We open with Elsa giving a poignant voice over of another of the Carnival performers dying (explaining also how not very unexpected it is), this time Salty, one of the two microcephalic performers. Pepper is very upset over Salty’s death and won’t leave his body.
Eve and Paul call in Elsa to encourage her to leave the body and Elsa reflects on the relatively short lives of microcephalics and that others expect too little of Pepper’s understanding – seeming to think she doesn’t understand death. We also see that Pepper was the one who found Salty’s body when he died in his sleep. Of course Elsa is far from a saint and when alone with Stanley she complains about how hard it was to communicate with Salty compared to Pepper
She also seems to be losing patience with Stanley but he’s quick to pull out a telegram allegedly from a studio network and urge her to rest more before the meeting – and be less stressed. Elsa wants to be there for Pepper but Stanley insists she rests and he’ll take care of everything; she resists his plans but he gets his own way
His own way being beheading Salty and sending the head to the museum where he’s already sent Ma Petite.
Desiree reads to pepper to comfort her when Dell comes in to praise her, admit his faults and ask for a second chance, but she denies he owes her anything (saying he saved her too – which I don’t remember – so the debt’s clear) and that she’s never going to be able to make him happy. He leaves to get ready for the show and Pepper has a tantrum about her not staying – Desiree is not amused and has a perfect not-impressed face before telling Pepper to clean up.
Desiree goes to see Elsa who explains that Pepper has major abandonment issues – Desiree archly questions what will happen when Elsa leaves, then – with Ma Petite, Salty and Elsa all leaving Pepper. Elsa decides to exposition her own history when she first came to the US to avoid Hitler – and whether she was pretty ruthless and nasty back then too. In between sabotaging her competition, Elsa realised that Freak Shows would be big during the war because “freaks” wouldn’t be called up to fight or work unlike other entertainers. Though even then she saw the “freaks” as bait to get an audience to watch her.
To find “freaks” she decided to go to an Orphanage where, as she puts it, people throw other people away since few people saw any worth in people like Pepper. There she found 18 year old Pepper, left by her loving but overwhelmed sister. Elsa both refers to Pepper with great affection – and as “her first monster.”
As her show grew she realised Pepper was feeling maternal and, adamantly refusing the possibility that Pepper could be a mother, that moves onto Ma Petite’s story and how she joined the troupe. Ma Petite was treated as a pet, and also faced prejudice as a Dalit caste, and her current “owner” wouldn’t part with her and cannot sell her in a way that would imply she is valuable. So she’s traded for Dr. Pepper
What? What is this? Beyond really clumsy product placement?
Having secured a “child” Elsa then went seeking a husband – finding Salty and holding a wedding for them. Elsa describes herself as a fairy godmother for Pepper to Desiree. Desiree, realising just how much the loss of Salty and Ma Petite mean to Pepper, says they have to find Pepper’s sister. Elsa agrees – it’s time for Pepper to go home
Which is where Elsa takes Pepper – to see her sister Rita who, among other things, says she couldn’t keep her sister if she hoped to marry and have children. Rita says she can’t have Pepper because of her husband even as Elsa praises Pepper and eventually she loses her temper and yells at Rita to “stand up to him,” pushing Rita to accept her. Elsa makes a powerful and tragic goodbye to Pepper - then leaves, while a heartbroken Pepper looks on. Ooooh Pepper.
Moving on – Maggie is all sad and drinking about Jimmy in her tent when Desiree brings her new boyfriend Angus in for a reading; apparently he fell for her after seeing her dance topless. Maggie does a reading for them – carefully reading cues and tells from him to be eerily accurate. I like that – it’s nice to see her do her thing which we’ve only seen once. But smarting, broken hearted and bitter Maggie can’t stand to see Desiree and Angus coo so much so predicts that their relationship will end badly in a huge dramatic rant.
Maggie either needs a lot more or a lot less booze. She aims for more booze when the camp is closed and Desiree tracks her down to give a big piece of her mind. Maggie confesses to being a grifter – her and Stanley. Time for her flashback of how she didn’t have parents “not really” and Stanley caught her scamming and agreed to, basically, apprentice her (she getting a 10% cut of their earnings). Desiree is suspicious about what grifters would want with the freak show – and she doesn’t buy Maggie’s explanation that they’re picking the crowd’s pockets. She draws a connection to the missing/dead performers. Maggie tries to bravado through but Desiree isn’t having that – she grabs Maggie and tells her if she’s behind harming the freaks, Desiree will kill her.
When Maggie finally gets back to her tent she finds the twins there offering Maggie money (which they were saving for their surgery) to get Jimmy a lawyer. Angry Maggie is not slightly amused by being used as a go-between to help Jimmy; she cruelly puts naïve Bette down until Dot speaks up cutting through Maggie’s cynicism and throwing the money at her – ordering her to do right by Jimmy.
Stanley goes to visit Jimmy in gaol where he tries to reach out to Jimmy by revealing he’s an Orphan (because we’re really pushing this theme) and we learn that Jimmy’s alcoholic memory loss means even he doesn’t know if he killed the Tupperware Party or not (hey did you wake up covered in blood? Because being so drunk you can’t remember a slaughter is one thing – but being that drunk and still having the presence of mind to clean yourself is another). Stanley believes in Jimmy and is going to get a good lawyer for him (well, the son of a good lawyer) and Jimmy needs to stop talking to anyone who isn’t his lawyer (also very good advice). Oh but he needs money – and when Jimmy confirms he doesn’t have any, Stanley may have an idea.
This will probably not be good advice.
Back to camp and Desiree is learning to cook – Maggie arrives to praise her and “make things right” (presumably because Desiree isn’t going to let her little confession go). When alone she tells Desiree she wants to help everyone including Jimmy otherwise everyone will be dead. In response to this cryptic nonsense, Desiree says “I don’t like riddles, never have” throws up her hands and walks away.
Desiree just became my favourite character in everything ever.
Maggie runs after her and begs her to see something first. She takes Desiree to the Morbidity museum for a witness to help expose Stanley. She sees Ma Petite’s preserved body. Maggie describes how Stanley was paid large sums of money for Ma Petite’s body – and why she was murdered; Desiree is obviously horrified and furious (oh someone definitely dies for this). She also sees Salty’s head, but when the newest exhibit is revealed – a pair of lobster hands –it’s Maggie who faints.
Back to Rita, Pepper’s sister, some years later in 1963 being interviewed by Sister Mary Eunice of Briarcliff (Sister Wet Lettuce who becomes Sister Demon Nun!). Rita’s story is she had a surprise miracle baby – one born “deformed” and while she was recovering (and drinking Martinis) Pepper looked after the baby (and made those cocktails for Rita). She claims Pepper was walking around naked and obsessing over her husband Larry. She also claims that Pepper killed the baby.
Actual flashbacks show all this drinking, the baby crying, Pepper as a servant and Larry being completely intolerant of everything and loathes both Pepper and the baby which he says in horrendous terms. Larry pressures Rita to say she never bonded with the baby – she does and Larry says they should both be gone. Larry murders the baby and blames Pepper, in Larry’s words “killing 2 birds with one stone”
Pepper is taken away and institutionalised, but she wins the heart of Sister Wet Lettuce who makes her a “special project” (I think this goes back to Elsa’s characterisation of Pepper as a pure, good soul). In one of the magazines she piles up, we see that Elsa has actually become a TV star.
Ok there was a LOT in this episode – and it was really well done in many ways as well.
Elsa’s relationship to Pepper is interesting and complex and I like how a lot of it was shown through Pepper’s story. It’d be simple to just say Elsa doesn’t care about the performers – but it’s clear she does care for them, just not as people. She sees them in much the same way people see pets – beloved, certainly, but not human. And it all relates back to her ego – and using them to increase her audience AND to provide a constant audience. She mentions Pepper’s unconditional love and throughout the series we’ve seen Elsa rail at the performers for “ingratitude” – Elsa expects gratitude, love and adoration from her performers. They are there, at least in part, to be her worshippers. It’s a very well presented dehumanising way they are treated which has strong parallels in the real world as well – the saviour mentality, the expectation of praise, gratitude and fawning, would-be saints blessing the “unfortunate” and expecting adulation in response. And as long as that adulation keeps happening, they (like Elsa) will go to great lengths to keep their “projects” happy – but they are projects, hobbies and not people and, like Elsa, the goodwill is dependent on her continued interest AND that continued adulation. For American Horror Story it’s a really well done presentation and analysis.
I’m curious as to why a super wealthy Maharaja has decided to travel to this backwoods fair. I am glad to see more of Pepper’s and Ma Petite’s back story (though Ma Petite needed far more) since both had been absent and they were background characters for the rest. However, there’s still an ongoing problem of Ma Petite, a grown woman, being infantilised from the very beginning and now with extra exotification. There’s also the added discomfort if Pepper’s actress – while bringing an absolutely excellent and heartbreaking performance – not actually being microcephalitic.
Pepper’s whole very powerful storyline is a brutal indictment of how disposable disabled people are often regarded, even now we have the “burden” message firmly ensconced – disabled people are something that able bodied people endure. There’s also an interesting side message with Elsa clearly dismissing Pepper’s suitability as mother (again, a recurring message used against disabled people) yet it’s clear that Pepper was a far better parent than Rita or Larry. It also links not just with American Horror Story: Asylum and how Pepper ended up there – but it goes back to the point I made in the beginning of this series about the complexities of Freak Shows and the dubious but only port of safety they offered people with few other options. The Freak Show is bad, but not as bad as Briarcliff.
Desiree has her good moments – with confidence and strength to match Elsa’s and really this episode just shows how criminally underused she has been all season. Her comments on how her being intersex meant she wasn’t taught how to cook (and too often today she will be expected to be able to, let alone in thr 1950s) like her sisters were is pertinent point on both the damages of gender roles AND those who do not fit the binary. And even Maggie, at odds with Desiree, is quick to acknowledge how tough she is. And that “I don’t like riddles, never have” line will make me worship her forever
Sadly, even in this episode, she has to be sexualised.
I do think this series has touched several times on the patriarchy and misogyny of the era – and we keep getting more hints of that but I feel more is needed, especially since they were so clumsy with with Penny’s story
One thing I find interesting about Maggie this episode is she is displaying behaviour that we’d most often see in a man – yes, she’s borrowed some Manpain. She’s hurting so she’s getting drunk and being obnoxious and taking her issues out on everyone else – and, tellingly, no-one’s standing for it.