In this installment of the podcast, Paskin and Lowder talk about the gruesome killing spree in Episode 4, the demise of Edward Mordrake’s victim, and Elsa’s story.
This podcast contains major spoilers so listen after you watch each episode.
Read the transcript below:
Willa Paskin: Hi and welcome to a Slate Plus podcast about American Horror Story: Freak Show. We’re up to episode five?
J. Bryan Lowder: Four.
Paskin: “Edward Mordrake, Part 2.” I’m Slate’s TV critic, Willa Paskin, and I’m joined by Bryan Lowder. Hi!
Lowder: Hello Willa.
Paskin: This episode I like to think of it as “Why did Patti LaBelle do this show?” I just joke that no person named Patti should do this show, since Patti LaBelle was probably less well-served than Patti LuPone was last season, but she was not well served either.
Lowder: It was a sad ending for her and very unceremonious, I thought. Dandy gets rid of her very quickly, the role didn’t have much time to do anything—
Paskin: She didn’t get to play with anybody else.
Lowder: No, she’s just gone. Unless, who knows. People come back. They have come back before, but Patti is gone, sadly.
Paskin: This episode was a continuation of last week’s episode. The two sort of felt like a self-contained thing. And actually, by the end of this episode, it sort of made the rest of this season kind of like this could have been the ending. It would have been a cheesy ending, but it wrapped a bunch of stuff up and then left us with our next and probably actual bad guy tension, which is Dandy.
Lowder: Yeah, I think we’ve got our real villain now. And given the animosity that we found out exists between the previous clown, who’s now gone, and freaks in general, I imagine Dandy is going to carry that forward to some degree, since he was rejected by the show and all of that.
Paskin: And then they just foiled him. Let’s talk about Edward Mordrake and his little “ghost of Christmas past and future” thing he did this episode. He went around and gave us the back story of some of the more ancillary freaks. And I thought that what was interesting, I’m not sure I would say good, but very Ryan Murphy, is that they all secretly have these sordid and horrible but yet sympathetic back stories. No one is actually a bad guy, which sort of made me wonder about this true freak designation and what it meant.
Lowder: The ideology of the true freak is something that was very unclear from this, although we had to guess at it. It seemed like Elsa was the closest, before we got to the clown, because she was the most diluted about it. If you were very self-aware and hurt and abject in some way, he wasn’t so interested in that as he was in people who—like the clown—were completely unaware, that guy was completely unaware of his evil. I think there was some line about “You don’t know the darkness in your heart, you’ve made the demon weep.” Elsa is delusional in her own way about her star power, so that seemed to be part of it. It was not clear why that was worse.
Paskin: That doesn’t scan as what you would think it is. That’s a weird meaning. The definition is strange. And also, the Elsa story, when they are going to take her, they chainsawed her legs off, and for that she’s definitely the one? It just seemed like…
Lowder: Yeah, that was one of the darker moments in the show. And I think we’ve become used to it over the couple seasons now. I was aware of myself not being as horrified as I feel like I should have been by that scene, because she’s drugged and her legs are cut off and this film and it’s horrific.
Paskin: They did film it as they’ve filmed all those flashbacks: in a way that made it easier not to have an actual reaction to it, because it looks very old-timey but not real.
Lowder: It’s true that it’s veiled to some degree, that it’s still—just that scenario is one of the more horrific ones.
Paskin: Also, I’m not sure really matches up what we know about Elsa.
Lowder: That struck me, too. We have this whole back story where she’s essentially a dominatrix and because she can’t make it onstage. But they never really explain why she didn’t make it onstage. We heard last episode Marlene Dietrich stole her career, so I would have expected some sort of interaction on that regard, like did she push her off the stage?
Paskin: Secretly Marlene was also a dominatrix.
Lowder: Or something. There was some sort of subterfuge. We start off in this brothel, and it’s not how she ended up there to begin with, so that was strange.
Paskin: Also just if you have your legs chainsawed off, I don’t know that you end up being Elsa.
Lowder: Yeah, that is pretty horrific. And some vague soldier saves her, it’s not clear.
Paskin: I think the guy she made sit on the toilet of thorns.
Lowder: Was that him?
Paskin: I think that was her soldier boy.
Lowder: I didn’t catch that, I’m glad you said that.
Paskin: We knew she couldn’t be the one to go, so you’re waiting for him to hear the music and run off.
Lowder: The toy piano.
Paskin: Let’s talk about the clown, who is played not only by Marge Gunderson’s husband, but also the serial killer in Zodiac. That is the extremes of lovely and totally scary. This part kind of actually required him to have both of those characters.
Lowder: It did, it did have what you said earlier, this Murphy thing of somehow there being sweetness inside even the person who seems the darkest. We get to see his horrifically deformed mouth here. That is somehow overcome by his inability to speak, there’s sympathy. It’s that classic manipulation that the show is really good at.
Paskin: The set up that they did where the freaks are actually—and not our freaks, but the freaks in his imagination—are as is often the case with oppressed peoples, oppressing somebody else. I suspect that that idea, I hope, keeps coming back.
Lowder: As hard as this particular season has hit the marginalized people versus normal, I think it’s good to complicate that a little bit in the way that you just said. In some ways, the group that we saw making fun of him was meaner than a lot of what we’ve seen so far.
Paskin: He is basically a dim, sweet clown who is accused of being a pedophile.
Lowder: I don’t think we’re meant to believe that.
Paskin: Right, I think he’s not. The stigma follows him around and he shoots his own mouth off, which is really horrible.
Lowder: The line is “I’m so stupid, I can’t even kill myself.” Like, geez.
Paskin: At this point, you’re just like “OK, I’m sorry, clown.” And all of the murders also are almost incidental to what he’s actually trying to do, which is still to entertain children, and take this child and to get him a babysitter and to kill everybody in the way, but not even be aware of it.
Lowder: I have a question about that, so we saw a quick montage of the murder scenes. Are we meant to think that he didn’t know what he was doing? Or that he did but thought that that was justified in getting to—
Paskin: I think the second thing. I think it’s not even that he didn’t know what he was doing, it was just so irrelevant to him, like it wasn’t a good or bad thing, it was, “I’m trying to do this nice thing and I just don’t—
Lowder: I can’t deal with these people anymore
Paskin: —so I’m going to murder them. And I don’t have thoughts about whether that is bad, I’m just trying to entertain this child, and I got him caretakers.” Which is why Mordrake is like “You don’t even know the darkness of your own soul.” And then also he gets this happy ending.
Lowder: Right, which that scene was almost, I don’t want to say beautiful. There was something touching about him getting his mouth back, because we see these other spirits of past freaks, and they do have injuries and things, so I didn’t really expect that at all, but it’s sort of great that he’s remade.
Paskin: And he has a community, they all touch him. It did actually also make me wonder: they have to collect all their souls, and then are they unhappy or are they just wondering around, hanging out. It’s not like they’re in hell, it’s just a wondering gang of true freaks.
Lowder: Consistency in this show is never ever true. But they’re only meant to come around on Halloween when someone performed. The clown wasn’t part of the troupe, so I have no idea why Mordrake goes there at all.
Paskin: And then we are left with our bad guy, Dandy, who puts the clown’s mask on, which I was in this very gross episode that was sort of the most viscerally disgusting thing to do.
Lowder: The person I was watching it with was like, “Oh god, just disinfect it first.” It was just like “Ugh.”
Paskin: He basically, as soon as the clown has been killed, he is outdone by the Emma Roberts character and Jimmy and kills Patti LaBelle, and I think we’re supposed to understand—
Lowder: Well, the mask the fortitude to finally be the serial killer he wants to be.
Paskin: I wonder about that character if he’s just going to be diminishing returns because he’s funny, there’s funny things about him, but at this point, it’s like darker and darker, and we get what’s funny about it.
Lowder: Well, we know that character. That character is not—I mean, we know all the characters to some degree—but this one, this sort of American Psycho type person, there’s not that much depth to it, it’s like: You’re a sociopath. There’s nothing more—
Paskin: You’re a spoiled brat, there’s no real there. It’s very psycho-like, this mother stuff.
Lowder: Well maybe the mom will get involved with it. Maybe she’ll be like, “Well, if that makes you happy, I’ll be your assistant.”
Paskin: That’s totally possible. I actually feel like we were really stupid for not knowing who Edward Mordrake would kill last week. We should have known it was the clown.
Lowder: Yeah, I don’t know that it crossed my mind because—
Paskin: It didn’t because it was so separate, he wasn’t part of the troupe—
Lowder: —I followed the rules, I guess.
Paskin: And then the episode sort of ends, he rescues these children, Jimmy, he’s very heroic. He rescues the kids, he’s knocked out by the clown, he’s almost killed when Mordrake comes and talks to the clown instead. I was worried that the police were going to come and somehow he was going to be framed or found to be guilty. But he was not, and he gets this kind of hero’s reception and everyone in the episode ends with the townspeople bringing them brownies and having a cute, sassy moment with Angela Bassett and they want to shake his hand, which in an impressive restraint they didn’t focus on Jimmy’s deformed hand shaking the townsperson’s hand in excessive detail. But it was very…
Lowder: I understand why that happened, but it was a little much to have all the townspeople greeting all of the freaks, it would be one thing if it were Jimmy, because Jimmy is not so difficult to swallow, but it was like everyone is hugging. It didn’t connect to what had happened before. But I assume that sets us up for something that happens later. We got a quick shot of strongman being sort of irritated by this scene, so I don’t know if that has something to do with Elsa selling tickets or—there was something about that he didn’t like, I’m sure that’s going to be followed up.
Paskin: Although, that does dissipate this tension, though I’m sure they can bring it back any time they want, that townsfolk/freak show tension. But in a way, it’s like why would you just let the gas out of—that’s not an idiom, but you know that I mean. Like always let the gas out of the room.
Lowder: It’s a good idea to do that, but you’re right, it did deflate the tension to some degree. Funny side note, but I do just want to quickly acknowledge that Mordrake’s character’s interest in the darkest hour of Elsa, especially, struck me as the gayest thing ever. In the sense that Ryan Murphy is clearly obsessed with divas and women, this fallen woman trope. And when Mordrake is like, “I want to know your darkest hour” I was like, “God, that is such an old-school gay obsession with women in particular.” And it’s kind of amazing, kind of frustrating to see it written out in this way. But it’s there and I think that’s kind of amazing.
Paskin: That didn’t occur to me, although I think that’s true.
Lowder: It’s what he’s obsessed with clearly, and there it is.
Paskin: Vulture ran a post maybe a week or two ago about this theory that all of the American Horror Story shows exist in the same universe. And their evidence was that Pepper, who was in American Horror Story: Asylum, and is in American Horror Story: Freak Show, is playing the same person. She actually has a twin in this, and they were dancing around onstage and Edward Mordrake is like, “My innocent ones—“
Lowder: “It’s not you.”
Paskin: “You are so lovely,” or whatever he says. And Freak Show is taking place about 10 or 12 or 15 years before Asylum. There was just this casting information announced that Lily Rabe, who played the very good nun who becomes possessed by the devil and turns into a very bad nun at the end.
Lowder: You just reminded me how much I love that particular character.
Paskin: Lily Robb is great, and she was great as this Stevie Nicks witch last season. Her and Taissa Farmiga, I want them in every season. And also Sarah Paulson, but Sarah Paulson has been in every season. And she’s coming back, and she’ll be playing the same character. So it sort of suggests that these shows are all happening in the same universe, which is actually not that, it’s kind of satisfying.
Lowder: Given the anthology format of this, that would make sense to some degree. And since the beginning, I’ve wondered if we’re talking about an American Horror Story, he is trying to basically cover the whole country in some way through some period of time. I think that makes sense. I don’t think it’s weird to theorize that, but at the same time, I don’t know that I want it to be too strongly done. I think it makes sense in this case to have Freak Show connected to Asylum, because those people probably would have been incarcerated in that way, and that makes sense. Murder House always, to me, seems like something completely separate, and Coven, maybe. But those two make sense.
Paskin: Although, that said, Freak Show has been weirdly lovely so far. I mean, chainsawed legs aside.
Lowder: Definitely not as viscerally horrific as Asylum was.
Paskin: Or unrelentingly brutal in that way. Maybe that will come
Lowder: You know, we’ve got what eight more episodes?
Paskin: And basically a totally clean slate.
Lowder: Yeah, I think now the action can really start to happen that this stuff has set up.
Paskin: So come back to hear about the action next week!
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