Tendrils of Edward Mordrake’s (Wes Bentley) Dracularian green mist leads the camera into the crux of Episode 4, the concluding half of the Halloween two-parter. Dressed in his Victoriana garb of top hat and cloak, Edward cuts a fine, gothic silhouette, as he stalks through the big top like Jack the Ripper in search of his next victim; the carnival’s penance for Elsa’s contravene performance.
It’s a continuation of last week’s chilling audit of shame, pain and grief within Elsa’s Freak Show: he visits each performer to extract the story of their darkest hour, to expose their morality and determine whose soul is suitably corrupt to join his posthumous freak show of the damned.
American Horror Story has always been a purveyor of the backstory flashback and Episode 4 has backstories coming out the ya-ya. Together, the Halloween episodes break the series’ signature pattern of drip-feeding origin stories episode by episode and instead presents a Smorgasbord of at least half a dozen meaty character histories, all told in emotional and intimate scenes interspersed with footage of the events as they unfurl. Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) unsurprisingly steals the limelight with her harrowing tale set in the seedy bowels of 1940s Berlin, a city that crawls with sexually depraved Nazis rendered in grainy monochrome.
“I could never make the world love me, so why not make it fear me?” asks Paul the Illustrated Seal Boy (Mat Fraser) during a beautifully melancholy monologue. It’s a poignant line that embodies the fraught relationship between the carnival and the inhabitants of Jupiter, Florida. It’s a symbiotic relationship: the carnies rely on the patronage of the town to make a living and – as Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters) says – the townsfolk are entertained by the freak show because “it makes them feel normal”. There’s an obvious fragility to this arrangement because it relies on the performers remaining in character, hiding behind their stage names and keeping their humanity tucked away at all times. Whenever the town encounters the carnies out of context, an atmosphere of fear and mistrust dominates the exchange. In Episode 4, Edward Mordrake strips back the curtain and allows these characters to be vulnerable, individual and human.
Of course, no backstory is anticipated more than that of Twisty the Clown (John Caroll Lynch) and for fans of the malevolent killer, the wait is over. The words “[He makes us watch] clown stuff” are perhaps some of the most terrifying ever spoken (after the dreaded “Netflix is experiencing technical difficulties”).
Rumours that each season of American Horror Story operates in the same fictional plane, that each season interweaves with the others to form a narrative web that spans both space and time, have been confirmed this week by creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck. Apparently the eagle-eyed fan may spot threads of Season 5 stitched into the fabric of Freak Show and, according to the rumour mill, Episode 4 contains definitive proof, beyond the inclusion of Natalie Grossman as Pepper, that Season 2 and Season 4 are inextricably linked. Our money’s on a certain Season 2 Doctor with an intimate knowledge of Nazi Germany and a penchant for amputation…
American Horror Story: Freak Show is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. Seasons 1, 2 and 3 are also available.