In the larger scheme of the American Horror Story series, “Orphans” might very well be the most important episode so far. We’ve known that Pepper is the link between American Horror Story’s two best seasons (Freak Show and Asylum), but with a time jump ten years into the future, and the introduction of Lily Rabe’s Sister Mary Eunice, we finally get to see that yes, American Horror Story as a series is entirely connected, as Ryan Murphy recently admitted.
Now, the long term plans for this interconnectivity could end up being good, or terribly bad. Will it make seasons like Coven stronger by association, or are we going to start seeing The Gimp running around with Dandy Mott, ruining everything? This probably won’t happen anytime soon, and maybe these implications aren’t as important as they will be in future seasons, but as of “Orphans,” the possibilities are exciting. Now, each season might have an unknown importance and more interesting implications than what we currently understand.
However, this is possibly giving the show too much credit. I doubt that there’s some subtle moment (as if there’s such a thing on this show) from the first season that’ll have great importance later on, but this idea does bring the entire series into a whole new light.
This new development is given to us through Pepper, possibly the only character in the entire series that does not have a deceptive or cruel bone in her body. I honestly didn’t expect AHS to do Pepper justice, and worried that the show could easily poke fun at, or fumble the handling of such a character, especially with an episode that focuses specifically on her. But in a season that has given us Kathy Bates, Jessica Lange and the entire cast at their best, Naomi Grossman as Pepper has truly given the greatest performance this season.
Pepper is given a beautiful arc, where she goes from being an abandoned teenager “adopted” by Elsa, and wanting to feel the normalcy of a family, to being abandoned twice more, ultimately landing her at the asylum from Season Two. Grossman is telling us so much of Pepper’s story through her eyes: wonderment, heartbreak, love, pain—it’s all there. Pepper, without saying more than a handful of words, gives us her intentions, her goals, and her aspirations, which is more than can be said for most of the characters (who might be speaking too much). Even by just touching her hand to her cheek, Pepper gives us one of the most powerfully emotional moments of the show. For once, American Horror Story achieves subtlety—and it looks good on the show.
We also see the beginnings of the freak show through Pepper. My only disappointment with this episode is that we didn’t learn more about the other additions to the show—seeing the early days of Jimmy and Ethel Darling would have been interesting, but that’s a very minor complaint.
On the more brutal side, and in order to fill the show’s weekly gore quota, there’s Stanley. He takes Pepper’s love, Salty, and cuts off his head once he’s dead, to sell. By the end of the episode, he’s also negotiated the purchase of Jimmy’s lobster hands for his exhibit. But the way this is handled, it gives us a point to look forward to, and gives Freak Show a clear direction to head into, rather than that feeling from other seasons, where it’s just fumbling to a conclusion. We also get that with Pepper’s story, seeing that Elsa has somehow made it to Hollywood, and is living a successful life on the television.
“Orphans” presents the strongest profile of a character that I can remember on the show and the result is a touching, beautiful look at one of AHS’s side characters—one who is so much more than we thought. In turn, we also get the great possibilities of connected seasons, which could either complicate or add depth to this entire series. But “Orphans” also gives us a glimpse at the season’s future, and how some of these character’s stories might end. As this show’s best season by far, all Freak Show has to do now is stick the landing.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.