American Horror Story: Freak Show 4.03: “Edward Mordrake: Part 1”

Michael Chiklis as Dell Toledo, Kathy Bates as Ethel Darling.

American Horror Story has given us some of the best Halloween specials I’ve seen on television. “Murder House” in particular set the bar for the horror anthology and I don’t think the subsequent specials have really stacked up. Come on, Season 1 had a stitched-together reanimated child, five bloody murdered teenagers, a hit-and-run, and the ghosts having the freedom to leave the house. It was awesome. But with what “Edward Mordrake” promised and delivered, I may have my hopes up.

Emma Roberts as Maggie Esmerelda.
Give me creepy medical anomalies and I am sold. I’m a bit disappointed that Google proved the American Morbidity Museum isn’t real, but it’s a nice setup to introduce con-man Stanley (Denis O’Hare) and his partner in crime, Maggie Esmerelda (Emma Roberts). It’s refreshing to see O’Hare not be inherently creepy, though he does it so well. I wonder how long it took him to make that “authentic baby sasquatch.” If any of you are in the market for cryptozoological finds, I suggest Etsy. If you want morbid anatomy, check out Brooklyn’s  real Morbid Anatomy Museum.

I’m wary of praising this show too much, but I’m also a sucker for fiction find root in history. Just like the director choosing real people to play the freaks was a wonderful touch, the obsession with freak anatomy was just as prevalent as the desire to see them alive. Billing a two-headed woman was a sure fire way to grab attention and garner some cash. You bet several people went the way of murdering for profit. Fun times, eh?

Speaking of murder, I totally take back my earlier statement about Stanley not being creepy.

Mother of the Year goes to this lady. Oh, your kid is terrified of clowns, and rightly so? Yes, tell her clowns are everywhere. That’s exceedingly comforting. She’s what, seven? That’s right, little fairy girl, you run. I dare your mom to call Twisty delightful. Actually, if you love clowns so much, lady, take off Twisty’s mask. How delightful is he now?

Horror Rule No. 5: When warned of evil clowns, take that shit seriously. Lock all doors and windows or your children will be kidnapped and thrown into a murder bus.

Oh man. You know, I haven’t seen Kathy Bates in anything other than Misery, but she really slays her part as Ethel Darling. I love her versatility and the raw emotion she portrays. We knew she’s not getting a happy ending. Dell (Michael Chiklis) is still a dick, but the scene between him and Ethel is very touching.

Evan Peters as Jimmy Darling.

Like mother, like son, Jimmy (Evan Peters) is still dealing with the fallout of Meep’s death. Dot (Sarah Paulson) is pissed at the celebrating carnies on his behalf. Jimmy holds a funeral for their fallen friend, complete with a send off of severed chicken heads. I’m sure Meep would have loved it.

Get your feet off the table, contortionist lady. You may be a freak, but manners matter.

I think I’ve been getting Dot and Bette (also Paulson) confused. Bette wants to be a star, Dot is the stoic one. Sorry if I’ve switched up their names. Conjoined twins, you know? Dot’s murder dream (and the blessed return of split-screen twin vision) is just downright nasty. And then she tells her sister that she plans to enact it in reality? The fact alone that they share the dream is just awful, let along Dot’s intention to see it through. A taste of stardom is apparently poisonous.

My favorite part of this whole episode is this crazy black-and-white film sequence as Ethel tells the girls about their Halloween superstition. It’s said that any freak performing on Halloween night will summon the spirit of Edward Mordrake (Wes Bentley), the two-faced man. He’ll arrive and take a soul to join his freak show in hell. I wonder how much admission is.

The whole scene is so cool, I’d kill (haha!) to see a full-length film, silent or otherwise. There’s no real, verified account of Edward Mordrake, but the writers did well sticking to the legend. I don’t think he ended up in a madhouse, but he did (according to legend) try to murder the second face and did eventually hang himself. I’m sure the bit about murdering an entire freak show is just to earn street cred. Bless the effects pros that made that demon face. I am totally creeped out.

Maggie Esmerelda infiltrates the freak show. (She’s basically Shawn from Psych.) She pulls clues from Elsa’s (Jessica Lange) room to “see into the past” and convince Elsa that she’s the real deal. I already hate her. Oh, and Stanley’s new friend. Please tell me I’m not the only one who shouted, “The hammer is his penis!” at their television. Just me? Okay.

Know who I don’t hate? Dora (Patti LeBell.) She is totally badass and I love how she doesn’t take any of Dandy (Finn Wittrock)’s crap. I really, really hope she doesn’t get murdered. Clearly Dandy isn’t up to the task. Or for being Howdy Doody, which is honestly just as scary as the horrific clown costume he creates. Which one of you let Dandy have scissors?

His masked point-of-view is a total throwback to Halloween and Michael Myers. I think Dandy is the most psychologically interesting character American Horror Story has given us yet. He’s obviously insane, but I want to know what drove him there. The constant infantilization by his mother, some unknown trauma, a pre-existing condition? No one teams up with a mass murdering clown without some sort of damage. I will never hear the phrase “Trick or Treat” again without thinking of Clown Dandy.

John Carroll Lynch as Twisty.

A moment of unpopular opinion: I’m not loving the musical sequences. I wish they’d been incorporated more as soundtrack than stage performance. They pull me out of the story. I could see one or two, but I’ve got the feeling it’s going to be an every episode sort of thing. Of course, Elsa has to be the one to perform and call Mordrake to the show. Good thing he’s handsome, second, evil demon face not withstanding. He might be a vaguely menacing harbinger of doom, but at least he plays fair. He’s so good at that double-face devil talking thing. I am sold.

Once again, here’s Kathy Bates slaying her part. Ethel has such a heartbreaking story and it’s a wonder to see her performance. She doesn’t deserve the myriad of terrible things that have happened to her. Luckily, she’s not the one Mordrake wants. Guess he’s got a type.

Part 1 was a little slow for me. We got some great character development, but it was action-light. I wish they’d done more with the superstitions, but there’s always Part 2 next week. Dandy saved it at the end with his evil clown routine, and yet it still doesn’t live up to the first Halloween special. For now, we have a week to deliberate.

Place your bets on which carnie Mordrake’s bringing back to hell.

Meghan Harker grew up in a small, awkwardly-named town in Georgia. She attended Brenau University, where she earned her BA in English and a minor in Graphic Design; she also attended the University of Cambridge, England, where she didn't quite master the perfect Oxbridge accent. She's an avid reader, writer, and fire spinner. She's currently working her first novel, a paranormal thriller. Visit her blog at

Read all posts by Meghan Harker for Criminal Element.

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