AHS: Freak Show "Orphans" Review: The Last Temptation of Pepper (PHOTO RECAP)

American Horror Story S04E10: "Orphans"

When people mistakenly cite Murder House as American Horror Story's best season, I always redirect them to Asylum, the increasingly undeniable crown jewel in Ryan Murphy's finest headdress. Whereas Murder House only seemed to figure out what it was supposed to be (let alone how it should be filmed and edited) halfway through the season, Asylum arrived fully formed, just jam-packed with intention and ambition. Some would argue (as I occasionally did) that its tone was almost too unpleasant to be entertaining, but there's no denying it: THAT was horror. Coven was, minute-by-minute, the most hilarious and engaging season, but its story felt too loose and sprawling to effect the same impact as Asylum's focused moments of emotional devastation. Still though, Asylum DID afford moments of humor and weirdness—"The Name Game" scene alone was one of the most wonderful scenes in TV history, which is saying something considering it sprung out of a truly horrible scenario. 

In that same vein, the Pepper character stood out as something that would become an AHS trademark: Differently abled characters initially presented as aesthetic decoration but later revealed to be complex, sympathetic human beings with furiously beating hearts. We had a lot of fun with Pepper back in those days—I bordered on obsession with her—and that very easily could've been attributed to how strange and audacious her presence was in that grim world of institutionalized sadism. She was a bright spot and at the same time so peculiar. What was her deal even? WAS she actually a baby-killer who deserved to be locked up? Flash-forward two years IRL and Freak Show decided to take a break from its aimless murder buffet to actually give Pepper the episode we needed. And, guys? This episode WRECKED me. Yes, an episode about a character who can barely speak and seems mostly comprised of rubber prosthetics moved me more than almost anything I've seen on TV this year. A lot of that was due to Naomi Grossman's next-level performance. Can you imagine trying to do any kind of acting under all that makeup, let alone flawless, wordless emoting? She was truly great in "Orphans," great in a way I maybe never expected but should have. What a master stroke casting someone with a background in improv comedy to play such an over-the-top character, but the truly inspired part was AHS's writers transforming Pepper into one the most tragic characters of the franchise's entire run. "Orphans" was extremely wonderful. I'm still devastated.

Let's talk about it!

Uh, the episode BEGAN with Pepper clinging to an already-dead Salty, whom she'd discovered dead in his bed (of natural causes, for once).

I mean. Six seconds in and I'm crying. She tried to wake him up with his favorite toy!

It had apparently been days since Pepper's soulmate had died and people were starting to get a little freaked out.

Fortunately Stanley offered to help out...

Ugh, Stanley. That elephant-penised jerk. But whereas Stanley was up to his usually shady business, the circumstances of Salty's death actually served to bring out the best in almost everyone. The biggest revelation was how affected Elsa was, as we learned just how profound and deep her connection to Pepper was. 

And then there was this moment, when Desiree read The Velveteen Rabbit to Pepper:

On its surface: What a weird scenario! A three-breasted Angela Bassett reading a bedtime story to a grown pinhead woman in a dirty circus tent. But then why did it hurt my heart so much? Say what you will about this series or this season in particular, but we CARE about these people. The actresses for sure, but also the characters. While she's no Marie Laveau, Desiree is increasingly becoming an incredible force. She's strong and no-nonsense but then there're these moments of sincere love that make her truly likable. I really loved this scene when she tried to leave to go perform in the show and Pepper threw a fit:

Desiree looked genuinely anguished before getting it together and telling Pepper to "clean all this shit up!" Oh man, exactly. Desiree for President. (Pepper for Vice President).

So back to Elsa, she then treated Desiree to a story about the time she adopted Pepper. Back when Elsa was younger and slightly more CGI'd, she was sort of a German-accented Nomi Malone, just sort of tripping other showgirls and getting ambitious about stardom. 

But then one time she was working at a sideshow and realized that when WWII started the draft would leave behind only "freaks," and so that's the kind of show she should put on. So the next thing we knew, she was window-shopping for pinheads.

Even though Pepper was a grown woman, a local orphanage was letting her live there, and it wasn't long before Elsa was winning her over by stacking blocks and playing GIANT checkers with her.

Then when Elsa tried to adopt her the orphanage was like, "Uh, just take her."

Thus a family was born! But then Pepper started wanting to be a mommy or whatever, so Elsa made her next acquisition:

Yes, that's Ma Petite on a leash, why do you ask?

But her owners would not sell her... 

Until, of course, Elsa offered them three crates of Dr. Pepper and it was GAME ON.

So that solved the problem of Pepper wanting a child (even though Ma Petite is a 20-year-old woman), but the next problem was that Pepper was reaaaal horny. Fortunately Elsa had a solution for that too:

Aw, Pepper and Salty fell in love at first sight and got married! Definite a happily-ever-after scenario, except for then Salty died and now Pepper was devastated and despondent. But that's always where everything's going, isn't it? Sorry Pepper, life is a prank sometimes.

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