This review contains spoilers.
On a show full of great characters and stunning transformations, none of them is as impressive as the hours of makeup it must take to change Naomi Grossman into Pepper the pinhead. Ms Grossman is a very cute, appealing girl, and when you look at her next to Pepper—even with a shaved head—it’s tough to reconcile that these two are in fact the same person. It’s stunning work, but perhaps more stunning than Grossman’s transformation is her staggering acting ability. She doesn’t speak much in either season she’s featured, but Pepper is an indelible presence who steals focus in every scene she’s in, and it’s all thanks to the actress behind the makeup.
No more is that on display than in Orphans. This is the year that Ryan Murphy promised the world that the four seasons of American Horror Story are all connected, and the presence of Pepper in Freak Show was the first whispered connection. It’s fitting that Pepper gets an episode all to herself, and that James Wong—an AHS writer from the very beginning—is the one to draw those threads together. It’s an amazing bit of work, as Pepper barely speaks, yet she’s expressive enough to communicate every possible range of emotion via such limited means. It’s in the eyes, the expressions, the nonverbal gestures. Yes, there’s help from Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, and a deliciously cruel Mare Winningham as Pepper’s sister Rita, but it’s Pepper’s reactions to those people that tells the story.
Time and time again, Pepper reaches out to those around her in whatever way she can. When Desiree threatens to leave, she throws a tantrum. When Elsa rescues her from the orphanage, Pepper almost shyly watches Elsa play with blocks before knocking them down and giggling with unrestrained happiness at the noise. Pepper finds herself mistreated by her sister and her husband, so Pepper does the only thing she can: take care of her nephew Lucas. When she’s left at Briarcliff, Pepper bangs her head into the wall because it’s the only outlet she has for her anguish, until Sister Mary Eunice (a returning Lily Rabe) takes her on as a special project and gives her something to do—which she again throws herself into, because all Pepper wants is be loved, and the only way she can really do that is by being helpful in whatever way she can. If that means making a martini while trying to take care of a crying, deformed infant, so be it.
Pepper, like the rest of the Cabinet of Curiosities, has sublimated desires. Pepper wants to be a mother, so Ma Petite (hooray) is bought from some sort of Indian royalty for three cases of Dr. Pepper. Pepper wants a companion, so Salty is procured for her. Her desires are pure, unlike Elsa’s warped vision of motherhood, or Rita’s desire to be a mom but only to a perfect baby. As in Asylum, she’s a point of pure light in an otherwise gray world and time and again she finds herself abandoned by those who care for her or who should care for her.
Of course, there were other elements at play, with Maggie confessing to Desiree Stanley’s true intentions, as well as giving us her origin story in the process. I think that’s everyone now; all the characters have been given their origin story (except for perhaps Stanley). Some have been more effective than others, but Pepper’s is definitely the stand-out, followed by Paul’s life story in Edward Mordrake and Ethel’s shameful admissions along the way. Wong seems to connect very well with Pepper this week, and it turns a solid show into a great show.
I think the focus on a central character was a benefit to the show, and Bradley Buecker’s direction only helped matters. The style shift for Pepper and Salty’s wedding video perfectly captured frantic Super 8 home videos, as well as the thrilled happiness everyone seemed to feel at just how happy they were. Jimmy and Stanley’s jailhouse conversation was also very well done, too. I have no doubt Stanley’s been on the other side of those bars on more than one occasion, and he manipulated things masterfully to emphasize the bars on the viewing window.
With the holiday break comes a chance for reflection. Has Freak Show lived up to Asylum? No, but it has been an improvement over Coven. Every season of the show seems to be different, in content and tone. Carrying characters over or crafting an over-arching mythology won’t really change that. It’s all elements in horror, from a family in peril to a dark lunatic asylum and a campy magic show. Freak Show looks to be more brutal, in terms of graphic content though not in emotional content. Still, horror needs splatter, and next season will be a completely different show.