AS ALWAYS, SPOILERS AHEAD
Traditionally, the Halloween episodes of American Horror Story have been chock-full of revelations. In Murder House, we learn about Kyle’s high school massacre; in Asylum, Jude sees an alien, and Sister Mary Eunice’s demonic nature manifests itself during Nor’easter movie night. I don’t know what happened in Coven because I choose to block it from my memory. No, actually, Delphine’s daughters and their zombie posse show up on the doorstep of Miss Robichaux’s Academy, and we find out why Spalding is mute. And this season, AHS uses the arrival of the mythical Edward Mordrake to disclose the details of several characters’ dark, sad histories.
These revelations are situated within two episodes focused on the concept of value. Celia Weston at the American Morbidity Museum (clearly meant as a stand-in for Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, which does, in fact, display the conjoined liver of Chang and Eng Bunker) offers top dollar for a legitimate freak specimen; Stanley (Denis O’Hare) states that the freaks were losers in life—as he tells Maggie (Emma Roberts), “No one cares what happens to a freak”—but are finally worth something in death. However, Dot is well aware that she and Bette are now the headliners of Elsa’s show and deserve a higher salary; even as Stanley anticipates the price the sisters’ corpse will fetch, Dot is upping the rates for their live performance. In Ethel’s flashback, we see Dell misunderstanding her worth; she is successful as a vaudeville performer but unappealing as a straight actress, performing Shakespeare as the “Bearded Bernhardt”; they are left penniless after their stint in Europe and forced to exploit Jimmy’s birth in order to survive (again, the monetary value of the freak is demonstrated). Jimmy himself is concerned with commerce; while he sells tickets in Twisty’s flashback, he encourages the crowd to ignore the balloon sculptures Twisty offers: “If you want a balloon, you will have to buy one inside.” Time and time again, characters make mistakes in their value judgments: Stanley can’t appreciate the worth of a freak’s life, Dot declares she and Bette are stars, but, as demonstrated in her dream/Bette’s nightmare, is willing to sacrifice her sister for her own vision of success (even though going from two heads to one would certainly dim her star); Dell trades in his family for a quick buck; and Jimmy ignores Twisty while shilling for the freak show (much as he spurns Dandy and with similarly violent consequences).
And then there is the question of the freaks’ value to Edward Mordrake (Wes Bentley), summoned by Elsa’s performance of “Gods and Monsters,” despite the troupe’s hesitation to even rehearse on Halloween for fear of drawing Mordrake to Jupiter; he (or his second face) evaluates a freak’s appropriateness to be “taken.” His is not a commercial assessment, but rather a moral one, as he is seeking a “pure” freak, “corrupted of flesh, befouled of soul” (more on this below). In seeking his “grail,” he insists on absolute truth, and in the process, allows us to learn more about certain characters as they confess their sins to this dark priest in a top hat.
ETHEL: In Part I, Ethel is diagnosed with cirrhosis and given six months to a year to live. Ethel’s scene with the doctor, the only one who has ever treated her with respect, is very moving, and as much as I dislike her Baltimore accent, I could listen to Kathy Bates repeat “shit” over and over again. Ethel’s response to her diagnosis is to speed along her death by immediately hitting the sauce; she asks Dell not reveal to Jimmy that he is his father, but, at the same time, to look out for him. When Mordrake arrives in her trailer, she is resigned to die. Now that she has been spared, will her outlook change?
SUZI: Not much to tell, except that she is abandoned at an orphanage, is later forced to beg, and then slashes a fellow hobo’s femoral artery because he dares dance in her face. Jealousy is Suzi’s darkest secret. (Actress Rose Siggins’ own biography is much more interesting.)
PAUL: Can we all agree that Mat Fraser killed it in this scene? Paul’s story was my favorite because it didn’t involve anything crazy, but it was still completely enthralling. Paul grows up in England a scrapper who can’t actually fight because of the length of his arms; he finds refuge in the cinema and moves to America, hoping it will make good on its promise of realizing dreams. When his lot in life remains unchanged, Paul has his body tattooed, giving people the monster they make him out to be. The source of his shame? That he couldn’t tattoo his face, knowing he is a “handsome lad.” For all the suffering his body has caused, his is nonetheless prey to the conventional standards of beauty by which he has been judged. That shame, plus the knowledge that his lot and life could have been completely different if not for his arms, is heart-rending. Mat Fraser’s despair is palpable, and this scene is both beautifully written and acted.
ELSA: I honestly wasn’t so excited about Elsa’s story. Dominatrix, soldier on a spiked toilet, blue movies, snuff film, chopped-off legs. I know it was meant to be shocking, but the story elicited no pity in me beyond, “That sure must have smarted” (the toilet seat, not the chainsaw). Of course, her fate is horrific. However, we know Elsa as a character myopically driven by her desire for fame, and that is her motivation twenty years earlier in Weimar Germany. Nothing has changed, and she feels no shame for her past; rather she feels self-pity for the death of her career with the removal of her legs. Unlike Ethel, who thinks she deserves to die for her sins, Elsa is begging for release from her dashed dreams. Perhaps this is why Mordrake originally plans to take her; there is nothing to redeem her. And yet still she is trumped when Mordrake hears music…
TWISTY: From the moment Twisty obeys Mordrake, sitting before him and hesitantly removing his mask, he is immediately divested of his power to terrify. Once he began “narrating” his story, I was shattered. A simple man inspired to perform as a clown by his love of children, some jealous dwarves convince him he is about to be arrested for pedophilia (again, we see freaks willing to victimize other outsiders). He flees to Jupiter, where his mother has died, and takes up residence in an abandoned bus; he can no longer be a clown, but he might be able to entertain children with his toys made from garbage; as he explains, he wants to turn trash into gold, “like Rumpelstiltskin.” Mr. Hanley wants none of Twisty’s wares in his toy store and again accuses him of being “bad,” prompting Twisty to trash his shop and attempt suicide. All he manages to do is mangle his face; as he relates, “I’m so dumb, I can’t even kill myself.” Watching him sketch out his smiling half-mask with his own blood, seeping through the gauze covering his mouth, made me squirm more than the German guy on the toilet seat. And then, the final blow: he once again feels slighted by freaks (this time those in Elsa’s show), which leads to the events that have unfolded since the beginning of the season.
I’m not sure what to think of Mordrake choosing Twisty; it’s not as if his criteria is spelled out explicitly, but it seems he picks Twisty because he is incapable of acknowledging the blackness of his heart, which in turn reflects the corruption of his soul. Obviously, Twisty does horrible things, but given his compromised mental capacity, is his heart actually black? He seems to know the difference between right and wrong, as he states he never did anything “bad” to the children. The suggestion is deeply offensive, and time and time again he insists he is a “good person,” and ultimately a “good clown.” Yet, after countless rejections, his idea of what is “good” is warped to include violent behavior. His motives are pure—he loves the children, wants to save them from their “mean” parents and entertain them with a “funny show”—but the execution of these desires ends in murder and kidnapping. He ultimately doesn’t think he is doing anything wrong. How can he acknowledge his “black heart” if he sincerely believes his is full of love? Or does his intent even matter when his actions are reprehensible? Maybe his really is a true corruption of the soul: an innocent, he falls from grace and is absolutely convinced that he is doing the right thing while doing the absolutely wrong thing—and that’s what is most “twisted” about Twisty.
There is kind of a cosmic satisfaction in his final acceptance by a band of freaks when freaks precipitated his downward spiral in the first place. As heinous as his actions had been, I was pleased that he finally had a family—not one he has forced into a cage, but one that offers him their hands in camaraderie. When Mordrake first arrived, I assumed that his judgment was a punishment; he himself had murdered his original crew of freaks, and they seem doomed to hang with him for eternity (and in hell). Here, though, they seem to provide Twisty some sort of release or salvation, one for which Elsa herself begged. Mordrake’s second face is apparently diabolical, yet it weeps at Twisty’s story: out of pity, or joy at the depths of his corruption? Whether Mordrake is meting out punishment or presenting Twisty with a sort of freedom, one thing is clear: he is more perceptive about all the characters with whom he interacts than they are about each other; by piercing their hidden truths, he is aware of their true worth in his coterie of freaks.
[One quibble: I find it odd that someone both “vile of flesh” and “befouled of soul” would be deemed a “pure freak,” as if a “pure freak” is someone who’s inner state matches their outer state. Actually, a freak is simply a performative identity that says nothing of the actor’s character; there is no such thing as a through-and-through freak because, by definition, “freak” is a role and a job. Neither Elsa nor Twisty are freaks (they don’t incorporate their deformities into their acts), and I wish the show were more careful in its terminology; a better choice of words would have been a “true monster.” Making the distinction between freaks and monsters is important; as Paul’s story underscores, freaks perform narratives of monstrosity, but they are not actual monsters. It’s a slippery slope when you begin equating disability with monstrousness, or seeing a corporeal anomaly as a sign of a flawed character.]
Mordrake chooses Twisty as his exemplar, yet Dandy is far more monstrous. Twisty’s crimes are necessitated by a warped logic, but Dandy is most alive when he is perpetrating violence. Young Mr. Mott is on a Halloween roller coaster. Even though Dora has begrudgingly agreed to dress up as his favorite cartoon character (Woody Woodpecker), Gloria has purchased him a HOWDY DOODY costume. He is forced to craft his own clown costume (out of pajamas?), and when he threatens Dora with a knife, she essentially laughs in his face. He gets some jollies out of terrorizing Bonnie and Corey, until Twisty returns with his latest hostage Magic Master Mike (I’m guessing he picked him because he was dressed like a clown). After Jimmy and Maggie are captured, Dandy is about to saw Maggie in half (fun!), until Jimmy spoils the show and lets everyone go (boo!). But then Dandy finds Twisty dead and takes his mask, which empowers him to slash Dora’s throat. The result: nirvana. I realize there was not much more that could be done with Twisty (unless he experienced some crisis of conscience or reversal, which would have been unbelievable), but I was sad to see him go, admittedly in part because I adore John Carroll Lynch. Dandy is in some ways scarier—he’s a spoiled brat, and left unchecked, children can be monstrous—but he also feels like a more of an expected, typical villain. Still, I am intrigued to see how Gloria will respond to his shenanigans. And who cleans up when the pool of blood on the dining room floor belongs to the now-deceased maid?
Part I smartly introduces the idea of the medical community’s interest in the atypical body; museums operated under the auspices of science but exhibited freaks, both in life and after death, just as the freak show did. Parts of deceased freaks’ anatomy were preserved and displayed; even embalmed corpses were exhibited (see, for instance, the history of Julia Pastrana). Examinations and exhibitions in the name of medicine were part of the fabric of freak show culture, and AHS is wise to include this trend.
I enjoyed Elsa’s performance of Lana del Rey’s “Gods and Monsters”: how uncomfortable her band mates appear, how the song magically accompanies the arrival of Mordrake and his green mist, the way Elsa flirts with Mordrake when he enters her tent. But the “Jim Morrison” line repeatedly took me out of the moment. I’m down with anachronistic music, but when it’s a distraction rather than a complement, something isn’t working.
Ethel tells Dell that every Halloween Jimmy dressed up as the same thing: a soldier. Is this foreshadowing? Jimmy has already established his desire to be a leader and protector, as well as his wish to find a life outside the freak show. And after saving Twisty’s prisoners, he also is the town hero. Might he end up in the military? Yes, he hands are malformed, but maybe they can be put to good use in warfare?
Did I fail to mention that Maggie/Esmeralda cons her way into the freak show by scanning Elsa’s room for clues to her past and then passing herself off as a fortune teller? Later, she rides behind Jimmy on his motorcycle, and he wears a leather cap, and Emma Roberts and Evan Peters have less chemistry than you might expect from a real-life couple. What can I say? Emma Roberts leaves me cold, and the potential of a love triangle/square between/among Jimmy, Maggie, Dot, and maybe Bette doesn’t seem all that compelling.
Likewise, Dell and Desiree are a snooze. Dell can’t perform sexually; Desiree is resentful. Dell is a misogynistic tool. And he always must be alpha dog. He doesn’t seem too psyched to see the town embracing Jimmy and calling him a hero. And I can’t bring myself to care.
To the contrary, how cool is the Edward Mordrake flashback? The flickering black-and-white footage is perfectly accompanied by Pere Ubu’s “Road to Utah,” which begins with the “sneaky villain theme” from silent movies. (Pere Ubu’s “Carnival” from the same album, Carnival of Souls, is used for Twisty’s theme.) Less cool is Mordrake’s rubbery, puppet-y second face; AHS can make Dot and Bette flawlessly conjoined, but can’t do a better job with Mordrake? Wes Bentley’s styling is spot-in; if only the same could be said of the malevolent countenance on the back of his head. (I did enjoy, though, how they were constantly sparring.)
Apparently Stanley has a magnificent schwantz. OK, and … ? I actually think it’s more interesting that, at least behind closed doors, he seems very comfortable with his homosexuality, in contrast, say, to the Chicago “poof” who sought Desiree’s love “cure.” Now that Stanley/Richard has arrived in Jupiter, passing himself off as a talent scout from California and immediately piquing Elsa’s interest, will his assets come into play?
Clear homages to the film Halloween: Twisty standing on the sidewalk in broad daylight; Dandy’s POV through the eyeholes of his clown mask.
There’s so much more I want to know about Twisty. Twisty was a person, had a name; what was it? We never learn where or why Twisty acquired the scalp he wears. Also, I scoured the Internet for a replica of Twisty’s weapon, which has intrigued me since Episode 1. Back then, I posited that he used a tent stake, but in Episode 4, we get a much better view. It looks like he uses hedge trimmers. But why? The world may never know.