American Horror Story Recap: Back to the Asylum

Photo: FX

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For the second week in a row, the ending really got us. We see Pepper alone in Briarcliff, the setting for the show’s second season, a decade in the future from where the action of Freak Show takes place. She’s sorting magazines in the library and we see her cradle the imaginary kiss that Elsa gave her before she left Pepper, and then the camera reveals who is on the magazine: It’s Elsa, and she has been a star on the small screen for years.

Of all the unbelievable things — of all the legless herpes monsters, the latex-coated ghost dildos, the sex-crazed minotaurs, the speaking disembodied Kathy Bates heads, the demon babies chained in a room or locked in the basement, the killer Santa Clauses — the most unbelievable one of all is that Elsa Mars somehow became a star. Is that the real horror here?

Was this true? Is that the big reveal we’re going to get in the show’s final three episodes, that Elsa finally achieved her dream of fame, fortune, and a staff of assistants to terrorize? Or was this just Pepper hallucinating something splendid for the woman whom she thought of as a mother? We have no reason to believe that Pepper sees things, so I don’t know, but I just can’t believe that someone like Elsa makes it to Hollywood. Aren’t we being set up to believe that her fatal flaw is the unquenchable maw inside of her that needs to be famous? Shouldn’t she be punished for that? Maybe not.

The bonus 15 minutes we had tacked on to this episode were mostly about Pepper in the future (and I used “tacked on” intentionally). When Elsa prepares to head off to Hollywood, she needs to ditch Pepper somewhere, so she brings her back to her sister in Massachusetts. I know everyone is obsessed with the return of Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston’s Oscar potential, but can we talk about the real sleeper story of 2014? It’s the renaissance of Mare Winningham, who plays Pepper’s mean drunk sister here and a much more subtle monster-in-law on The Affair. Hey, Murphy, make her a regular part of the ensemble already.

My question is, why would Elsa leave Pepper, whom she claims to love and cherish as her “first monster,” with her sister, who is obviously a drunk and abandoned Pepper once before in an orphanage? Why not just let her continue her days with the freaks? Desiree seems capable of taking care of all sorts of people. She can make a pot roast from a recipe!

Anyway, Pepper’s sister has a deformed baby (possibly with fetal alcohol syndrome?), and she and her husband can’t stand either the pinhead or the freak, so they kill the baby and pin it on the pinhead. That’s how Pepper got to Asylum, and that is how we got our first official link between the seasons of American Horror Story. (Does that mean it can no longer run in the Best Miniseries category at the Emmys?)  

While the ending was focused on Pepper in the future, most of the episode was really focused on the past, and we learned a great deal about where all the freaks came from. Ma Petite came with a Maharaja from India whom Elsa somehow convinced to stay with a bottle of Coke. (Did everyone else’s cable do something really funny at the end of that scene and maybe cut out something that explained this exchange better?) We see Elsa get her start All About Eve–ing in the circus in Boston before striking out on her own with Pepper and some others. We even find out how Esmeralda and Stanley hooked up and find out a teeny tiny bit about Stanley’s past. Guess what, every last one of them is an orphan.

This was the kind of episode we could have used about five episodes ago. This established the characters and their bonds and history so that when something happens with Ma Petite, we’ll know why Pepper takes it so hard. Now we’re only finding out about her deep sorrow after the fact, when it’s convenient to the plot. Anyway, this season doesn’t seem to be jelling into some greater whole, so I’ll just enjoy these fun stories when we get them.

There was a lot of action going on this episode. Stanley goes to prison and convinces Jimmy to cut off his dildohands and sell them to the museum so he can pay for a lawyer. Let’s just hope it’s not the same hot hooker that Stanley hired to play the twin’s doctor. Esmeralda got drunk and told Desiree that she and Stanley were conning everyone and then took her to the museum to show her just what was going on. Desiree made a pot roast. I told you that already, but she made it for Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who is still alive. That was pretty awesome.

The theme for the episode was very clear based on the title, “Orphans.” We learn that most of the freaks were literally orphans, though many of them are also spiritually orphans as well. This really hammers home the central theme of this season, that the families we make are often much better than the ones we’re given at birth. Sure, Del might be Jimmy’s dad, but he hasn’t really done as much for him as the other freaks that raised him. Desiree, who gets a trophy for most improved, says she wants to escape and become a housewife, but she threatens Esmeralda if the '50s Miss Cleo ever dares to hurt any of “our kind.” Desiree is one of the only characters to even have a family, even though her mother refused to teach her how to cook to turn her into a man. Some parenting she was doing!

Speaking of bad mothers, we didn’t even see Dandy once. This season’s big villain, and he doesn’t even register at all? Why are all of these episodes so uneven? We didn’t hear from Del either, and he seems totally unconcerned that his son is in prison and no one seems to be able to get him out. Well, like I said, it’s all about the manufactured family rather than the genetic one.

That is also what struck me as odd about Elsa leaving Pepper with her no good sister. Elsa knows that real families are awful, but she conscripts Pepper to hers even though Elsa knows there are plenty of other people who can take better care of her that have no biological connection. But hey, we had to get her into the asylum somehow; it might as well be through Elsa’s folly. Speaking of which, Elsa’s Folly isn’t a bad name for a hit TV show. I can’t wait to see how this happens.

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