‘American Horror Story’ 4.03 Recap: “No Freak Performs on Halloween”

‘American Horror Story’ often goes all-out for its Halloween episodes. This year brings a two-parter that started last week and will conclude this Wednesday. Unfortunately, Part 1 may be my least favorite episode of the new season so far, and I don’t imagine that Part 2 will change my mind.

I wrote in my last recap that I found it interesting how this was the first season of the show without any supernatural elements. Naturally, just a couple days after I published those words, the series immediately introduced some big-time supernatural stuff. Honestly, I’m disappointed by that.

In ‘Edward Mordrake, Part 1’, it’s Halloween and the town of Jupiter is still under curfew. That means no trick-or-treaters after sundown. It also means no performances at the freak show, not even matinees. The freaks refuse to perform on the holiday due to a superstitious fear of the title character, a 19th Century aristocrat born with a second face on the back of his head. According to legend, Mordrake was an intelligent and talented young man tormented by his “devil face,” which he insisted whispered evil thoughts to him. When doctors couldn’t help him and society shunned him, Mordrake ran off to join a freak show of the era. Unfortunately, even that couldn’t bring him peace, so he murdered his entire troupe and hung himself on Halloween. Carnie lore has it that should a freak ever perform on Halloween, Mordrake’s spirit will appear and claim a new soul for his otherworldly circus of the damned.

During the crew’s downtime, Ethel (Kathy Bates) sees a doctor who informs her that she has cirrhosis of the liver and only about six months to live. Even that much is assuming that she doesn’t touch another drop of alcohol, which will only accelerate her decline. Depressed, Ethel returns to the circus and takes up drinking again right away.

In another part of the country, a con man calling himself Dr. Mansfield (Denis O’Hare) tries to sell a fake “Bigfoot fetus” to a museum for natural oddities. His charade fails, but the owner tells him that if he can procure a genuine specimen of something unique and interesting, she’ll pay him handsomely no questions asked. Mansfield and his protégé (Emma Roberts) travel to Florida so that the girl can infiltrate Elsa’s circus with eyes on the two-headed girl. She introduces herself as fortune teller Madame Esmerelda and demonstrates her alleged talent with a line of bullshit and flattery that Elsa (stoned at the time) buys into.

One of Esmerelda’s supposed spiritual predictions is that Elsa will soon achieve the fame she desires when a cultured gentleman will see her perform. Ecstatic, Elsa insists on practicing a new song (Lana Del Ray’s “Gods & Monsters”) despite the protests of the freaks. As feared, her singing summons the ghost of Edward Mordrake (Wes Bentley), who Elsa assumes is the man from Esmerelda’s vision. Mordrake sees the performance but vanishes afterwards, to Elsa’s disappointment but everyone else’s relief. However, he then visits Ethel and insists that she tell him the sad story of her life. Seen in flashback, we learn just how badly Dell the strongman treated her when he sold tickets to the birth of their son Jimmy, billed as a “Live Freak Birth.” Mordrake is ultimately moved by Ethel’s story and leaves her be to find another soul for his collection. (Story to be continued.)

Elsewhere in town, Dandy is very disappointed in his mother’s choice of a Howdy Doody costume for him and throws a fit. On his own, he makes a clown costume to match his new best friend and threatens to kill the maid who openly hates him. She calls his bluff and he can’t do it, which only makes him crazier. Dandy returns to the bus in the woods and terrorizes the kids that Twisty is holding prisoner there. Meanwhile, Twisty himself stalks a little girl who’s afraid of clowns. Rather than harm her, however, he snatches the girl’s dickish older brother.

Jimmy throws a funeral for Meep and is all out of sorts about his death. Dot is getting an ego about her newfound stardom and dreams about getting surgery to remove Bette’s head. Dot flat-out tells Bette that she plans to save up some money and find a doctor who will perform the separation surgery, even if that means killing her sister. We also learn that she tried to kill Bette once before, so she really means it.

This episode isn’t terrible. I liked certain parts of it, but the Edward Mordrake storyline doesn’t work for me, and that’s unfortunately the central focus of the episode. It also suggests that the rest of the season will move toward more supernatural business. Under normal circumstances, that wouldn’t bother me, but I kind of liked the idea of this season going in a different direction, and now that doesn’t seem to be the case. Maybe I’ll get over it. We’ll just have to see how the rest of the season plays out.

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