If the first episode of American Horror Story Hotel felt flat, which it did, then the second at least felt a bit more like the series we know and love.
There were always going to be a few teething pains this time around, really. Though the anthology nature of the show allows a world of inter-season flexibility, Jessica Lange had established herself as the mainstay from the very first outing. Finding a rhythm that works without her was always going to be a tough challenge.
Thusfar I don’t see Lady Gaga as her replacement. That’s not to say that she’s doing a bad job, far from it, but she doesn’t yet have the confidence to carry the series on her own. In that respect we’re going to need a greater sharing of the weight amongst the stellar and experienced cast.
Which isn’t a problem, it’s just that the writers need to start giving them the chance to do so.
John and Alex Lowe, disbelieving Scarlett’s stories of seeing Holden in the Hotel Cortez, see their relationship hits the rocks. Donovan, cast aside by the Countess, struggles to find his place and lashes out at his mother, Iris. Tristain finds himself recruited by James March as the Hotel’s defender, and a newcomer wanting revenge against the Countess arrives on the scene.
So the last episode’s big revelation was that the Lowe’s missing son Holden was not exactly alive, but one of the Countess’ creepy child vampires. Scarlett’s parents don’t believe her, which is fair enough given that she shows the photography skills of a UFO hunter. So after a monologue from Alex Lowe about how she never wanted kids until she had Holden, and a glimpse into her despair and attempted suicide post Holden’s disappearance. The three of them — Alex, John and Scarlett — go to family counselling, and it’s clear that Alex thinks that Scarlett is responding to the relationship issues between them.
John, meanwhile, takes more a backseat this episode. He’s there for the Alex bits, and some plot acceleration, as he pieces together clues from the ten commandments killer and bits of March’s background. He also has the bloodied junkie from the first episode — who was sewn into the mattress by hypodermic Sally — run into him in the lobby, having killed Claudia, Naomi Campbell’s pointless character.
This links into Tristan’s story arc. Having been vampified by the Countess, he now “understands” what March was trying to show him last episode. Taken up as a willing protege, he volunteers as March’s weapon to stop the new owner, Will Drake, from tearing apart and remaking the hotel. Hence Claudia’s brutal murder. But when it comes to Drake himself, when Tristan tries to seduce and murder him, the Countess appears over his shoulder to stop him.
The reason, bizarrely, is that the Countess is broke. When Tristan walks in on him seducing Drake, she explains that she was hoodwinked by Bernie Madoff, and lost her whole fortune (Inherited from March, perchance? -Ed). Very topical, eh? So her grand plan is to marry Will Drake, and then have him die. That way she gets all his money, and everything is right as rain.
The junkie, though, sets John wondering about a link between the Ten Commandments killer — whose latest offering is a slaughter at the offices off a gossip website; thou shalt not bear false witness — and March. He suspects a copycat killer, which admittedly it might be, but I think it’s more likely something a lot more direct and supernatural.
The junkie leads John to Sally, just before dying, and John of course storms back to the Hotel Cortez to confront her. Sally makes an obscure reference to the Ten Commandments, and John arrests her as the killer. He never gets her out of the hotel, though. She tries to seduce him in the lift, in a strobing scene with that fleshy, scarified answer to Murder House‘s gimp. It’s actually the creepiest part of the episode.
Later on, Alex drops by with divorce papers. Although she still loves him, she says, it’s not enough. John breaks down in a rare show of emotion, and after she helps him up to his room they almost have sex. Until he starts whispering about having another baby, and she leaves in disgust. But on her way out she is accosted by an undead Claudia, who criticises her outfit, and the vampirified Holden, who greets her as “Mommy”.
And Donovan. With Donovan thrown out by the Countess, Iris looks to get her son back. Except when he rebuffs her, telling her how he hates her and that she should kill herself, she takes it to heart, and asks Sally to help her die. Sally, understandably, volunteers, given that Iris was the one who pushed her out of the window to her own death. When a drug overdose fails to do the job, Sally resorts to tying a bag over Iris’ head…
Meanwhile Donovan, feeling hungry, goes to feed on a randomer having car trouble, only to be tazed and bundled into the boot by what is revealed to be AHS stalwart Angela Basset. Hurray!
Donovan wakes up tied to a chair, with Angela’s character Ramona Royale filtering out of his blood all of the junkies he’s been feeding on. Ramona explains that she was a B-movie star, until she met the Countess and became one of her vampiric lovers, a predecessor to Donovan. Except she fell in love with an up-and-coming rapper staying at the Hotel Cortez, and made him into a vampire. The Countess jealously kills the rapper by shooting him through the head, and throws her out.
The problem, Ramona surmises, was that there could only be one queen, and the Countess couldn’t have any of her creations spawning children of their own. Ramona wants to get revenge on the Countess by taking away the only thing that matters to her, which she claims is the vampire children. She wants Donovan to be her way into the Hotel — until he tells her that the Countess already dumped him.
Back at the Cortez, Donovan has an exchange with Liz Taylor about his prospects and humility, and Liz gives him an earful about the way he treats his mother. When he gets up to Iris’ room, she’s already dead, with Sally gloating over the corpse. Except in a fit of guilt that he will almost certainly live to regret, he opens his veins and drips his infected blood into her mouth.
I was having a bit of a think about what’s wrong — or rather, not quite right — about Hotel as an American Horror Story series. At first I though that it’s just a bit bland, but that’s not quite it. For one thing, it feels far too deliberate. From the detached aloofness of the Countess, to the withdrawn distance of Detective Lowe, to even the must and faded glory of the hotel itself. I don’t think they are quite pulling it off, but given that so many of the storylines revolve around damage and trauma inflicted prior to the show beginning, I wonder if the entire show isn’t attempting to be a sort of personification of something along the lines of PTSD.
The actual theme of this episode was very much stated in its title, and it felt more like an episode of American Horror Story should. There was a sense of pathos, as there has been from the beginning, but more of a direction to it. And the fact that all of the storylines weave in and out of each other brings it even closer to what, as I say, it ultimately should be.
I don’t want to jump the gun, but it does feel like Hotel is finding its feet, and might yet be a success in the end.
- March doesn’t seem aware that time has passed outside the hotel. He asks how Tristan knows so much about him, and when Tristan answers that he googled March, March comments that that it “sounds obscene”. He’s not wrong.
- I like the way that the writers have snuck in a dig at the anti-vaccinations squad.
- AHS isn’t afraid from going gory, but the tongues nailed to desks gave me a shudder.
- If the Countess kicked Ramona out because she created another vampire, how could she stop her from doing it again? Couldn’t Ramona attack the Cortez with an army of vampires? Or is that a bit too Twilight?
- Everybody wants to kill Will.