“American Horror Story” recap (4.10): Everything you never wanted to know about Pepper.


As you may or may not know, I don’t usually pay much attention to what my fellow critics say about the shows I recap, even when it seems that they all speak in a united chorus whilst I merely whisper into the wind.  I would not be a very good critic if I was not comfortable having a minority opinion, and I am one of those people who believes the Christmas season does not start early enough so I am used to it. That being said, I could not help but notice many of my fellow professional opinion-havers complaining that this season of American Horror Story was sorely lacking in focus and momentum.  Up until this episode, I have heartily disagreed, since it is the very digressions about which they complained that endeared me to this season and its characters. But this week’s long journey into Pepper’s past, present, and future is meandering to a degree that even I cannot appreciate.  It reminds me of Robert Frost’s immortal words: “Two roads diverged in a wood and I climbed into a tree and meowed like a cat until someone came to rescue me.”  This plotlessness is especially unforgivable since we are but three episodes away from the season finale, and there is so much left to resolve.  For that reason, this recap will be brief and (unlike the episode itself) to the point.

Let’s get one thing straight: I liked Pepper on AHS: Asylum, particularly when she miraculously gained the power of speech and became a competent OBGYN. But even then, her character was underused, and seemed mostly to function as a reference point to freaks and a way for the makeup team to lobby for an Emmy. This season, we’ve seen even less of her; she’s been a scene-filler and a wink to fans of the (abominable) second season. We already knew that she ends up in Briarcliff, and the implications about the developmentally disabled falling through the cracks were just as clear when they were between the lines.  Wee haven’t had reason or opportunity to get attached to her. So it comes as a shock that, from the very first moment, it’s clear that this is her episode.

Sometime during the night, Salt, Pepper’s companion, has died. Elsa narrates that the cause was probably a stroke, although it seems equally possible that Stanley poisoned him. Pepper enters a state of deep mourning and refuses to leave Salt’s side. This is highly inconvenient to Stanley, who needs to retrieve and pickle his body before it reaches an advanced state of decomposition. He lobbies for control over Salt’s burial so that Elsa can rest in preparation for her big meeting with a TV executive. Elsa expresses a (never before mentioned) devotion to Pepper, but as always, it is easily overcome by her devotion to her career, so Stanley is able to procure Salt’s head in peace.


In light of Pepper’s bereavement, everyone chips in to care for her.  Even Desiree reads to her from The Velveteen Rabbit, the sight of which brings a tear to Del’s eye.  He offers her one last chance at reconciliation, but she’s like, “Baby, even if you weren’t gayer than than the inevitable Brittana wedding, I don’t want to give birth to no big-necked baby of yours.” And with that, they go their separate ways. Desiree, meanwhile, makes her way to Elsa’s tent to discuss Pepper’s future.  Except that it turns in to an extended flashback from Elsa’s early days in the States. Not content to be a chorus girl, Elsa saw that the future of the carnival was the freak show, and Pepper was her very first recruit.


In typically narcissistic fashion, Elsa recounts how she exulted in Pepper’s unconditional love. Pepper herself, however, had a maternal instinct that went unfulfilled. Enter Ma Petit, who first came to the Freak Show as the pet of a Maharajah.  He was reluctant to part with her, but Elsa persuaded him to trade his tiny charge for three cases of Dr. Pepper. (Get it?)  As happy as I am to see Ma Petit again, this smacks of some really racist “trick the natives with sweets and glass beads” tropes.  To complete her little family, Elsa next tracked down Salt, who suffered from the same ailment (hydrocephalus?).  She described his connection with Pepper as “love at first sight” it’s pretty gross to assume that two people are cosmically destined for each other merely because they have the same disease.  It’s like when straight people say, “OH MY GOD YOU’RE GAY? MY AUNT SANDY IS GAY.  SHE’S 62 AND OWNS 14 CATS; YOU TWO WOULD BE PERFECT TOGETHER.”

Whatever. When this tale is finally over, Desiree remarks that, in light of Pepper’s many losses, maybe it’s time they return her to the care of the sister who abandoned her in the first place.

Which brings us to Mare Winningham.  Now, I already knew that Lily Rabe would make a guest appearance in this episode, and I thought that would be our Christmas miracle.  So I was doubly excited when I saw that Mare, one of the greatest and most under-appreciated actors working today, would be on today.

ahs10.3(Probably I am the biggest Mare Winningham fan outside her immediate family.  Her name sounds like a sound a horse makes.)

Anyway, Elsa returns Pepper to Mare’s care, even though she is CLEARLY a mean-spirited alcoholic.  It is then that the narration switches from Elsa to Mare herself, who, 10 years later, is admitting Pepper to Briarcliff.

ahs10.4I think it is maybe a little bit possible that Ryan Murphy wrote in this whole scene just to spite me and force me to revisit my least favorite season/location one last time.

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