“Orphans” could well have been entitled “A Very Pepper AHS”; even though many characters were, in fact, established as orphans—including Jimmy, Stanley, and Maggie—Pepper (Naomi Grossman), whom Elsa rescues from an orphanage when she first starts her freak show, is the focus. The death of Salty (Christopher Neiman) and Pepper’s subsequent despair compel Elsa to reflect on her “adoption” of Pepper and the measures she took to keep her happy; she found Salty so Pepper could have a “spiritual husband” and bought Ma Petite from a maharaja (for the price of two crates of Dr. Pepper) as a substitute child. Given Elsa’s attentiveness and care, it is thus surprising that she decides to return Pepper to the sister, Rita, who abandoned her at the orphanage in the first place, especially since Rita (Mare Winningham) isn’t exactly jumping for joy at the prospect of reuniting with Pepper and is clearly an alcoholic. Less surprising is the fact that Pepper’s new family is slightly less supportive than the freak show entourage. After a surprise pregnancy, Rita gives birth to a baby, Lucas, with an unspecified deformity; Pepper tends to him lovingly until Rita and her awful husband, Larry (Matthew Glave AKA the awful Glenn Guglia from The Wedding Singer), decide to murder the baby and pin the crime on Pepper. She is carted off to Briarcliff where she meets Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe, in the much-heralded return of her character from Season 2); although she scolds Pepper for killing her nephew, she treats her with kindness, assigning her to sort old magazines in the library. There, Pepper sees a 1958 issue of Life with Elsa on the cover; she touches the cover tenderly and sheds a tear.
While Pepper’s travails and Naomi Grossman’s (largely silent) performance were very moving, something about this episode irritated me. I had the feeling that its emotional impact (and the “cleverness” of linking Season 2 and Season 4 of AHS) was intended to distract from the fact that “Orphans” offered very little in plot advancement or character development. Sure, Stanley visits Jimmy in prison, seemingly on the verge of asking him for his hands in order to pay for a lawyer, and Maggie confesses to Desiree her part in Stanley’s grift (after which they pop on up to the American Morbidity Museum in Philly, where they see Ma Petite’s body, Salty’s head, and Jimmy’s hands???). And Desiree works on her pot roast recipe as she plans a white-picket-fence future with Angus (Malcolm-Jamal Warner). Otherwise it’s all flashback and flash-forwards. Stronger writing would have introduced the elements of Pepper’s backstory throughout the season, instead of shoehorning it into one episode that disrupted any forward momentum that thus far existed in this season of AHS (and, let’s face it, it’s been sputtering along at best). Similarly, while we see a softer side of Elsa in her reminiscences, her willingness to deposit Pepper with Rita yet again illustrates the one note that has been rung over and over again: Elsa is willing to pursue fame at any cost, and not even her beloved Pepper can come along for the ride.
Neil-Patrick Harris arrives in the next episode as a creepy magician/ventriloquist who woos the twins; Nan Brewer appears to be his puppet incarnate. While I look forward to the presence of NPH, doesn’t it seem a little late in the season to introduce a brand-new character? Whatever his purpose, whatever he accomplishes in turns of plot structure, is there no other existing character that could achieve the same thing?
Obviously, Elsa achieves success on the small screen. However, the Life magazine is four years old by the time Pepper sees it. Will we learn what occurs in the intervening period?
Is Pepper’s mind totally blown when she repeatedly meets people at Briarcliff that look exactly like people she knew at the freak show? Also, while we feel sorry for her now, let’s not forget she is ultimately abducted by aliens and turned into a genius. And did I really just write that sentence?