American Horror Story, Ep. 4.03, “Edward Mordrake (Part One)” movingly explores character emotions

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American Horror Story: Freak Show, Episode 3, “Edward Mordrake (Part One)”
Written by James Wong
Directed by Michael Uppendahl
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on FX

Despite having a premise that would appear to push the high camp of this season even further, “Edward Mordrake (Part 1)” features some of the most touching and genuinely emotional moments seen in the season thus far. The titular character (Wes Bentley) is an English nobleman and talented composer. While these biographical details would appear to put him on the path to success, the second face on the back of his head lands him a stint in an insane asylum, followed by a gig as a freak show performer, which ends abruptly when he kills his fellow cast members and hangs himself (a tale creepily recounted by Ethel). His ghost is rumored to haunt freak shows that perform on Halloween, which is when the episode takes place.

Instead of using the ghost story set-up for jump scares and cheap thrills, writer James Wong and director Michael Uppendahl ditch the short-cut character expositions and platitudinal sayings  of “Massacres and Matinees” to explore the characters in greater depth. Although the two faces obviously connect to the theme of duplicity that’s been developing thus far, Wong and Uppendahl mostly eschew the heavy-handedness of the earlier episodes in favor of subtlety and complexity. Ethel’s scene with the doctor, which brings up both her alcoholism and her inability to connect with people (and implicitly ties the two together), feels moving in a way that the show steered clear of through the first two episodes. The scene becomes even more poignant when the viewer sees her inability to sever her relationship with alcohol later in the episode.

Likewise, her monologue to Mordrake about her tortured relationship with Dell, and the public birth of Jimmy to which it led, gives greater depth to all three characters. Rather than exploit the classic horror tropes which could easily be found in Mordrake’s character, Wong and Uppendahl use it as an opportunity to explore the characters’ relationship with death. Accordingly, the creepy synthesizer sound, used for the most shocking moments in the show, plays its smallest role in this episode. The pure camp of the first two episodes was fun, but it’s hard to imagine it remaining interesting for the entire season, so it’s nice to see the show moving away from it.

MV5BMjI0MzA2NzIyNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTM0NzEwMzE@._V1__SX1234_SY653_Of course, this is still a Ryan Murphy show, so campy elements are very much present in “Mordrake.” In particular, as has been true thus far in the season, the most archetypical horror scenes feature Twisty and his wanton killing spree. The murderous clown turns his attention toward an unsuspecting family and their coulrophobic daughter this week, and the scene where he kidnaps her brother proves just as effective as the earlier sequences in terms of building tension. Uppendahl and Wong cleverly throw the viewer for a loop by having the brother come into her room first, providing a false sense of security, which is quickly upended by Twisty’s appearance. In the tag, Dandy proves that he can be just as frightening as Twisty when dresses as a clown, and his sing-song taunt of his victims is fittingly creepy.

The final important element of the episode is the introduction of the “researcher” (read: con man) Dr. Mansfield (Denis O’Hare) and his assistant, Ms. Rothschild (Emma Roberts). In the ominous cold open, they learn of the fortune to be had from capturing freaks, and Mansfield can’t resist the temptation. Rothschild shows up at the tent posing as a fortune teller and Elsa completely buys the act, hiring her immediately as a performer. In all fairness, Roberts sells it beautifully, to the point where it’s unclear whether or not Murphy and co. are setting up dramatic irony (i.e. she turns out to actually be a fortune teller). Either way, she has direct access to the (valuable) freaks now, and Mansfield will undoubtedly use her as part of his nefarious schemes. Between him and Mordrake, the freaks will face quite a few threats in the coming weeks, which will inevitably lead to more horror sequences in the vein of Twisty’s murders. But such scenes (and comparable instances of campiness) are mostly absent from “Edward Mordrake (Part One),” and it makes for a nice change of pace.

Other thoughts:

Elsa continues her trend of matching her eye shadow to her dress during her performance of “Gods and Monsters.”

The anachronistic song choices are becoming increasingly modern every week. It would seem that this would be hard to keep up, given how far they leaped forward for “Criminal,” but it’ll be interesting to see how long it continues.

I really hope that someone compiles a listicle of the creepiest Twisty kills at the end of the season. They’ve been frightening and fun so far, and they show no signs of letting up.

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