Well. After ripping American Horror Story Freak Show a new one after last week’s episode, there’s been a Christmas miracle and it rebounded nicely with an episode that might be my favorite of the season. Although Episode 10 (Orphans) did something typically frustrating by mostly ignoring last week’s main storyline and largely minimizing its cliffhanger, the episode focused on fan-favorite character, Pepper (Naomi Grossman) in what is the closest thing the series has come to a stand-alone episode. In doing so, it returned to linear storytelling in a sweet, coherent way.
The episode begins with another death in the “monster” family, this time by natural causes. Salty (Christopher Neiman) has died in his sleep, lying next to his soul mate, Pepper. Now, you can take exception to the fact that Salty has been a background character at best who is suddenly thrust into the spotlight. Or, like me, you can appreciate the discovery that comes from suddenly learning about a minor character who is true to the story and whose loss has a devastating effect on the others. In reality, his death is just the catalyst for telling Pepper’s story, from beginning to end.
Pepper was Elsa’s (Jessica Lange) first monster. In flashback, Elsa goes to the place “where they throw people away”, an orphanage, and finds Pepper. After making the emotional statement that it was the first time she felt unconditional love, Elsa follows with a less emotional purpose for doing this, “I knew after her first performance she was a keeper.” When Elsa trades 3 cases of Dr. Pepper with a visiting maharaja in exchange for her second monster, Ma Petite, the new addition to the family meets Pepper’s maternal needs.
But she needed more. So at a home for wayward boys in Cincinnati, Elsa finds Salty. It’s love at first sight between the two monsters and they’re soon married. About the wedding, Elsa says, “The bride and groom knew six words between them, but it was deeply moving.” This backstory demonstrates how truly devastating the loss is for Pepper, so much so that Elsa wants someone who can take care of her when she runs off to Hollywood. She takes Pepper to her sister (Mare Winningham), an alcoholic who is clearly going to bring this story to a bad end.
In a heartbreaking scene, Pepper whispers, “Stay,” to Elsa, who responds by telling her, “No matter how far away, I will always be your family.” The additional emotional level here is that no matter how much Elsa claims to care about another person, she really cares about only herself. In the entire final segment of the episode, we take a time shift to 1962 Massachusetts where Pepper has been framed for a hideous crime. The relationship between at least two of the seasons is explained and we see the fate of this season’s primary character.
For a fan of American Horror Story, this segment is pure gold. I’m not sure how relevant it is to the season’s overall story, but it’s vital to the mythology of the entire show. You can take exception to the distraction; or like me, you can appreciate it as a gift. When Sister Mary Eunice McKee (Lily Rabe) looks into Pepper’s eyes and asks, “Do I see real remorse in your eyes?” then says, “Redemption may be closer than I thought,” I had a mental flashback to season two, Asylum, some of the most disturbing, “out there” television I’ve ever seen. You know what’s coming for Pepper.
Upon reviewing my notes, I realize there was indeed some advancement on the storyline of Jimmy being arrested for last episode’s “Tupperware Party Massacre.” It’s just that, in another typically frustrating habit of the show, the amount of time spent on major developments is not proportional to the amount of time spent on secondary characters. This can be disorienting from week to week. Anyway, in between chapters of Pepper’s story, Maggie (Emma Roberts) teams up with Des (Angela Bassett) in a plan to expose Stanley (Denis O’Hare) and rescue Jimmy (Evan Peters). Maggie says, “I want to do the right thing for once. I want to help Jimmy.”
Unfortunately, at the same time, Stanley draws Jimmy into a scheme that will make himself some money. The two tracks meet at the American Morbidity Museum where Maggie and Des face horror after horror, culminating in a cliffhanger even more shocking than last week’s. Like so many things on American Horror Story, it almost comes from nowhere, yet allows the viewers to put the pieces together in a way that’s true to the characters and the story. It makes sense; there’s not a false note to it. It just isn’t presented in the most conventional way.
My final note is that it’s time for me to admit that Angela Bassett is going to play only a supporting role in the story. I’ve been waiting all season for her to step into the limelight. But now I appreciate her purpose. More so, I appreciate the humor that her character brings; she has some of the best lines, such as, “I wasn’t born on a farm, but I sure do know bullshit when I smell it!” All right, I guess the humor of the line itself is debatable, but her delivery of it is hilarious. It almost compensates for the fact that Orphans was an episode without Dandy. Almost.