01 “Checking In” (American Horror Story: Hotel) [SPOILERS]


american horror story hotel

So it’s back. It seems a bit weird to think of Hotel as American Horror Story‘s fifth season, perhaps due to the anthology style approach it takes, meaning that although the series’ are interconnected (Apparently… -Ed) they don’t follow on from each other and the reappearing actors and actresses play completely different roles.

But Hotel is going to be different. Season four, Freak Show, was Jessica Lange’s last. Since the start she had been the mainstay of the series, with a succession of commanding and show-stealing performances. Now, without her, it looks like Lady Gaga of all people is taking her place.

Now, Lange’s are big shoes to fill. And I’m genuinely not sure that Gaga has the acting skill to match it. Or even the vocal talents.

That said, American Horror Story has always been a series built on innovation. Given how it reinvents itself every year, I have to believe that it can overcome the loss of its big star. Hopefully with some off-the-wall writing and some creepy Shining references.

Investigating a serial killer, Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley) receives a tip off to go to the Hotel Cortez, where all manner of strange things occur. Dead junkie Sally (Sarah Paulson), stalks the hallways, whilst bad tempered Iris (Kathy Bates) staffs the check-in desk. Upstairs the Countess (Lady Gaga) and her lover have their fun. And something very nasty lurks in room 64.

Okay, so I suppose all of the series of AHS have, if I’m being fair, have taken a little while to find their stride. All of the characters are new, and the setting requires a little while to explain.

And really, I can tell that that’s where this series is certainly going to shine. The aesthetics are, frankly, outstanding. The grimy, art deco of the hotel looks superb, and there’s a real dingy sense to it. The feeling of a hotel which once had grand aspirations but has since fallen into its own degredations and vice.

Of which, really, there is plenty. Yep, Hotel goes big straight off the bat, loud and bloody. The Ten Commandments serial killer didn’t really make their presence properly felt, but the scene where the junkie is basically raped to death by some flesh-coloured abomination is chilling.

And Lady Gaga in the tentpole role is…interesting. The character of the Countess (Or Elizabeth, it’s not exactly clear… -Ed) clearly suits her well, and she revels in the barmy aesthetics. Well she would, wouldn’t she. The orgy/wifeswapping scene where her and her lover pick up a young couple from an outdoor screening of Nosferatu to go back to the hotel for murder/sex was interesting, but aside from the shock value it didn’t add a lot in terms of character or story.

I’m unsure what to make of Lady Gaga at this stage. She could be good, but she doesn’t yet have the gravitas that Lange exuded from the start. The role really needs more than just airey aloofness, though when the new designer owner of the hotel makes an appearance her interactions with him give a glimmer of life.

There is, of course, the ever reassuring presence of Kathy Bates, who does a delightful turn as Iris, the irascable receptionist. Amongst the brutality and the blood and the stylistic air, she gives a reassuring grounding. Her love/hate relationship with Sally is one of the few bits of backstory that gets some explanation, with her son being the Countess’ lover Donovan, who died of an overdose with drugs from Sally before being vampirified (Are we actually calling them vampires? -Ed) by the Countess. This all takes place in 1994, so when Iris pushes Sally out of the window to her death, her very 1990s look makes more sense.

But the main storyline is clearly going to be Wes Bentley’s detective. Investigating the Ten Commandments killer, his family gets sucked into the danger zone. Having lost their son at a funfair some time earlier, John and his wife Anne’s relationship is rocky, and after the killer sends a text seemingly from Anne to lure John and his daughter to the scene of one of his crimes. John’s response is to move out, away from his family, and draw the killer’s gaze away from his family. Not that that’s likely to work. Where does he end up? The Hotel Cortez, room 64.

So there we go, it’s started. There’s a lot of potential here, I can’t deny it, but it’s started a lot slower than previous AHS seasons. There’s a lot to see, but not much — yet — to get my teeth into. It could be magnificent. The setting certainly lends itself to it, and between the various monstrosities hinted at and the troupe of characters inhabiting it, it could shine. But it really does need that standout star. It doesn’t have to be Gaga, even, there are a lot of regulars not to make an appearance.

I don’t mean to sound as critical as perhaps I do. There was a lot to like here, but there was not enough of the sparkle that makes AHS great. The fact that it ends with the least subtle use of “Hotel California” ever at the end, which doesn’t gel with either the big bang finishes that we’re used to or the excellent use of music either. I’m not ready to damn the fifth series, but I want a lot of improvement and quickly.

Closing thoughts:

  • Note the estate agent giving the tour of the hotel is the same woman as in Murder House.
  • I don’t know who would actually stay in that hotel.
  • I don’t know why John Lowe would stay in that hotel.
  • The return of Chloe Sevigny, who was truly excellent as Shelley in Asylum, is very welcome.
  • I wonder what’s in Room 33 that needs feeding.
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