American Horror Story, Ep. 4.04, “Edward Mordrake (Part Two)” takes a nasty turn

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American Horror Story: Freak Show, Episode 4, “Edward Mordrake (Part Two)”
Written by Jennifer Salt
Directed by Howard Deutch
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on FX

American Horror Story: Freak Show has been making campy nods towards a variety of horror cliches throughout the season’s first three episodes, and “Edward Mordrake (Part Two)” points towards a new subset of the genre—torture porn. Even the most gruesome moments of the previous episodes carry a comic, winking touch to them that keeps them light (without allowing for a few chills). However, in “(Part Two),” the humor is replaced by a noticeably sadistic streak that’s neither as fun nor as scary as the previous tone.

The contrast is starkest in the Twisty and Dandy scenes. Whereas the Twisty segments in the first three episodes focus primarily on his hunts for victims, his scenes this week are exclusively about his torture of victims. Tension (for example, in the slow but intense build of the cold open of “Monsters and Matinees”) is replaced by depictions of flat-out brutality and struggling victims. Director Howard Deutch briefly attempts to inject the episode with suspense when Maggie and Jimmy are hiding from Twisty, but whatever excitement the moment captures is truncated immediately by the torture. Like Saw, Hostel, and other torture porn films, anticipation is sacrificed in favor of sheer shock value. The sight of Twisty sans mask is suitably grotesque, but there’s a casual nature to its reveal which makes it feel gross, rather than scary. There’s certainly a place for shock (for example, to go back to “Monsters,” in the severed head and brutal stabbing that punctuate the opening scene), but it needs preparation for it to have impact, which “(Part Two)” sorely lacks.

The brutality is hardly just seen in Twisty’s excerpts. As Mordrake discusses Elsa’s past with her, in an effort to determine whether or not she is to be his victim, the accompanying visual flashback depicts the loss of her legs at the hands of some ill-intentioned German snuff filmmakers. The cold, calculating Elsa that’s been shown so far is replaced by a helpless victim. While the flashback scenes so far have all been calculated towards showcasing unpleasantness in the characters’ pasts, thus establishing the reasons for their unhappy lives, Elsa’s reminiscence is a new low for Freak Show in terms of exploitation and outright meanness.

It’s not all about brutality and gore, though. As with last week, Mordrake’s inquiries lead to sad realizations about the characters’ pasts (of which, for Elsa, her dismemberment is just one unfortunate aspect). However, whereas “(Part One)”’s emotional tugs are genuinely affecting, this week’s discoveries feel more like vapid attempts to humanize characters that previously appeared to be one-dimensional. The deeply felt sadness of Ethel’s struggle with alcoholism is replaced by Elsa’s desire to restore the control she once had as a dominatrix through her manipulation of her performers. Elsa’s prior depiction as a cruel, “showbiz mom”-like figure fit well with the exaggerated campiness of Freak Show’s initial episodes, but the attempts to humanize her aren’t as successful.

More misguided is the attempt to humanize Twisty. The reveal of his past depicts him as a poor, simple-minded outcast whose failed suicide gives him both his disturbing appearance and his homicidal tendencies. Like Elsa, Twisty worked as an unexplainable psychopath, but trying to inject pathos into his character turns him into a sloppy mess of failed characterization. He becomes an awkward mashup of a brutal killer (like, say, Leatherface) and a sympathetic human being genuinely deserving of the viewer’s sympathies.

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Fortunately, he’s not long for the show, as Mordrake quickly claims him as his victim. In his villainous place we get Dandy, as the episode’s tag establishes. Like Twisty, Dandy is somewhere between a bizarre, unexplainable menace and a fleshed out character who merits our pity. It’s hard to say how the balance will be played out throughout the rest of the season, but if the early results are any indication, Murphy and co. would be best suited to lean as heavily as possible towards the “obtuse psychopath” end of the spectrum.

Of course, he’ll be competing with Stanley and Maggie for the title of Freak Show’s primary antagonist. If “(Part One)”’s ominous cold open is any indication, the pair are up to no good, and his disguised appearance as talent agent Richard Spencer only confirms his nefarious intent. Twisty’s abrupt removal from the universe of Freak Show only appears to be the start of trouble for the carnies.

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