American Horror Story: Freak Show Pits Freak Against Freak

The fourth season dives deep into questions of exploitation versus celebrity, and survival versus meaning.

Michele K. Short/FX

American Horror Story: Freak Show is not about freaks, it’s about people. People with two heads, people missing torsos, people with lobster hands or lady-beards, and people who bite off live chicken heads, but people nonetheless. Elsa Mars’s (Jessica Lange) collection of misfits may fly under the “freak” banner onstage before paying customers at night, but after the curtains close and in the mouths of the “normal” world, the word becomes a slur. The refrain “them vs. us,” however paranoid and unsavory, is a necessary mode of survival.

In last night’s episode “Edward Mordrake, Part 1,” Freak Show laid bare an idea it had only been riffing on during the first two episodes: The most insidious threat to freaks comes not from the outside world, but from other freaks.

The two-part episode focuses on an old freak community superstition about Edward Mordrake (Wes Bentley), a tortured 19th-century performer with a malevolent face on the back of his skull whose spirit is summoned every time a freak show performs on Halloween. And Mordrake, remembered for murdering his entire troupe before hanging himself, won’t return to the spectral ether whence he came until the Voldemort face under his hair claims the life of a single freak.

Despite the warnings of her troupe, Elsa goes rogue and decides to do a solo performance of Lana Del Rey’s “Gods and Monsters” (a welcome break from Lange’s trademark whisper-acting). Earlier in the day, con artist Maggie Esmeralda (Emma Roberts) visits the freak show posing as a fortuneteller and seduces Elsa with bogus visions of becoming a star. The plan to embed within the group and somehow obtain a priceless freak cadaver involves telling Elsa that a dark-haired mysterious stranger (Maggie’s partner Stanley, played by Dennis O’Hare) will visit her soon and guide her to greatness.

So naturally, when a brunette Edward Mordrake floats into the performance tent, girded by green fog, Elsa sees him and smiles knowingly, gratefully. At this point, her desire for fame has begun driving a palpable wedge between her and her performers, once beloved without caveat, and now cast as inconvenient baggage. When Mordrake visits Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates) as a potential sacrifice, she reveals a sad past with paramour Del Toledo (Michael Chiklis) and her deepest pain: how in their most penniless days, the couple sold tickets to Ethel’s “live freak birth,” exploiting the earliest moments of Jimmy Darling’s (Evan Peters) life.

In a freak-eat-freak world, an outcast can, and often does, choose exploitation to survive. But freaks are people, and people have egos that are not easily quenched by mere display as part of a sideshow of human curiosities. So here’s the two-headed question: Why settle for exploitation when you can have stardom? Why settle for survival when you can have meaning?

The sad answer is that in Freak Show the desire for stardom, for glory, for meaning corrupts and sometimes kills. Newfound star Dot makes no secret of her wishes to remove her conjoined sister Bette (Sarah Paulson) so that “one of us will have a life.” Dot stabs her mother to death for interfering with her dreams of a glamorous, Hollywood-inspired life. It’s hard to condemn their desires to hear cheers instead of jeers, just as it’s hard to expect a group of people to peddle their eccentricities without wanting to maintain some sense of self, however inflated.

Similarly, Elsa’s desire to preserve her family of freaks crumbles when lured by the machinations of a con artist teasing the promise of fame and destiny. In a town called Jupiter and with a last name like Mars, why settle for anything less than cosmic greatness?