In this installment of the podcast, Paskin and Lowder discuss love scenes in Episode 3, Dot and Bette’s existential dilemma as conjoined twins, and why bearded ladies shouldn’t be seen “freaks.”
This podcast contains major spoilers so listen after you watch each episode.
Listen to the other episode podcasts here.
Willa Paskin: Hi and welcome to a Slate Plus podcast on American Horror Story: Freak Show. I’m Willa Paskin, Slate’s TV critic, and with me is Slate assistant editor Bryan Lowder. Hi, Bryan!
J. Bryan Lowder: Hello Willa!
Paskin: And today we’re going to discuss episode three: “Edward Mordrake, Part 1.” I think we’re going to start by talking about Edward Mordrake, played by Wes Bentley. Wes Bentley is performing the scene at the end talking to Kathy Bates’ character, Ethel, and he’s talking to his head, in the back of his head. I did have a moment where I thought “Acting is so silly.” He’s pulling this off, but he has to be so serious about it, and if you were just watching him, you would be like this person is in very sort of rotund language, talking to himself over his shoulder.
Lowder: That was very theatrically done, and it’s interesting that there was this not even flashback, but myth storytelling part where they described who this guy is. He’s sort of this mythical, perhaps real figure and he’s this guy who was in a freak show at some point because he has this face on the back of his head that’s like its own person and that seems almost like a Jekyll/Hyde thing.
Paskin: And also possessing him and saying horrible things to him all the time.
Lowder: If you perform as a freak on Halloween night, then he will come and take you away.
Paskin: His spirit will come and summon someone.
Lowder: Yeah, it’s fun for a two-episode Halloween thing.
Paskin: It does have that feeling to me right now, which I guess is what happens to you when you’re a 13-episode show, although hilariously it’s only 13 episodes you’d think that they wouldn’t have to do this, where it’s just like kind of wasting time—
Lowder: Spinning it out a bit.
Paskin: Or just this is a loop. I’m not saying that whoever Edward Mordrake summons and I guess will die or stick around as some sort of spirit, won’t be important to the show, but it does have this sort of vignette, cul-du-sac feel.
Lowder: Totally. But the axe man last season stayed around a bit longer than I expected him to, because he seemed like this kind of character, he certainly lessened in importance.
Paskin: Like the Anne Frank sequence in season two.
Lowder: That’s a great example. But, like I said, I think this one’s fun. And like you said, the very theatrical having to talk to himself and like “You’re malevolent” over his shoulder was very funny.
Paskin: I guess I’m just impatient. I am kind of eager to know where it’s going. Last season, I enjoyed, but I didn’t think was very good. You knew early on, you were like oh, they are going to need to find the supreme.
Lowder: Yeah, the supreme is driving the stakes of the season. And this one, this season I’m not entirely sure what the stakes are. I think maybe we’re meant to care about the end of the freak show, that was brought up a bit in this with the freak hunters, who we were introduced to a bit in the beginning. It was described that there were only two left: the one that we’re following and then one in Coney Island. So maybe we’re watching this lifestyle and culture dwindle. But that’s not really so compelling actually, because it seems kind of horrible.
Paskin: I assume we’ll get some kind of stakes. Talking about Coney Island Freak Show and the one in Florida, let’s talk about the two new characters a little bit: Esmeralda and did we get the name of the Dennis O’Hare character? I don’t think we did. We had his other fake name, but I don’t think we have his new fake name.
Lowder: I thought that was interesting. You sort of have this view out of the freak show but into the medical establishment’s position toward these people, he started in this morbidity museum, I think it’s called. The two characters are like hucksters to some degree, they’re faking it. But they want real specimens to sell, that introduces a new threat into the sphere, certainly. But Emma Roberts pretending to be this mystic was sort of fabulous. And I loved how they showed how she works, with the quick cuts to Elsa’s room and that’s how she told the—
Paskin: I did find that Elsa’s such an easy target.
Lowder: Oh, sure.
Paskin: Like you say exactly what she wants to hear. And it worked nicely, but I’m not sure that you see Marlene Dietrich’s name and those musical notes, that she hates her.
Lowder: Well, I think that sort of confirms your theory that she’s not the most interesting or important character. Despite being sort of the marquee character and actress in this show, she seems less and less interesting or central in some ways, compared to other people.
Paskin: And actually, this whole episode had this feel where it’s just like—in seasons past, it’s like people don’t appear in episodes because there is just too much going on, and I think everyone was almost in this one, and it did just start to be like you have so many ridiculously famous people in this cast and you’re not like really serving them yet? We’re just going to watch Angela Bassett try to rub off Michael Chiklis and that’s going to be their scene. Patti LaBelle is still playing this ultra-strong mammy character. And then Jessica Lange, who gets to sing and I guess smoke opium, is not really doing anything that interesting either.
Lowder: This one was a little scatterbrained, for sure.
Paskin: Even Peters and Emma Roberts are in real life a couple so I think the show is really amused to pair them up.
Lowder: And this is a great way.
Paskin: But I kind of hate knowing where that’s going so quickly. She’s so obviously the viable romantic lead except for Dot and Bette, who I’m sure will have—
Lowder: Some sort of battle, that makes sense.
Paskin: And I did wonder what the relationship between Esmerelda and the Dennis O’Hare character is going to be, because when we first meet them, you sort of think probably it’s romantic in some way, but then he’s definitely gay and apparently in possession of a very large sword.
Lowder: A very large sword, perhaps. It’s not very clear, but I think that’s what we’re meant to assume. Although I, this was a small thing, but that scene where we have this presumably prostitute in a hotel room with him, that is not a body type from that era. It’s certainly attractive and man-candy, but that guy is not from the ‘50s.
Paskin: He got teleported in.
Lowder: Yeah, he got teleported in from like an underwear shoot in the ‘80s maybe. It was sort of funny, like OK Ryan Murphy, this is not
Paskin: He does those things on occasion. I maybe said this to you already, but the one thing that did confuse me about Denis O’Hare and his Viking was his very last face in that scene, so he exposes his private parts to this man, he’s like “Oh my god” and I think we’re supposed to think he has this enormous penis, but then his face kind of falls in this way that was confusing to me. I’m sure it maybe it was nothing, but I was like are you trying to tell me that something scary is there, scarier than an enormous penis?
Lowder: Yeah, there was that note, and it was unclear what it meant. Was it just a bashfulness somehow, which would be strange based on the way he acted before. But what’s important about it is he has something freakish about him as well. Maybe it’s not as damaging as other abnormalities might be, but I think there’s something going on.
Paskin: And he’s now set up to be Jessica Lange’s lying love interest, essentially. Because she has been prime to expect this man, which is what I thought the clever part of the fortune telling, more than anything. So let’s talk a little bit about the bearded lady, Ethel is her name, although it’s very hard to remember. The Kathy Bates character, who I think was sort of the emotional center of this episode, and had more to do than she’s had to do all season so far.
Lowder: The scene with her doctor at the beginning where she has cirrhosis and has six months to a year to live was genuinely moving, in the context of this show, anyway. She has this great line where she says, “I’m not crying because you told me I’m dying, I’m crying because you’re the first doctor who’s ever shown me any sort of respect or compassion.” I liked that note in a show like this that can be kind of scatterbrained. It was pretty genuine, I felt like to me.
Paskin: I totally agree, I thought that was a great scene. I thought they really followed her this episode. I thought some of the scenes that followed, none of them were bad, but the time she was telling Mordrake her back story, it was so obvious to me that she wasn’t going to be picked that she was a decent person basically, that’s the story of her being a decent person.
Lowder: But does being a decent person mean you’re not a true freak?
Paskin: I felt he was looking for someone who was really vile, to the core. That would be interesting and complicated, maybe that’s not what it means. But that was my sense. He said a true freak, but the words he said before that, which I don’t remember were like “The darkest soul”, something that would have suggested someone really awful, which she so clearly was not.
Lowder: No, no, she’s definitely had a tough life. It’s interesting to get a little bit more of the story between her and the strongman and that. God, the scene where he sells tickets to her giving birth is just horrific.
Paskin: Pretty horrible.
Lowder: Not even that graphic, but almost more abject and terrible than the other more graphic things that we’ve scene.
Paskin: I think we’ve had now a couple scenes where it’s clear that he did really love her and he keeps making faces at himself for being so mean to her. But he continues to be really horrible and mean to her. And he obviously has this erection problem. There is more to know about him.
Lowder: Speaking of weird notes at the ends of scenes, in the scene where Desiree tries to have sex with him and it doesn’t work and whatever, he looked very afraid of her at the end of that scene. He sort of threatens her physically and she basically says, “I’ll leave.” But then he has this look of like terror. It didn’t comport with the threat of a woman leaving him, it was like a strange—
Paskin: Yeah, like does she have some sort of other power? I read it like he loves her.
Lowder: Maybe, but it almost seems like threatening, like he was under some sort of threat—
Paskin: No, it’s true. He backed off right away.
Lowder: I have a question about her character. She’s the bearded lady and we get this whole back story and we find out she’s never really fit in. Given that that is something that you could cosmetically deal with a little bit more easily certainly than some of the other issues that people have, what is your read on that? Why is that such a freakish thing to have when it seems like you could handle it fairly simply. Unless you didn’t want to, of course. I don’t know. I didn’t quite understand, I guess. That’s not something you’re stuck with in the same way as some of these other things. Did that matter to you at all?
Paskin: It is. That would have been an interesting beat to hit in her flashback. Has she ever tried to pass and failed? Because obviously for whatever reason she’s made this choice, it would seem, not to hide.
Lowder: Bearded ladies have existed, so it must be. I don’t know the history of that, but as far as these special talents of these people go, that one is not, I mean there’s plenty of people who can grow facial hair, of any gender. So that doesn’t read to me.
Paskin: When you make a choice to make a living that way.
Paskin: There is a sense, Jimmy obviously has these hands, but you think probably it wouldn’t be very hard for him to exist in normal society, either. There’s a lot of choosing, people are choosing this identity, or feel like it has chosen them. But I don’t know if we’re actually if the show is really interrogating that choice all the time. That seems like an allegory, that allegory of choice is probably not one Ryan Murphy is particularly interested in telling.
Lowder: Given the larger questions of living on the margins or not, that’s an interesting one. Very controversial one, actually. Why do you choose to be that way?
Paskin: I had a question about Dot and Bette, which is Dot seems in this episode to have gone full bitch. Really, really, she’s having fantasy dreams that are basically nightmares about murdering her sister and her being free, and her sister is like “I would miss you” and Dot is like “I wouldn’t miss you at all.” Just running around being horrible. It’s just so extreme. They’ve been coloring them both as kind of annoying or kind of difficult but Dot was more cynical for good reason, and this obviously are smitten with Jimmy. But this seemed just horrible. And I’m sure it’s not going to last, but I wanted her to be a little bit more, I wanted that relationship to be a little more nuanced. They’re attached; it would be meaningful.
Lowder: You’re right. We haven’t been quite set up to expect that level of hatred. She stabbed her at the beginning but that almost seemed like a fit of passion.
Paskin: Right, she just killed their mother. And Bette had just killed their mother.
Lowder: It didn’t read as an ongoing “I want to cut you off from me” thing, which is very much what this was like.
Paskin: Also, the end of last week’s episode, it was Bette who had been given the murder implement by Elsa.
Lowder: Exactly. I don’t know, though. The character development doesn’t quite make sense, however existentially that question is so disturbing to me, when I was watching this last night, I had to pause it for a second on DVR because what would it mean to get rid of this person who is part of your brain? It seems like they share a lot of—it’s not like they’re two separate people, they’re dreaming together and are aware of each other’s thoughts and deciding when to move an not to move and when to be aroused. All of that stuff is together, and that is the more compelling existential questions that this show is exploring. I don’t know how realistic that is for true conjoined twins, but it’s got me hooked.
Paskin: I wish there was a little more love there.
Lowder: Right, I think there would be.
Paskin: And it is as complicated as you just said, and it still would be and even more so if there was more confusion and affection, because really what do you do if the only way to get out of this situation is to murder this person that you also need and love. Do we need to talk about Dandy? I thought the Howdy Doody thing was actually really fun, but felt like it was treading water.
Lowder: We get that he’s a sociopath, and until we see more of the relationship between him and the clown—what he does with his mom is less interesting because we get what, that’s a very classic relationship and not too compelling, but it’s fun to see Frances Conroy have a Halloween party.
Paskin: It was a little interesting also that he didn’t kill Dora. She was so right about how much he was going to hurt her and then fast forward to 10 minutes late, him putting a knife on a stick, all those scenes remain really horrible, trying to stab these people that he’s helping hold captive. He’s not quite as sociopathic as he wants to be. So there really wasn’t a gruesome scene, so instead we’ll talk about the musical number. So going forward we can talk about most gross scene, and that can include musical numbers from now on.
Lowder: I think that’s fair. I said this to you before we started, that they’re wearing on me a little bit. I love a random musical number as much as anyone, but this one just felt kind of pat and expected—of course it’s expected. But the song was boring.
Paskin: There’s something very static about them, so they stand onstage and do the same thing. It’s not like it’s happening in some other place and they’re doing a dance, or it’s in the tent or it’s in town. It’s always this cabaret onstage performance. And that’s fine, but that’s sort of boring and they haven’t really experimented with staging and even Glee-style where there’s choreographed numbers.
Lowder: The fantasy elements. No, there’s people playing the instruments and she’s singing.
Paskin: And I felt this thing about the song, which is this Lana Del Rey song called “Gods and Monsters,” I had to look it up. Not familiar with Lana Del Rey’s catalogue. I thought the production of it was very intentionally change Jessica Lange’s voice. I’m sure they’re always changing Jessica Lange’s voice and auto tuning and doing whatever they need to do but it was highly produced, so it didn’t even really sound like in that space at all. And that actually made it more boring. Because then it was not even really live, it’s like she was doing karaoke kind of and nothing really interesting happened that Edward Mordrake is slowly wandering into the room.
Lowder: With green smoke.
Paskin: Right. I think they need to get a little more dynamic.
Lowder: The fading, or faded or failing star thing is just so very potent, I will never get tired of that. But in this context, it needs to be developed a bit more. It’s like yes, a troupe, and the troupe is not having anything much done with it. Although I do love—small detail—that they’ve made it literally against Marlene Dietrich, it’s not just this type of person, it’s like “She stole my career.” Somehow that connection to reality is very uncanny to me, it’s like this strange reference to like we were friends. To have her be like “Her name is Marlene” when Esmerelda is doing the reading.
Paskin: It grounds the whole thing in this weird way, because you’re like, “Oh, this exists.” It’s like an alternate reality instead of it being completely hocus pocus. Did we see scenes for next week? There’s more Edward Mordrake, right?
Lowder: More Edward Mordrake, I think he’s basically going to visit; it’s the Halloween carol.
Paskin: Do you have a bet on who he’s going to take?
Lowder: Not Elsa, although that scene was shown.
Paskin: It’s interesting because if they get rid of them, it’s really early in the show.
Lowder: It would be. The preview certainly made it seem like possibly Desiree actually, because there is a quick cut to the strongman being like “Oh, fuck no” or something.
Paskin: It also made it seem like it was possibly him.
Lowder: Or him, maybe. I’m kind of fine with that. Yeah, I think it’s going to be someone a bit more unexpected, it’s a bit early to get rid of a headliner.
Paskin: All right, well until next week.
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