famous opening scene and Michael’s signature head-cocking. I also enjoyed the cool black & white retelling of Mordrake’s tale and his icky back head. The green smoke that heralded his and his so-called coterie’s arrival reminded me of a similar gambit from the classic Disney dark fantasy “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” which scared the crap out of me as a kid. This didn’t, but I appreciated the frame of references, at least.

Other highlights: the freaky stuff on display at the Morbidity Museum, including a Chang and Eng reference; the fact that Stanley tried to pass off a fetal goat with a cat jaw sewn onto it (!) as a baby sasquatch (!!); Meep’s burial under a rain of chicken heads and poured out booze, complete with a heartwarming tale of how he used to slip the heads into kids’ trick-or-treat bags as a prank; the fact that Mordrake’s back head smiled when he finally killed himself- now that was creepy; Dot’s “happy” dream and the nightmare it held for Bette; Ma Petite popping out of a jack-o-lantern; the oddball scene with Stanley and the gay Viking (settle down, Ryan Murphy, we get it- you’re gay!); clown-loving Jane declaring “Dragnet” the downfall of television; and the horrific “freak birth” scene, which was more poignant than scary.

As ever, this was all more entertaining than frightening, but it was something to see, that’s for sure. I still don’t know if I like this season more than “Coven” last season, so far, but it’s got promise, I suppose. I don’t dislike the carnival gambit, and some of the characters are fascinating, especially Mordrake and Bette and Dot. I think the underrated Evan Peters (aka Jimmy) is shining more than he got to on “Coven” by far, and it will be interesting to see what happens with Maggie and Stanley, who I suspect won’t have much of a happy ending. The Twisty plotline is by far my favorite, though, and I’m definitely curious to see his origin story.

The direction remains stylish and intriguing to look at, and the music is as unnerving as ever- far creepier than the show itself. I love the little cinematography flourishes- i.e. the Mordrake flashbacks; the “Halloween”-style POV through the mask bit; the weird, off-putting angles, et al. I’m getting a bit dubious of all the musical numbers, though. I love Lana Del Rey, but hearing talk of Jim Morrison in a show set in the 50’s just takes me right out of the show, as did the Fiona Apple thing last week, and I love her, too. I get that Murphy’s taking liberties in a “Moulin Rouge” sort of way, but that didn’t work for me either, so there you go. I just think that stuff should stay on Murphy’s “Glee” where it belongs. This is supposed to be a “Freak Show,” not a “Gleek Show,” am I right?

Still, “American Horror Story” remains a superbly acted, nutty trip through darkness that is easily one of the best shows on TV, even at its worst. I will say that I like this season better than the second one overall, but a lot rides on how the story unfolds over the course of the season, so we’ll just have to wait and see if everything comes together well in the end. Regardless, I’d rather be watching this than half the crap I see on TV, so more power to Murphy for letting his freak flag fly. Here’s hoping it continues until time out of mind. (Oh, and can’t wait for the just-announced sister show “Scream Queens”!)

What did you think of “American Horror Story” this week? Are you down with the “Freak Show”? Or did you prefer previous seasons? Why or why not? What do you think of the musical numbers? More please, or make it stop? Who do you think Mordrake will choose to join his not-so-merry band of freaks? What do you think Twisty’s story is? Will he end up killing Dandy? Sound off below and see you next week for Part Two of the big Halloween episode!