Elsa Mars has a dark heart filled with jealousy. That’s been plain to see from the first episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show. But so far there’s been room for ambiguity in the central question about her character. Is she mother or warden to the freaks she’s collected?
Selling Bette and Dot as a toy for the murderous man-child Dandy last episode went a long way toward showing that the love and loyalty the freaks show Elsa might be more one-sided than she lets on. And this episode strains that narrative, maybe to the breaking point. But like everything else about her, it’s complicated.
The show starts with Elsa dragging a large spinning wheel out of storage, the kind knife throwers use in their acts. It has a bullseye painted on it.
She sets it up in the main tent and practices her knife-throwing act while her inner narration talks about fate and how we are all just “spinning on the wheel” unless we control our fate by being willing to destroy anything or anyone, even the ones you love, to keep the gods in check. Although there’s a dummy on the wheel we see flashes that show Elsa is imagining fortune teller Maggie, Jimmy the lobster boy, even Pepper the pinhead on the wheel.
Ethel the bearded lady enters and Elsa tells her that she plans to resurrect her knife-throwing act for her TV show. The non-existent one that grifter Stanley has convinced her he can arrange for her as cover for his plan to murder some of the freaks and sell their preserved remains to the American Morbidity Museum.
Ethel is worried about the twins being missing. Elsa tells her they ran away when Elsa took them dress shopping and they don’t deserve her concern. She says that instead all the freaks should be grateful to her, especially because when she becomes a TV star she’ll have them brought out to join her.
Ethel says the freaks are grateful and are working on presents for Elsa’s birthday week. Ethel is also baking her a cake.
At dinner Dandy and Gloria have a new maid. Dandy petulantly says he like Dora, whom he murdered, better.
“Well, hindsight is 20/20 dear,” Gloria says.
The maid has brought Dandy a gift from his mom. It’s a silver dish with condoms inside, to keep Dandy from getting Bette and Dot pregnant. Dandy is incensed by this gift and goes ballistic. He proclaims that he loves Bette and Dot. He says he doesn’t care that they are freaks, because he’s a freak too.
“I’m going to marry those girls mother. We’re going to be together,” Dandy says. End of teaser.
Under a banner that says Happy Birthday Miss Elsa, Elsa sits in the main tent on a throne. The freaks line up and bring her presents, which she oohs and ahhs about. There are relatively normal presents like cosmetics, but Eve also brings her a box with tiny little Ma Petite in it, wrapped up in a crocheted blanket like a living baby doll.
Elsa notices, however, that the freaks aren’t as perky as she’d like. They admit they’re worried about Bette and Dot. That makes her angry, and she tells them not to talk about them any more.
“I demand you start having fun this instant or I’ll put one of you up against that wheel,” Elsa says, pointing to the bullseye wheel.
In the next scene Elsa and Paul the Illustrated Seal are enjoying a bit of post-coital opium. Paul has been secretly, servicing, Elsa’s needs for a while now.
She wants to take Paul to Hollywood to keep filling his role. She asks Paul if he can learn to drive and he’s confident he can despite his short flappy arms. Her plan is that he’ll pretend to be her chauffer until she finds a “normal” lover. After that he’ll actually be just be her chauffer.
Before Paul leaves he picks up Ma Petite, who was in the room bundled up in the blanket during the whole sex session, and gives her to Elsa. Elsa snuggles with her like a live baby doll as she goes to sleep.
Paul, however, has a secret. He’s been sneaking into the bedroom of Penny, the candy-striper Elsa briefly corrupted by getting her hooked on opium and involved in the freak show orgies. Although Paul and Penny had sex in the orgies, he wants to take it slow with her now. He notices her Venetian Romance perfume.
Penny’s dad overhears them talking and starts screaming and knocking in the door. Paul hides. Penny lets her dad in. She tells him the voices were her listening to the radio, but they have a big fight. Her dad is still angry about her running off and has her on a very short leash.
The one thing Bette and Dot hold inviolate are each other’s diaries. They don’t read them, and they are where they keep their individual secrets.
A scene that shows them writing in those diaries shows how different their individual perceptions can be. Bette is in love with Dandy, delighted to be living in his mansion. Dot’s pretty sure they’ve been sold into something terrible, despite the fact they aren’t being beaten or chained.
Bette’s impressions include trying caviar, which Dandy tells her she can have with every meal, and a romantic movie date in Dandy’s private theater. She makes it clear that Dandy has not tried anything sexual by saying he’s a “gentleman through and through.”
Dot notes that Gloria won’t let them return to the tent to get personal items. Gloria says they’ll buy them better ones.
However, Dandy happens to read the twins a news story about the first surgery separating conjoined twins. This is the real-life story of the Brodie twins, who were separated in 1952. Hearing about the surgery makes Dot enthusiastically embrace her life with Dandy, because she realizes he has the money to pay make her wish to be separated from Bette come true.
She has a fantasy about herself meeting Jimmy in a shop and starting a relationship. In the fantasy Bette died during the operation, and Jimmy is sympathetic to Dot. For Dot Bette’s death is a bonus. She also calls herself Dorothy in the fantasy, saying that she goes by her full name now that half of her is gone.
Paul tries to buy some Venetian Romance at a department store. While he’s there he bumps into Dandy, who he can’t help but notice is buying lady’s items like hairbands and brushes. Two of each, too. When he questions Dandy about it Dandy has the department store owner kick Paul out.
Paul later tells Jimmy that he doesn’t trust Dandy, or Elsa, and thinks they might have done something to the twins. Paul has a clear-eyed view of what Elsa really is. Jimmy punches him for his disloyalty. Elsa has a dark heart, he lectures while Paul rubs his jaw, but she saved everyone at the show.
“From your position Elsa looks like our guardian angel. But from where I’m sitting I see a jealous broad at the end of the line who’d kill anyone or anything who got in the way of her one last shot at it,” Paul yells.
Sitting with Dandy in his playroom, Dot reads a newspaper article that says Roger Lee Brodie, the larger of the Brodie twins, died after the operation. Again, the idea that Bette might die in the operation pleases her.
The story upsets Bette. She says science shouldn’t subvert the will of God. But Dot says they’re God’s cruel joke.
Bette says they’ll always share everything and Dot says her thoughts are her own. That leads into a discussion of the diaries. Dandy wants to look at them. In trade he offers a secret of his own.
The secret, however, is a lie. Dandy says he was with the evil clown Twisty. Which is true. But instead of admitting he helped the evil clown kidnap people he says he killed him. Which is not true, because Twisty was stopped by a ghost.
This just makes Dot mad, because she believes that Jimmy stopped the clown. Dot’s refusal lets the girls see a bit of the real Dandy, and he rages and throws things and storms off.
Ma Petite is one of the few redeemable characters on the show. She’s cute, she pops out of pumpkins, and she seems legitimately innocent and childlike. So get ready to be upset.
Stanley meets Maggie in a field at night. He’s impatient, he wants a specimen. He tells Maggie to lure Jimmy to his barn in the woods where they’ll kill him and cut off his lobster claws to sell to the museum.
Maggie, of course, has feelings for Jimmy, and wants him to run away. So she comes up with the horrifying alternate scenario of kidnapping Ma Petite, placing her bodily into a large jar in the barn, and literally drowning her in formaldehyde. All of this is shown in a very upsetting fantasy sequence. Even Stanley is impressed by the ruthlessness of the plan.
In her tent Elsa sings the Frank Sinatra standard “September Song” to Paul. It’s a bit of culture she plans for the unwashed TV viewing masses.
Paul declines to stay for sex because he’s got a lot on his mind. Elsa asks for a goodnight kiss and she notices Paul smells like Venetian Romance. She becomes furious, especially when Paul won’t tell her who she’s screwing.
Paul says he sees through Elsa’s lies.
“It seems to me we are all here to serve your deceitful and demonic soul,” he say. He demands to know where the twins are and says everyone is talking.
Elsa explodes. She makes Paul wake up all the freaks and gather in the main tent.
She tosses about the presents, which she now says are cheap crap, and has an epic meltdown about the freaks’ disloyalty. None are spared, not even Pepper.
The upshot is she wants a freak to climb up on to the wheel to prove they are loyal. Jimmy readily volunteers, but Paul says it should be him.
The wheel is spun, and Elsa goes into her act. She gives a patter about fate. She expertly misses with her first two knives.
The third knife goes right into Paul’s gut. Elsa pretends it was an accident, but the look on her face when he is impaled says otherwise. Instead of letting the freaks take Paul to the hospital she has him taken to her tent, where she says she’ll take care of it.
Penny is sneaking out to see Paul. Her dad stops her with a shotgun, saying he thought she could be an intruder. Only by telling him he might as well shoot her now does she convince him to let her go.
Ma Petite is sleeping peacefully in her tent. Maggie enters and wakes her up. Ma Petite smiles and goes along. Uh oh.
Maggie takes Ma Petite to the barn for her “surprise. Ma Petite hopes it’s a pony.
Ma Petite is trusting and suspects nothing, even when Maggie places her in the huge jar. Maggie gets the bottle of formaldehyde and gets ready to pour.
Penny arrives at the freak show in a taxi, where the freaks direct her to Paul.
Elsa shares her opium with Paul. Her conversation with him is selfishly focused on The Elsa Mars hour, and he says he knows she didn’t call an ambulance. She says it’s not true.
“But you know, I wouldn’t shed a tear if you were to die. Not because you’re a freak. But because you betrayed me,” Elsa says, her face pressed against Paul’s.
Penny arrives to comfort Paul and hold his hand.
In the morning Ethel is putting the icing on Elsa’s cake. Jimmy is mad about her doing it while Paul is dying, but she says the cake was already made, might as well ice it. Jimmy seems to have turned on Elsa and says she’s lying about the twins, but Ethel is loyal and says if he says they ran off “that’s the end of the story.”
Eve knocks on Ethel’s wagon door, frantic. She can’t find Ma Petite. They are about to search when Maggie walks up, holding Ma Petite in her arms. Maggie says she took Ma Petite out early for her surprise, which was catching fireflies and not the original plan of drowning in toxic chemicals. Whew.
Eve takes Ma Petite to breakfast. When they are alone Maggie tells Jimmy they should both run away, right now, and kisses him to prove it. Jimmy agrees, but says he has to do one thing first.
While Maggie goes to pack her bag, though, Stanley is in her tent. He threatens her with death for failing with Ma Petite, telling her that if her corpse had any value she’d be soaking in formaldehyde right now. And he gives her no option but to get Jimmy’s claws.
At his mansion Dandy is crying. While Dot and Bette were walking the grounds he read Dot’s diary and knows she doesn’t love him, that she’s using him. There’s an extended metaphor in his rant about how his soul is a dry desert and love had watered it, but now it’s dry again. Gloria tries to console him, but Dandy this is just evidence that he was right before about his true purpose in life, which is to bring death.
He takes a dagger from his toy box and prepares to go find the twins and kill them. But as he’s heading out he runs into Jimmy at the door, asking about Bette and Dot. He admits the twins are there and invites Jimmy in.
Elsa enters the main tent expecting to continue her weeklong birthday celebration. Only Ethel is there, with one last slice of cake with one candle on it. Ethel says the other freaks are with Paul.
Elsa says Ethel is like a sister to her and wonders why the freaks don’t know what’s in her heart. Ethel plainly says it’s hard to be loyal when she’s stabbed one in the belly and the twins disappeared.
“Faith and loyalty only take people so far,” Ethel says.
She lights the candle on Elsa’s cake and hands it to her.
“I’ll tell you one thing. If I ever find out you were lying and did wrong by those girls, I’ll kill you with my own two hands. Now make a wish,” Ethel says.
We can hear Elsa’s wish in her head. It’s “I just want to be loved.” She blows out the candle. End of episode.
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