“American Horror Story: Freak Show” Review: “Edward Mordrake: Part One”

In order to enjoy American Horror Story:  Freak Show, or the series as a whole, really, you have to be able to take the good with the bad and just accept the series as it is, warts and all.  While part of last night’s episode was a little tedious–I’m still not sold that this 1 hr, 23 min. format is a good idea–there were also parts that showcased the series’ strengths, making this a solid lead-up to Halloween.

The scenes with Ethel were particularly poignant ones, and they gave us a much-needed look into her backstory and what makes her tick.  If Elsa remains something of an enigma–and a not very likable one at that–Ethel is the beating human heart of this story.  Her tearful encounter with the doctor was a strong beginning, and the revelation of Dell’s horrid manipulation and abandonment of her, as well as her absolute willingness to die, allow her to occupy a privileged position as we watch her march resolutely toward her own death.  The fact that Mordrake recognizes her virtue underscores what the series obviously wants us to believe of her.

Part of what continues to make this season pleasurable to watch, however, is the way in which it consciously plays with the vestiges of its cinematic predecessors.  The flashback scenes including the sinister Edward Mordrake were eerily reminiscent of the horror classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Todd Browning’s Freaks continues to exert a powerful pull on the narrative and on our consciousness.  And, of course, there is the ever-present shadow of Marlene Dietrich, who continues to serve as the inspiration for Elsa’s antics.  This season of AHS, perhaps more than any other, seems designed in part to provide a specific set of viewing pleasures for the cinephile and the film buff who knows his horror film history.

The best line of the night, as always, went to Elsa who, when confronted with the myth of Edward Mordrake, proudly declaims:  “I am the only myth around here.”  Lange continues to shine, and I particularly appreciated tonight’s allusion to her long-standing competition with Marlene Dietrich whom, she claims, stole her career.  Of course, we in the audience are really expected to believe that Elsa could ever have been up there in the ranks of one of cinema’s most celebrated actresses, but I think we can all agree that Jessica Lange continues to show that she can gather around herself the sort of faded female glamour that made Dietrich so compelling in her later roles (and I’m thinking of her roles in both Touch of Evil and Witness for the Prosecution) and invite us as viewers along for the campy ride.  Perhaps no actress working in television today can so forthrightly and confidently evoke a mingled sense of pitiful and powerful in the same character.

All in all, this most recent entry was a strong one, with some excellent performances and some clever allusions to the past.  Now that Mordrake has been added to the mix, along with two hucksters (Denis O’Hare, swoon), it’s really hard to say what is going to happen next.  Just as compellingly, we know now that the twins may not be twins for that much longer, as it seems that Dot is determined to gain her freedom from Bette, even if that means the death of her sister.  This episode raises the troubling fear of what exactly a set of conjoined twins should do if it turns out that one wants to live a life of their own.  As Dot says, at least one of them can be happy if they end up going through the the separation.

Of course, no review of the episode would be complete without generous priase for Patti LaBelle, who continues to show her defiance and disgust with Dandy and his murderous impulses.  Though Dora hovers at the edges of the main narrative, like Ethel she seems to be one of its more steadfast characters, standing firm, even though she is surrounded by all of the madness and horror that has infected the white middle-class home that she works in.  Thought it might be too much to ask for, we can but hope that she will one day visit a bit of well-deserved justice on Dandy.  We can but hope.

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