Don’t cry for Elsa, my little dahlings. She’s got such big plans, has Ms. Mars. She’s setting off for a new life, a new adventure. Television is her new mistress. She’s preparing to leave her flock of monsters behind, for a while. But first comes birthday week. And before birthday weeks comes a tall, dark stranger into her bedroom. Well, “tall,” “dark.” Turns out that it’s handsome-eyed Paul sharing her bed. The other freaks don’t suspect anything: “They think I’m putting a mint on your pillow,” he explains. (Someone please add “Putting a mint on your pillow” to UrbanDictionary, please!)
Elsa tells Paul that their dalliance isn’t anything serious. But she promises him a new life in the glamour of TV land. “When I have a normal suitor, I could pretend that you are my chauffeur,” she says. “Which, of course, you would be.” Our Paul has other plans, though. Remember way back in the premiere of Freak Show, when Penny the Candy Striper discovered the healing power of opium-assisted orgies? We all thought that Penny was just another cameo iteration of Meryl Streep’s Daughter. But now Penny’s back, and oh, how she hungers for Paul. “Why don’t we make love?” she begs. But Paul is an old-fashioned romantic. “I want you to know me. As a man,” he explains.
Problem number one: Penny lives with her father. Problem numbers two through 100: Her father is the protective type. He practically knocks the door down coming into her room. He’s worried about her, but that worry has an overtone of something deeper, weirder: You can feel how his protection is its own cage, and the cage has spikes, and the spikes are poison, and the poison isn’t the kind that doesn’t kill you. “I just want to make sure my little girl is safe,” he says. And here again, the central running conceit of American Horror Story: The scariest person onscreen is the apparently normal man, the white-straight-suburban-dad archetype. (The most normal person in Freak Show is a man with phocomelic limbs and a body covered in tattoos.)
Paul’s in a romantic mood. He knows that Penny loves her Venetian Romance perfume, so he goes to the corner store to purchase some. While he’s there, he runs into Dandy, wearing his fifth necktie of the episode. Paul and Dandy have some words. Paul suspects Dandy might be involved in the disappearance of the Tattler Sisters. He angrily leaves the store. “I’m going to take my business to Woolworth’s!” he declares. “They got ice cream!”
Roundabout now is when this episode of American Horror Story basically becomes a showcase for Mat Fraser and Jessica Lange. Paul looks in on Elsa, who’s furious that he smells so much like Venetian Romance. “Who are you screwing?” she asks. “I don’t believe that’s any of your business,” he replies. “It’s all my business, you prick!!!!” she declares. Paul shoots that ire right back at her. Alone among the monsters, Paul can see the proprietress very clearly: How she uses her charges to suit her own deceitful, demonic soul.
How furious Elsa is! She shrieks at her assembled monsters. Didn’t she pull Pepper out of that orphanage? Didn’t she pull half of the freaks up off the street? Jimmy begs to know what they can do to prove their loyalty to her. Elsa gestures at the Spinning Wheel of Death she moved onto the stage. “Nobody leaves here until one of you is strapped in and proves to me your unadulterated trust and loyalty.” Paul stands up, perhaps just wanting to calm Elsa down, perhaps because there’s a touch of suicidal nihilism to Paul even when he’s got a lovely Candy Striper waiting for him in town. A poor time to trust Elsa: Paul earns a dagger in the stomach for his troubles.
Meanwhile, back at Casa Candy Striper, Penny has a showdown with Terror Dad. She’s trying to sneak out; Daddy doesn’t approve; she just doesn’t care. “I’m in love!” she says. “And I’m gonna go see him right now! I’m gonna have a life that means something. A life with some excitement. A life that’s real!” It’s becoming clear that the Freak Show is sort of a freefloating metaphor for a few different things in ’50s America, but I wonder if it’s most clearly meant to be a kind of proto-counterculture: An all-in-one combination of rock & roll, the hippie movement, Civil Rights, feminism, Gay Rights, free love, and everything else that seemed “other” to postwar America. For the moment, at least, Penny and Paul get a happy ending: The Candy Striper arrives at the Freak Show, joining her injured beau as Elsa jealously looks on.
NEXT: Meanwhile, the Motts