FX’s American Horror Story
Season 4, Episode 3: “Edward Mordrake Part 1”
Directed by Michael Uppendahl
Written by James Wong
* For a review of the previous episode, “Massacres and Matinees” – click here
* For a review of the next episode, “Edward Mordrake Part 2” – click here
Kicking off a two-parter, “Edward Mordrake Part 1” starts with the introduction of slick Stanley (Denis O’Hare) and his sidekick Maggie Esmerelda (Emma Roberts). At a museum of oddities, the pair are trying to sell off some supposed medical specimens. The authorities at the museum call bullshit on Stanley – a.k.a Sylvester to them – and his so-called baby sasquatch specimen. The owner, Lillian Hemmings (Celia Weston), slyly tells Stanley and Maggie if they brought back a real specimen, a legitimate one, she wouldn’t be keen on asking too much about where it came from, how they got it, et cetera. You can already see the sparkle in their eyes. On a suggestion from Ms. Hemmings, Stanley says they’re off to Florida.
So clearly, the devious duo are off to cause some problems in the lives of Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) and her crew of freaks, or as she so lovingly calls them “my monsters.”Moving on we’re back to Halloween on American Horror Story – Devil’s Night, 1952. A little girl named Jessie (Lauren Gobuzzi) is terrified of clowns. Her brother dresses up like one to torment her. Meanwhile, in the background, Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch) lurks like Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween, like a piece of scary shrubbery in the neighbourhood.
Poor Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates) gets bad news from her doctor. She’s got cirrhosis of the liver, headed towards a most certain death at some point. Doctor Bonham (Jerry Leggio) gives her six months to a year to live. But it’s the way he deals with Ethel which is most full of impact. He treats her with a respect, like he would anyone else. He doesn’t see her as the freak others do, putting his hand on her shoulder in comfort. It touches Ethel deeply to be given this respect and they share a moment. Such quality acting from Bates! She consistently proves how important an actor she has been, for a long, long time. Here she’s just giving it her best. Intensely emotional scene.
The freaks are all partying, getting drunk and being foolish. Dot and Bette Tattler (Sarah Paulson) are sort of put off by it all, seeing as how Meep died at the end of last episode. When Dot speaks up, Ethel ends up telling the sisters about Edward Mordrake (Wes Bentley) – a man in the Victorian era who had another face on the back of his own head, which spoke to him, commanding him to do things, putting him in an asylum until his eventual escape to a carnival’s freak show. He killed himself on Halloween after murdering all the freaks in his troupe.
Ethel is back on the drink. And though her son Jimmy (Evan Peters) doesn’t know she’s dying, as of yet, he still believed her swore off the liquor. He loves his mother, it’s obvious, but she only lashes out at him; naturally. Wouldn’t you? She’s dying. Drink away, Ethel.
Over at the Mott house, Gloria (Frances Conroy) tries to please Dandy (Finn Wittrock). Even maid Dora (Patti LaBelle) dresses up like Woody the Woodpecker to make things fun, although she hates it. A Howdy Doody costume sends spoiled brat Dandy over the edge, throwing a massive fit; Dora’s not impressed, seems like there may be a confrontation brewing between them at some point down the line. He takes the costume upstairs and it looks as if he’s cutting it up to make: a clown costume.
The freaks at the carnival are having their own legitimate troubles, as opposed to Dandy. Jimmy and all the others bury Meep trying to give him an appropriate send off.
At the same time, Esmerelda shows up at the campgrounds – alone without Stanley for now – claiming to be a mystic, Miss Esmerelda, and looking for a job. Hmm. The greasiness begins.
Bette and Dot – the former wailing – find themselves on a surgical table, a doctor and his team readying themselves to separate the two. Dot seems pretty fine with it all, very calm, collected. Out goes Bette with the drugs, doctor beginning to saw inside them, blood flowing.
But then “Wake up,” says Bette. She’s stuck inside one of the dreams Dot is having. Sick, that is, right? They’ve got to seemingly deal with the dreams of the other, which in this case is their respective nightmare.
Yet it isn’t a dream really, it is a waking nightmare for Bette. Dot wants to be separate, claiming she’s totally unhappy and wants to save up for a surgery to take them apart. But one has to die for the other to live; terrible, isn’t it?
Elsa – high on the opium pipe – lays in her tent, receiving Esmerelda on business. The young lady takes out her crystal ball and begins to do her thing, apparently. I love how we’re seeing basically what supposed mystics really do – she eyes the things around Elsa’s room, noticing bits and pieces of her life enough to make the reading seem real and genuine. She ends up reeling Elsa in with dramatics and a subtle, mysterious sensibility. A real con artist at work! Even worse, she feeds Elsa nonsense about becoming a star, appealing to the older woman’s vanity and egotism.
Great writing in this episode when it comes to the character of Esmerelda. Not only that, I love that Emma Roberts gets the chance to play a character who isn’t a total bitch like last season in Coven.
Dell Toledo (Michael Chiklis) and his Aphrodite-hermaphrodite Desiree Dupree (Angela Bassett) try their best to live out some kind of carnival dream in the trailer at the camp. Only Dell has sexual problems, it’s apparent he can’t get it up. Which wouldn’t normally be a problem, only it happens a lot from what Desiree says.
Then down by the lake, after they storm out on one another, Ethel says the same thing about their relationship pretty much. She also wants to make sure Dell never tells Jimmy that he’s his father, but wants him to also keep an eye on the young man. While Dell does express a certain amount of regret in a line or two, wondering what Jimmy dressed up for on Halloween as a little boy, there’s still not much resistance on the topic of revealing himself to Jimmy as dear ole dad.
Halloween homage, once again, as Dandy picks up a clown mask on the hall table, heading downstairs – all the while shot behind the mask, our perspective looking through the eye holes from inside. He raises a knife to Dora and we’re waiting for that big stab. It doesn’t come, though. Only more whimpering and whining Dandy.
Then from a pay phone booth, Esmerelda calls her naughty partner Stanley back at his motel. She’s uncomfortable around all the freaks, not used to being near anyone different and outside of the norm. Most of all, Stanley’s excited about Bette/Dot, the conjoined twins; the big payday! This is beginning some uncomfortable territory, our fear of what may happen to the twins, as well as what could happen to any of the freaks.
Jimmy and Esmerelda run into a little trouble with a cop briefly, as Stanley enjoys some man-on-man action back at the motel.
The little girl from earlier, Jessie, is being tortured by her big brother. When out of nowhere, Twisty shows up behind him. He’s gone quick out the window before the mother is alerted. Now, the little girl has a huge reason to be terrified of clowns: one took her fucking brother.
As the clown terrorises neighbourhoods, the freaks back at the show are still worried about Edward Mordrake. Bette/Dot are about to practice, warned by Amazon Eve (Erika Ervin) and Paul (Mat Fraser) not to tempt Mordrake to come and take their lives and souls. Elsa shows up, though, insisting she needs to practice her own act. A bit of a fight ensues with Ms. Mars losing her mind at the sisters before doing some singing.
This episode, Jessica Lange gets to perform Lana Del Rey’s “Gods and Monsters”. Another wonderful, fitting choice in a sense. Spooky quality to the song with Mordrake (Bentley) appearing out of billowy green smoke, like out of nowhere, then making his way into the tent to watch and listen to Elsa sing. Of course, she doesn’t realise who it is, but rather believes it’s the man out of Esmerelda’s prophecy – the one who would help her achieve fame and success. Boy, is she ever wrong.
Really dig the bits with Mordrake (he even has his own specific score/theme playing in variations), as he roams the campgrounds, appearing to all the freaks in search of which soul he’ll take back beyond with him. First, Ethel starts to see dead people around her, then the green smoke brings Edward inside. She doesn’t want to be taken yet, as death is already coming for her and obviously Ethel has things she wishes to do before then. Moreover, we’re given a fun look at Ethel in the past, through her own eyes/words, and even those brief moments are lots of fun.
Super creepy how Edward’s second face knows the “deeper, darker shame” of those he visits. He draws it out of Ethel and we understand more of her tough life. Terrible: Dell charges money, in their hardest times, to let people watch Ethel give birth, live and out in the open. So devastating. While the face on Edward’s head revels in the pain, he does not; his eyes are teary at the end of Ethel telling her sad tale. He does not, however, take Ethel with him back beyond.
Dandy, in little Michael Myers attire imitating his best clown, shows up back at the rusty old bus. Twisty is not there, but Dandy has a bit of fun terrorising the poor captives, each hungry and slowly going crazy. And when Twisty does show up, he’s got “more fun” for them.
Next episode is the second half, “Edward Mordrake Part 2”.