‘American Horror Story’ 4.10 Recap: “Come for the Freaks, Stay for the Star”

Admittedly, I’m a little late in writing a recap for an episode of ‘American Horror Story’ that aired back on December 17th. The holidays were a busy time and I’ve only just now gotten around to watching it. In my defense, the show went on break for the rest of the month afterwards anyway. Since it’s coming back with a new episode this week, let’s catch up with where things left off.

‘Orphans’ is a strangely low-key and frustrating episode that gets sidetracked from the main narrative (Dandy doesn’t appear at all) in a needless and misguided attempt to tie the various seasons of the show together. The main focus of the episode is on supporting character Pepper the pinhead. After her mate Salty dies from an apparent stroke, she becomes totally despondent and refuses to leave his body.

Elsa is unsentimental about Salty himself (she didn’t think much of him), but feels bad for Pepper. This prompts an extended flashback to 1936, where a young Elsa first comes to America, bides her time performing in a gypsy carnival, and soon decides to start her own show. She finds Pepper in an orphanage and adopts her “first monster.” Later, she’ll purchase Ma Petite from an Indian maharaja in exchange for three cases of Dr. Pepper soda. Thus the Cabinet of Curiosities is launched.

Stanley the con man offers to take care of the cremation arrangements for Salty. In short order, we find him decapitating the body and shipping the head off to the Morbidity Museum.

Because Elsa plans to leave for Hollywood with Stanley, she locates Pepper’s biological sister Rita (Mare Winningham) in Boston and arranges (with some determined convincing) for the woman to take the girl in.

The episode runs long at an hour and 17 minutes, including commercials. The last act flash-forwards a decade to 1962. Rita turns out to be a horrible person with an even more horrible husband. They murder their own freak child and frame Pepper for the crime, then have her committed to the Briarcliff Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Fans of the show will recognize the setting. Yes, this Pepper is indeed the same character seen in the periphery of Season 2. Lily Rabe reprises her role as Sister Mary Eunice, who admits Pepper and begins the process of “rehabilitating” her. The episode ends with Pepper in the asylum library, where she comes across a copy of Life magazine featuring a photo of Elsa on the cover. It seems that, somehow, Elsa has indeed become a big TV star.

In some respects, this storyline is surprisingly touching and emotional, with a very affecting performance by Naomi Grossman as Pepper. However, the tie-in with the ‘Asylum’ season feels incredibly strained and pointless, and far too much of the episode is devoted to selling that flimsy concept. If every season of this show is really intended to take place in the same universe, how is it that the same people keep reappearing as different characters in overlapping timelines? We may see Sister Mary Eunice at the asylum, but showing us Sister Jude with her would contradict and completely destroy the illusion.

Other Developments

  • As a result of being framed by Dandy, Jimmy sits in jail for murdering the housewives at the Tupperware party. Stanley pays him a visit and promises to get him a good lawyer. But how will Jimmy pay? As luck would have it, Stanley has an idea about how to raise some cash.
  • Unbeknownst to Jimmy, the twins Dot and Bette decide to give all of their savings (that they’d previously planned to use for separation surgery) to Maggie in order to hire Jimmy a lawyer.
  • Maggie confesses to Desiree that she and Stanley are con artists. (Why has Maggie chosen Desiree to confide in, and why doesn’t Desiree immediately share the revelation about Stanley with the rest of the circus?) Initially, Maggie pretends that they’re simply pickpocketing the carnival’s customers, but Desiree doesn’t buy that story. Later, Maggie brings her to the Morbidity Museum, where they see Ma Petite and Salty’s head on display, along with a brand new exhibit – Jimmy’s hands.

After a few weeks off, ‘Freak Show’ returns this Wednesday and introduces a new guest star who promises to enliven the rest of the season. I can only hope that the latest gambit works.

1 comment

  1. Jim Warren


    Sorry to disagree, but I found the episode very satisfying, and even touching.

    The tie-in to Season Two was, to me, totally believable and the horrible reality of how/what caused Pepper to go there was just gut wrenching. Pepper was (and is) a huge fan favorite and certainly deserved this screen time. Naomi Grossman’s performance was outstanding. Once again, the theme of “who are the real monsters” was underscored in a new and heartbreaking manner. As fans we had much emotional investment in Pepper, and I am satisfied (if saddened) with the payoff.

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