I finally got what I wanted from American Horror Story: Freak Show, it just didn’t come at the right time. Ever since episode 6, “Bullseye,” it’s been clear that the Freak Shows supporting cast deserves more than a scene here or there, and now Naomi Grossman further proves it. Pepper’s always been a fine, likable member of the troupe, but “Orphans” takes the character well beyond just being the resident pinhead. It’s easily one of the most moving episodes of the season, but it’s hard not to wonder, why now? Perhaps it’s my own fault for having specific expectations for the final episode before the holiday break, but at the end of “Orphans,” I had more interest in revisiting American Horror Story: Asylum than seeing what’s to come on January 7th.
Let’s begin by assessing the episode as its own entity. “Orphans” is a tragically beautiful character piece. We barely got to know Salty (Christopher Neiman), or get a clear sense of his relationship with Pepper for that matter, but the episode manages to turn that around in mere minutes thanks to Grossman’s wholehearted performance and a particularly effective flashback. Coming to learn that Pepper was Elsa’s very first monster is a game changer for both characters. It makes me wish we got to see that connection a little earlier on in Freak Show, but that in no way changes the strength of the episode.
Initially when we cut back to 1936, I couldn’t believe we were getting yet another Elsa flashback, but the story of her days as a gypsy and her determination to be her own boss turns out to be so well woven into Pepper’s situation that it serves both characters well. The idea of Elsa buying Ma Petite with three cases of Dr. Pepper doesn’t really sit right, but once the transaction is complete, Elsa, Pepper and Ma Petite feel like a loving family and that’s what Freak Show needs. Elsa’s been saying, “My monsters this, my monsters that,” all season long, but this is the first time we get to go deeper than her surface level devotion to them. “Orphans” does hit a little logic snag when it doesn’t put up the best case for Elsa’s decision to leave Pepper with her selfish, alcoholic sister for the sake of her career, but the Life Magazine reveal actually winds up being a clever and unexpected way to tie it all together.
As for the Asylum connection, we knew that Pepper would wind up at Briarcliff eventually and it does make sense that her sister would give up on her, but it still feels forced. Sure, Lily Rabe’s Sister Mary Eunice was incredibly naive pre-possession, but that’s not an excuse to build up hype for a cameo, not have her actually do anything and then expect the whole “you’re my project” thing to justify it.
Overall, Pepper’s story is powerful and makes me adore the character more than ever, but “Orphans” is no episode 10, let alone a final episode before a big break. No, a cliffhanger isn’t vital, but I was hoping the episode would at least narrow the focus and give us a clear sense of the trajectory of the tail end of the season. Instead, “Orphans” feels like an afterthought. It doesn’t push the narrative forward. It’s more like someone came up with the bright idea to have an Asylum connection and then just plopped the scenario in as filler.
We’ve also got a similar issue with Maggie’s little side story. Again, why is it in this episode? One, these are details we should have learned already and two, there’s absolutely no reason for them to be paired with Pepper’s story. At least Elsa and Pepper are well intertwined. Maggie’s journey has absolutely no correlation to Pepper whatsoever. Plus, it just isn’t all that interesting. Maggie is willing to be a crook and a killer for Stanley just because he took her in when she had no family? That’s a pretty uninteresting way to make her story fit the episode title.
“Orphans” is essentially repeating what “Bullseye” did. It offers up a great standalone story for an especially appealing supporting character, but does little to nothing for the season as a whole. What’s Paul been up to since “Bullseyes?” We’ve barely seen him at all! And now the same will be true of Pepper, too. It’s nice that the episodes themselves are moving and enjoyable, but you can’t play that game in a 13-episode show, especially this late in the season. No more loose ends or sidebars. We need the freaks to come together and fight a common enemy to power through the final three episodes and hopefully live up to the title American HORROR Story: Freak Show in the process.
Episode Standalone Rating: B+
(Episode Season Rating: B-)
- “The death of a beloved monster is always a sorrow, but never a surprise. If oddly formed organs or a random physical anomaly doesn’t claim them, it’s the sheer intensity of their place. A carnie’s life burns larger and brighter than most. It is bound to extinguish sooner.” – Elsa
- “The idea was simple. They would come for the freaks but stay for the star.” – Elsa
- Maggie must be a lightweight. One flask and she’s revealing all of her deep, dark secrets?
- “Go to hell triple tits.” – Maggie
- Jimmy was so drunk that he remembers nothing after leaving that woman’s house? That means he doesn’t remember that heartfelt conversation he had with Bette and Dot rendering one of the most moving scenes of the season meaningless.
- Angus T. Jefferson is back! … for mere minutes. This guy better serve a purpose.
- Ugly Shot Alert: Shooting Maggie from below isn’t the most appealing angle. And what’s with the upside-down tilt (or whatever you want to call it) from Stanley to Jimmy’s hands? It doesn’t add anything to the moment. It’s just disorienting.
- The lobster hands at the Morbidity Museum was a solid reveal, but it can’t have a lasting effect when we see Jimmy still has his hands in the episode 11 preview.
- “Like my uncle Charlie says, a goat’s a goat and not a chicken, but god loves us all … I added that last part about god.” – Sister Mary Eunice