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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"Edward Mordrake" Haunts the FREAK SHOW

Article first published as TV Review: 'American Horror Story: Freak Show' - 'Edward Mordrake' on Blogcritics.

“Edward Mordrake” is American Horror Story: Freak Show‘s two-part Halloween episode, airing last week and this one. In it, Edward Mordrake (Wes Bentley, The Hunger Games, American Beauty), the ghost of a circus man-gone-mad, comes to Jupiter to evaluate the freaks that make up our cast, intent to kill one of them to join his damned crew. His troupe will not accept just anyone, though.

In a character-driven series, this is a great device to delve deeper into the backstories of many of the players. With each of the freaks Edward encounters, he makes them tell him their deepest pain, judging whether they are acceptable to join him or not. This leads to some really interesting revelations, as well as phenomenal performances, something the FX anthology show is known for.

AHS3In part one, the best actress award goes to Kathy Bates. Her Ethel Darling is a transformative role for her in an already celebrated career, understated and underused until this point. Ethel is ready to die, having gotten news from her doctor that she’s got terminal cancer, drinking to speed up the dying process while she tells Mordrake’s story to the troupe. But in spilling her own tale to Mordrake, she realizes she wants the short time she has left and she begs for mercy. Mordrake doesn’t take her, but Bates takes our hearts in a compelling, layered performance of a woman facing her own mortality.

In part two, the award goes to John Carroll Lynch as Twisty the Clown. He is delivering a truly creepy character this year, the clown being the only one to really be afraid of in the first four episodes. In “Edward Mordrake,” though, the clown actually speaks and justifies his actions. He is a simpleton who doesn’t believe he’s doing anything wrong. It’s a brilliant take and Lynch sells it, making us feel genuinely sorry for him, as well as happy that he has a place where he is finally accepted when Mordrake chooses him to join the band.

AHS2Honorable mention goes to Jessica Lange, whose Elsa Mars has a very dark and very bloody past, and whom actually is accepted by Mordrake before he hears the clown. Elsa is a pathetic character, one whose insecurities make her freakier than those in her show. She is also the one who summons Mordrake, accidentally or not, so there would be a certain poetic justice if she goes with him. She can’t, of course, because Lange’s contributions to American Horror Story are too valuable to write her out four episodes in. But I like that she almost is taken because that feels right.

I would be remiss without also giving a shoutout to this year’s break-out star, Finn Wittrock, who plays Dandy Mott. Dandy has less screen time in “Edward Mordrake” than in previous weeks, but he is the most chilling character in American Horror Story: Freak Show. Seemingly normal, Dandy is as twisted as they come, and his growth in just four episodes, from restless spoiled brat to ruthless killer, filling the shoes of the departed Twisty, has been amazing. We don’t need Twisty any more because we now have Dandy, who may just be ten times worse.

AHS4It is sad that Dandy’s transformation leads him to murder Patti LaBelle’s Dora, whose sassy attitude towards him is terrific. We barely know her and she will be missed. But it makes sense for the story.

The other major development in “Edward Mordrake” is that Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters) becomes a hero, single-handedly getting the townspeople to accept the freaks camped on their borders. This arc has been brewing since the beginning, too, with Jimmy intent on showing folks that the freak show performers are just like anyone else. He doesn’t make any headway until he rescues three children from Twisty, but once he does, the attitude change is quick, one father even shaking his lobster hand without flinching. Jimmy has accomplished his original primary goal.

That doesn’t mean Jimmy’s story is done. Like Lange, Peters is essential to American Horror Story, serving as arguably the primary protagonist this season, or at least one of the core few. His bitterness at the police for killing his friend and his budding romance with con-woman Maggie (Emma Roberts), which likely turns somewhat genuine after she sees him in noble action, should keep him busy. But it’s a bold choice for the show to make to wrap up his first plot early and allow his thread to make a significant detour here.

American Horror Story: Freak Show is excellent, fully deserving of FX’s best ratings ever, which it is currently pulling down. I like past seasons a lot, but this one is definitely in the running for my favorite edition. Its characters are excellent and its performers are even better, giving meaty material to actors who deserve it and own it. In the past, I haven’t covered this show on a weekly basis, and admittedly, I did combine this two-parter into one review, but if it stays this good, expect to see a lot more from me on it.

American Horror Story: Freak Show airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX. Its run times vary, so make sure your DVR records the full length, as some weeks have aired almost half-an-hour past 11 p.m. and you won’t want to miss the endings.

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