It’s easy to get caught up in “Orphans”’ backstory about Pepper, a girl with microcephalus who is passed off from family to family like a piece of luggage. American Horror Story: Freak Show gives us a surprisingly emotional episode, one where Pepper is the freak of the day; here, the show remains poignant without slipping into other plot lines, without feeling the need to punctuate “Orphans” with other stuff that clutters up Pepper’s spotlight. To put it bluntly, Freak Show did a good job making Pepper feel like a person, and it comes at a time where many of the freaks rarely feel like anything but props.
Elsa gets her own focus in the episode, too, because it was her who put together the freak show after seeing how her carnie circuit could blossom by using a couple of strange people as a draw before her own singing act. She began to collect them, much the same way that Stanley is using their remains as a way to pay the bills. From there, Pepper was obtained from an orphanage, given a home and a loving family by Elsa, and then a husband.
“Orphans” works through this in the usual Freak Show way, highlighting the depth of depravity in “normal” lifestyles, from the chaining and enslavement of little Ma Petite to the treatment of Pepper as she performs maid and babysitting duties for her sister. This episode’s depiction of the “normal vs. freak” mentality is admittedly much better than in previous episodes, because it has a specific character to pin that awfulness on. Pepper’s life before and after Elsa is complete shit, and if Freak Show knows how to do anything right, it’s taking people and putting them in terrible situations just because it can.
“Orphans,” then, takes Pepper and makes her a symbol of the struggle for freaks to assimilate into society. Pepper doesn’t get anything from her sister and her husband; instead, she’s forced to make cocktails while changing the baby, and when she doesn’t do that fast enough, she gets degraded. The episode’s last portion is the most compelling, because it’s devastating in its unyielding horribleness to Pepper.
That’s a loaded way to handle Pepper, though, and the Elsa is the real problem with this episode. “Orphans” attempts to humanize Elsa, to give her a reason to ditch Pepper; she even looks sad doing it. But Elsa is doing the same thing as everyone else when she decides to send Pepper to her sister’s instead of dealing with her grief mourning her husband: she dumps her off with someone else.
Unfortunately, though, Freak Show reveals its hand. In the final scene of the episode, Pepper finds a magazine with Elsa on the cover, proclaiming her a TV star. Elsa gets what she wants at the expense of Pepper; the beautiful Elsa, who gives Pepper away because she “needs” it, winds up a celebrity while Pepper is accused of murder and sent away to the asylum of season 2. We knew this was coming, obviously, but it doesn’t make it right – Freak Show continually undermines its own theme, attempting to show that the freaks are the underdogs but only succeeding in beating them down again and again. It feels wrong, and perhaps that’s part of “Orphans” point; but the retribution has yet to come, and it almost feels it never will.
The bigger issue, though, is where “Orphans” falls this season. As the tenth episode, this is an hour that could have been spent figuring out where the hell the direction of Freak Show is headed. Instead, it’s a particularly good episode about one character that fails to involve the rest of the subplots. It’s nice to see a good character episode of Freak Show, but when it comes at the expense of the rest of the story, it’s a waste of time. That’s the case with “Orphans,” a tale about Pepper that’s more concerned with getting the Asylum tie-in covered than exploring the various loose ends of Freak Show.