Film and TV

American Horror Story: Freak Show: Ladies and Gentlemen, Naomi Grossman

I had seriously contemplated asking my editor if maybe covering American Horror Story this season was worth continuing. Since the end of the Edward Mordrake story arc, the show has stumbled through its second act being neither particularly scary or especially riveting drama-wise. For the first half of "Orphans," I found about as much pleasure playing with my phone as I did on the screen.

Sure, Esmeralda showing off the massacre of freaks that her partner Stanley has been masterminding was good for some shock value, including a rather obvious twist ending that was powerful for all that it was predictable. Still, it was at least a little horrifying.

And then there was Pepper.

Naomi Grossman holds the distinction of playing the exact same role in two separate seasons, and her appearances as Pepper in Asylum were worthy of song and legend. Alternating between a simpleminded pinhead and the brilliant agent of a still-unexplained alien force, Grossman was the hidden treasure of the show.

Then we saw her in Freak Show and it felt like a criminal waste. Pepper has barely appeared throughout the run, and has been utterly inconsequential when she did. I mean, it was neat to have an Asylum character running around, but there didn't seem to be much point. She was, pardon the pun, a sideshow.

Then suddenly, just as the season was possibly at its most boring, Grossman takes center stage to link together the two seasons with a shocking and unexpected swerve that left me in tears. Her life, from the moment Elsa found her in an orphanage to the moment we meet her in Asylum, gets the Godfather II treatment, and it's the saddest, sickest, most evilly beautiful thing ever.

Without spoiling it, the murderous backstory we heard in Season 2 turns out to be the cruelest lie ever told. We unfortunately don't get to see that talkative, intelligent version of Pepper this episode, but Lily Rabe reprises her role as Sister Eunice to utter perfection. The two of them weave this broken, tragic dance of misunderstood felinity that touches on motherhood, sin, abandonment and love.

Rabe is great, as she always is, but it's Grossman that I sincerely hope will drown in Emmys after this episode. Though she's largely silent, her gifted ability to articulate through gestures and facial expressions even under heavy make-up is monumental. Beneath a monstrous visage is a soul so pure and loving that giving it lines would probably just ruin it.

It makes me wish that Pepper had been a character in her own self-contained movie or something, but that wouldn't have been as good as this single episode was. It came out of nowhere, building on old threads and pieces of the background that seemed unimportant until Grossman stood front stage to show off her skill. It was damned near perfect. If you've never seen a single episode of American Horror Story, this is the one you should see, and if you've been watching since the beginning, then can we all just agree nothing will ever be better than this?

Oh wait, when the show comes back January 7, we get Neil Patrick Harris as a magician and a possessed ventriloquist dummy. Looks like the third act has something great to show after all!

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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner