Spoiler Alert: Do not read if you haven’t seen American Horror Story: Freak Show Ep. 3 – “Edward Mordrake, Pt 1.”
"I swear, Dragnet is going to be the downfall of American culture."
I know its only three episodes in and AHS’ track record doesn’t exactly lend itself to hopefulness, but it certainly feels like this is a whole new American Horror Story. This episode introduced a whole host of new plotlines, from enterprising con man Stanley and his beautiful young assistant infiltrating the freak show to the superstition of Edward Mordrake come to life and searching the freak show for a new victim, but this episode still managed to feel balanced and focused in way that’s rarely (if ever) found in an AHS episode.
This tonal shift came courtesy of an episode focused on the tragic life of Ethel Darling. Ethel learned she a limited time left alive which set her thinking about the choices she’s made and the life she’s lead. The clown kidnappings, scrapples for top billing and green fog machined spirits were merely background to the moving, beautiful story of Ethel coming to terms with her own fate and what she will leave behind. And it really, really worked.
Freak Show has just as many plates spinning as every other season of AHS at the same point, but this season the show is taking its time and letting the story develop naturally. Well, as naturally as a story with evil carny spirits and 1952 covers of Lana Del Rey songs can be. And for the first time AHS has chosen to try a little thing called character development. It’s not exactly Ryan Murphy’s strong point, but with Ethel at least, he (or more accurately, his writing staff) nailed it.
I can only hope that the other characters in the story will get the same treatment in the coming episodes. Currently, Elsa is only saved by Jessica Lange’s performance because otherwise her only characteristic is a desire to be a star. Likewise, Jimmy is only defined by his desire for acceptance and Bette and Dot are mostly being characterized by their growing hatred of each other.
But the fact the time was taken to focus on the backstory of a character like Ethel bodes well for these other, more central, characters. Because as much as I want to know why Twisty is keeping children locked in a van or if Jimmy will ever learn Dell is his father, just watching the lives of these fascinating characters is entertainment enough.
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