The second episode of 'Freak Show' placed us in some worrisome and familiar territory, pitting freak against freak as Dell was introduced to the mix, but tonight's third episode goes a little ways to course-correcting the season (for now, at least). In the first of the two-part Halloween episode, we meet the titular "Edward Mordrake," the boogeyman among the freaks, for even those we're most afraid of have someone that terrifies them. (Well, there's Twisty, but still.)

"Edward Mordrake" is a fitting Halloween outing for it sets about exploring all facets of fear. There's the traditionally unknown and more gruesome mysteries or "errors" of the human body and its design, as explored by Stanley and his assistant -- the latter-named Maggie Esmerelda, who infiltrates Elsa's Cabinet of Curiosities to become a fortune teller and perhaps procure a specimen to sell to a museum. Bad news for Dot, who hopes to be the only twin to survive the surgery of her dreams/Bette's nightmares.

Then there's the fear of loss, as evidenced by Dell's spat with Desiree, who displays the sort of glorious fearlessness that makes him shrivel before her, and which makes her an instant favorite. Everyone is dealing with loss following Meep's death, but no one is carrying the weight of it as heavily as Jimmy, who lugs it around on his shoulders as if it's his to carry alone, a reminder to everyone not only of what they stand to lose but of why they're ignoring it.

For Elsa, there's always that terror creeping in around the periphery that someone is pulling the rug out from under her to steal her spotlight, except that someone (or more than one someones) usually is. Elsa is a curiosity all her own, a woman obsessed with fame but trapped on the opposite side of it, in the funhouse mirror version. She has her own stage and her own spotlight, and the only thing holding Elsa back is Elsa, who desperately empowers all the wrong people. Dot and Bette are a literal embodiment of the dual nature of Elsa: the weak and the strong; the naive and the skeptical; the generous and the fierce; the kind-hearted and the cold.

Ethel is confronted more harshly: a fear of death and what will become of her son Jimmy, given that she only has six months to a year left to live. Enter Edward Mordrake, a carnival cautionary tale and superstition, but also an eerily elegant bit of death incarnate, as eloquent as he is alluring. Tonight's episode may have a bit of fun with Dandy's homage to John Carpenter's 'Halloween,' but nothing compares to Mordrake's 1800s origin story, its own black and white short film complete with a jarring little piano score. More like this, please.

Mordrake is a romantic antagonist: a sophisticated, old school monster of a bygone era. He's a refined, educated man whose affliction drove him mad, and that almost makes him empathetic -- the sort who'd feel right at home alongside someone like Dorian Grey or Dracula.

It's Mordrake's job to confront our characters with a parade of fears: the horrible wrongs they've committed; how they fear that who they are on the inside is just as freakish as what the world sees on the outside; that they deserve to die. But Mordrake, in his own devilish deformity, represents a different kind of fear, too: that what they are is -- as society condemns -- inherently bad or wrong or evil. His discussion with Ethel brings another layer of humanity to her (and, in a sense, him), as her startlingly sad story is told in flashback. Even through that dicey-at-best Baltimore accent, Kathy Bates can deliver one hell of a monologue, mining for emotional gold from Ethel's tragic history -- one that still manages to stun in a show that's, well, you know exactly what this show is.

Ultimately, through all the fears explored and expressed in "Edward Mordrake," every single one circles the dark drain into the black hole of the only one that unites them all: death. And he's just joined the 'Freak Show.'

Additional Thoughts:

  • I continue to 'ship Dandy and Twisty, and I think they need a cutesy name, like Tandy. You know, like Jessica Tandy.
  • Both Desiree and Patti LaBelle's Nora are showing a delightful refusal to tolerate any of this faux-sociopathic white boy BS, and I love it.
  • I failed to really talk about Denis O'Hare save for the brief mention of his Stanley character, but it's Denis O'Hare peddling a fake baby sasquatch in a jar, hooking up with a dude in a Thor helmet, and he's got some weirdo surprise in his underwear -- so yes, I am definitely a passenger on this wacky train.
  • That was Celia Weston as the museum's curator! I love her in lots of things, but maybe best as the mom in 'Observe and Report.'
  • Not gonna front -- Kathy Bates totally made me cry tonight when Ethel told her story to Edward. Bates has an uncanny ability to elicit a strong emotional reaction with the most ridiculous characters.
  • Mordrake has a super cool early Voldemort thing going on with the back of his head, but I am disappointed that Wes Bentley did not bring his 'Hunger Games' beard-game with him.
  • I think I have a crush on Wes Bentley?