American Horror Story: Freak Show: The God of Carnies

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My favorite season of American Horror Story was Asylum. I know a lot of people didn't like it because it was too confusing and unfocused. There were lots of loose threads left over, and the season ranged across many different horror genres.

That's the key to what makes the show strong, though. Horror is a genre that is best served in small, fast doses. If your horror movie is longer than 90 minutes you're in trouble, so how else does 12 hours or so of the stuff hold up but by switching up the game?

This was the first week of Freak Show to tap into a new kind of horror. Up until now we've had the physical disgust of deformity, the brutality of a masked killer and some nice psychotic behavior from otherwise normal people. All good, solid horror tent poles, but also all easily fitting into the larger realism of the freak show experiment we're seeing this season.

Now we come to something supernatural in the form of Edward Mordrake.

Now, Edward Mordrake is another example of the show lifting curious oddities of the past. Mordrake was a real English gentleman of good breeding who was indeed rumored to have a demonic second face on the back of his head that laughed, smiled and whispered horrid things to his handsome and otherwise charming main body. Lines from the episode even quote directly from the 1896 text Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine.

Mind you, most of it was probably bullshit, but let's not tell anyone.

Mordrake has become a legend among carny folk. Should any perform on Halloween, it will summon him to take a freak with him back to his hellish lair. This time, he is brought into the world by this week's rehearsal of a musical number by Elsa Mars. Side note there: I really like Lana Del Ray a lot better after hearing her through the lips of Jessica Lange. I can't wait for the soundtrack of this season.

Instead of Elsa, though, Mordrake sets his sights on Ethel, despondent and drunk after hearing unfortunate medical news. Kathy Bates shows off everything that made her a legend this week, though we do find out that awful accent she's trying to do is from Baltimore. Mush-mouthing aside, her life has been one of profound loss and sorrow, but also of curious triumphs and even love.

Mordrake, played with courtly brilliance by Wes Bentley, coaxes her tale out of her with grace and gentleness, a nice allusion to earlier in the episode when she lamented that if her previous doctors had treated her as a person instead of a freak earlier in her life, she might be in better shape.

Strange as it is, this season seems to be largely about kindness. Odd for a horror vehicle, but there it is. Amid the blood and the chaos and everything else going on, it's almost all about how we treat each other and how much better most of them deserve to be treated.

The best horror has a timeless moral. That goes all the way back to tales from the dark woods. American Horror Story continues to wow this season in that and many other regards.

Jef has a new story, a tale of headless strippers and The Rolling Stones, available now in Broken Mirrors, Fractured Minds. You can also connect with him on Facebook.

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