For the second week in a row, ‘American Horror Story’ has delivered a pretty solid episode—it could be due in part to the increasingly smaller number of carnival performers combined with the show’s rotating system, which makes at least one cast member (or attraction, in the parlance of a sideshow) sit out each week in order to focus its narrative efforts elsewhere. And maybe “Orphans” works because it tells a story that’s genuinely sad, which accentuates the horror of the hour. And maybe I also think this episode is great because Lily Rabe reprises her role as Sister Mary Eunice, and she is a total queen.

Don’t get me wrong, there are things in this week’s ‘Freak Show’ that are a little sloppy, but overall “Orphans” is probably as close to riveting as this show can get without entirely pushing you to the edge of your seat. Jessica Lange’s opening soliloquy is beautifully restrained and thoughtful, as death and tragedy continue to be frequent visitors at Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities. This week brings the death of Pepper’s mate, Salty, whose death occurs off-screen, leaving us to ponder if it was truly a natural death or if the insidious and greedy Stanley was the culprit.

Following the departure of Salty, we learn of Pepper’s history through second-hand stories and flashbacks as Elsa tells of how she came to adopt Pepper as her first performer, adding Ma Petite soon after to start their curious, makeshift family unit under the tent. Pepper’s mind may not be fully-developed, but she doesn’t lack maternal instincts or the desire for special companionship, so Elsa finds and adopts Salty, and it’s not long before Elsa is officiating an adorable wedding. This past Elsa is still an opportunist, but she’s much more kinder and loving and protective than the current Elsa, who has become quite the jaded narcissist.

This week mostly belongs to Pepper’s sad story, which is sidetracked occasionally by Desiree and Esmerelda, as the latter allows her emotions to get the best of her, botching a fake fortune-telling for Desiree and her new boyfriend. Ultimately, Esmerelda, caving under the weight of her guilt, comes clean and takes Desiree to the museum, where she can see why “Richard,” aka Stanley, has been hanging around. With only a few episodes left, we needed Esmerelda to break and tell someone what’s been going on—the carnival folk wouldn’t have figured it out on their own, and Elsa is so blinded by Richard’s false promises of fame that she’s willfully ignoring her responsibilities as a maternal figure.

Stanley pays Jimmy a visit with the promise of a star lawyer, but Jimmy doesn’t get much to do this week aside from some brooding and frustrated theatrics. Same for the Tattler twins, whose only appearance this week involves trying to hand Esmerelda their savings to get Jimmy out on bail.

“Orphans” proves that what this show needs isn’t restraint in the narrative sense, but restraint in the number of players. Too often this season it’s felt as though someone is spinning plates at the circus, with every plate representing a different narrative thread. At the same time, the tone has been largely soapy and melodramatic, which would be fine if there was some genuine horror in ‘American Horror Story’ this year. But since Edward Mordrake came and went and we lost Twisty the terrifying clown, the horror has been mostly explored via human nature and greed—not exactly the scary stuff you have in mind when watching this series.

Pepper’s story continues as Elsa drops her off with her estranged alcoholic sister, Alicia, and her husband. The time jumps ahead 10 years, to Alicia dropping Pepper off at the Briarcliff asylum from season 2. Alicia recounts the story of how Pepper came to live with her and how Pepper soon became a handful to our old friend, Sister Mary Eunice. Through flashbacks (in a flash-forward, no less), we watch what truly happened, contradicting Alicia’s voiceover. At the age of 50, Alicia finally had the baby with her husband that she always wanted. In her version, Pepper’s maternal instincts gave way to killer instincts, and she chopped off the baby’s ears and drowned him during a bath.

The truth is far more horrific: Alicia left Pepper to care for the baby while she stayed in bed, getting drunk day in and day out. She never formed a bond with her own child, and as she and her husband felt increasingly reckless and saddled with responsibilities they didn’t want, they plotted to kill the baby and blame it on Pepper—ridding themselves of two problems with one hideous motion.

Pepper’s story is genuinely heartbreaking, which is what makes it all the more tragic and horrific to watch. There’s real intensity and anxiety swirling around her scenes with the baby—all we knew from season 2 was that Pepper killed her sister’s child, but seeing the actual circumstances surrounding that death play out not only makes season 4 Pepper that much more empathetic, but it retroactively adds depth to the Pepper from season 2.

In her final moment at Briarcliff, Sister Mary Eunice (can I get an amen for Lily Rabe here) believes Pepper can be redeemed, and sets her to work in the library, sorting magazines and books. It’s there that Pepper glimpses Elsa’s face on the cover of TIME, heralding Elsa for her television program. But in the world of ‘American Horror Story,’ happy endings are frequently nothing more than comforting delusions.

Additional thoughts:

  • It was fantastic to see Lily Rabe appear in this episode, however brief, and it just reminds me once again that ‘Asylum’ is still the best season of the series. I will forever measure other seasons against it.
  • More guest stars this week: Malcolm Jamal Warner is back as Angus, Desiree’s boyfriend. Mare Friggin’ Winningham and Matthew Glave (you probably remember him best as Glenn Guglia in ‘The Wedding Singer’) show up as Pepper’s sister and her husband.
  • Speaking of guest stars, I would like to see more of Celia Weston. Can we get her into season 5 as a regular? Maybe she can hang out with Frances Conroy and they can say quirky things while looking very fashionable.
  • That was a nice moment between Dell and Desiree, but it feels like this show is consistently trying to paint him as more complex and pitiful than he actually is.
  • Also sitting this week out: Dandy. Last week he quoted ‘Judge Dredd’ while standing naked next to a bathtub full of blood, and where do you really go from there?
  • It’s probably safe to assume that Jimmy still has his hands and Stanley didn’t actually chop them off.