Visitors mortal and beyond mortal visit the freak show, while Halloween casts a shadow over Jupiter.

By Darren Franich
Updated October 23, 2014 at 07:36 AM EDT

American Horror Story

S4 E3
  • TV Show

The American Morbidity Museum is having a tough year. People aren’t shelling out cash for the corpse bits of malformed human beings anymore; they have The Ed Sullivan Show now. Which makes it an excellent time for the arrival of Dr. Mansfield and his associate, Ms. Rothschild. Dr. Mansfield has a double degree from Harvard University: One in Cock and another in Bull, to judge by the wares he’s peddling. That Baby Sasquatch is just a fetal goat with the jawbone of a cat; any appraiser worth his salt could tell that. But the proprietor of the museum can recognize sharpies, especially when those sharpies are the latest variations of Denis O’Hare and Emma Roberts, who are required by law to play People Who Aren’t What They Seem on American Horror Story. If they can furnish some freaks, the museum can furnish some cash for them. They pay top dollar for conjoined livers; imagine what they’d pay for conjoined bodies.

It’s Halloween in Florida, which means clowns and clowns and clowns. It’s also that very special time of year when people who’ve lived rough lives somehow discover a new low. Poor Ethel the Bearded Lady has been dry for years–but all that time on the bottle has left her with cirrhosis of the liver. She’s got six months to live, maybe a year. And yet, that’s not what makes Ethel cry. It’s the fact that her doctor is so kind to her. He can tell she’s lived a hard life; he knows, without being told, that she’s seen the very worst of human nature. How different my life would’ve been, Ethel thinks to herself, if I’d met a doctor like this before. Or just any man like this, ever. When Kathy Bates cries, the world cries with her.

The doctor tells Ethel not to touch a drop of alcohol. This being American Horror Story, Ethel immediately pours herself a dram or five of the hard stuff. The Elsa Mars Carnival Spectacular is taking a break today. No freak show performs on Halloween, you see. Ethel relates the story to us: The sad tale of Edward Mordrake, a member of the British nobility, a duke or earl or duke of earl. Edward had a little problem: He could only grow Bentley Brand™ Gloriously Horrible facial hair. And also he has a face on the back of his head, whispering to him, driving him mad. (Or, in Ethel’s accent, “mee-yid.”)

Mordrake was sent to an insane asylum. He escaped; he wound up in a freak show; he performed beautiful music that he wrote himself; and he murdered every single freak in the show before hanging himself. I suspect this is all some sort of metaphor for the creative process: That voice in your head whispering nefarious evils, saying that you aren’t good enough or occasionally choosing the worst moment to tell you just how good you are. (It’s also possible that this is Ryan Murphy’s way of secretly revealing that he has a face on the back of his head.)

Any freak show that performs on Halloween will receive a visit from Mordrake. But there’s another visitor looming on the outskirts of the carnival, bringing ill tidings her way. That would be the aforementioned Emma Roberts, who presents herself as a fortune teller to the opium-addled Elsa. She sees dark tidings. She can see into Elsa’s past; she sees clearly that Elsa’s brilliant career was stolen by that infamous scoundrel Marlene Dietrich. Elsa hires her immediately. (It’s not immediately clear whether Ms. Rothschild’s gift is genuine, or bunk, or the kind of gift that is supposedly bunk but turns out to be genuine.)

NEXT: One head is better than two

You know who’s having a great Halloween? Dot. She has the most wonderful dream, wherein she walks onto the set of The Knick and asks a Clive Owen lookalike to chop off that pesky other head on her shoulders. Because of the sister’s mental link, Bette happens to have the exact same dream. She sees the bonesaw moving towards her neck; she hears Dot explain that she’s a success now, with a man who wants to love her. “Aren’t you afraid you’d miss me?” asks Bette, who not so long ago was so bright and happy and innocent in the ways of the world outside her doorstep. “One of us has a chance at happiness,” says her sister. Surely, neither of them is enjoying this miserable conjoined existence? Dot lays it on the line simple as can be: She’s going to save her money, and she will find a doctor who will remove her sister’s head. One conjoined twin declaring her intention to murder the other one: Yep, it’s just another episode of Modern Family!

Meanwhile, Strongman Chiklis and Tri-Breasted Bassett are settling in real nice here in Jupiter, Florida. Bassett puts on something special, just for her man. But Strongman Chiklis appears to be suffering from failure to launch. Desiree is upset; you get the vibe they’ve been like this for months. (Perhaps this is why she found herself in flagrante with that fella back in Chicago.) Dell, in a fury, storms away from the trailer—and runs right into Ethel, who’s poured herself a couple dozen more drams of some harder stuff. They proceed to have one of the most emotionally incoherent conversations in the history of ex-couples. Last week, Ethel told Dell not to talk to their son; now, she basically asks him to help raise Jimmy when she’s gone. Dell, in response, casually tells her that he never loved her one bit, before staring moony-eyed into the middle distance and wondering how different things might have been if he’d stayed. This shouldn’t really make sense, but it kind of does, #BecauseBates #BecauseChiklis.

Dot is anxious to stage a rehearsal, which has everyone nervous, because according to the rigid rules of logic that govern carnie mythology, even just pretending to perform for an audience is enough to apparate Edward Mordrake. But Elsa knocks her offstage, riding high off the Emma Roberts Premonition of a tall dark stranger coming her way. This week’s Wildly Anachronistic Musical Performance is Lana Del Rey’s “Gods and Monsters,” with Elsa declaring on multiple occasions that she is “Living like Jim Morrison,” who would have been not quite ten at that particular moment in history. (ASIDE: Doesn’t Lana Del Rey seem like such a prime Ryan Murphy personage? The fascination with fame as an addictive drug, the nihilistic death-love sensibility, the weird mixture of retro-pop and death-dystopia. I’m anticipating that season 16 will be American Horror Story: Del Rey, starring North West as Lana Del Rey and Lana Del Rey as Kim Kardashian and Kim Kardashian as the ghost of Abigail Adams. END OF ASIDE.)

Sure enough, Edward Mordrake appears. Sure enough, he starts tormenting the freak show, looking for a victim. Mordrake’s method isn’t quite clear: He wants to pick one person for his coterie of sad souls, and apparently the act of picking the right person requires everyone to reveal their deepest secrets. He finds Ethel and learns her story. She was a favorite on the vaudeville set, but an attempt to go highbrow with Shakespeare ended her career; soon enough, the only way she could earn a dollar was to let people watch her give birth in a lonely field, Dell grabbing their newborn child and declaring him a freak on the spot. Apparently, this sorrowful tale did not qualify her for whatever damnation Mordrake and his Visage bring with them; they departed in a puff of green smoke, bringing Wes Bentley’s curious accent with them. (The working subtitle for this season was American Horror Story: Inexplicable Accents.)

I don’t want to even get too deep into this week’s clown antics, since it seems likely to be a bigger part of next week’s Halloween conclusion. Suffice it to say that Dandy put on a clown mask, which delivered a genuine homage to the original Halloween; that he couldn’t quite bring himself to murder noble maid Dora, possibly because she was rocking a sweet Woody Woodpecker costume; and that the episode concluded with Dandy the Clown hanging out with Mouthless the Clown, preparing all manner of abuse for their latest victim.

Also, the new version of Denis O’Hare apparently has a rather large, ahem, degree from Harvard.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

Episode Recaps

American Horror Story

An anthology series that centers on different characters and locations, including a haunted house, an insane asylum, a witch coven, a freak show, and a hotel.

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