Evan Peters, Wes Bentley (Prashant Gupta/FX)

“The Ten Commandments Killer” opens by repeating last week’s action: Having led Det. John Lowe out of the psychiatric hospital, Wren dodges into the path of an oncoming truck. The driver insists he couldn’t have missed her, and he’s right. She stepped out toward the death that eluded her for so long. “She’s dead,” an onlooker says unnecessarily, and that sets the tone for the episode: events we’ve seen before revisited, described, then capped by redundant summaries.

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Back at The Hotel Cortez, Sally begs John to come back to the bar with her and abandon his search for the truth, but he finally demands the answers he’s long suspected lie within the hotel. After sidestepping his questions, Sally caves. Behind the massive armoire in his hotel room, she tells him, “you’ll find what you’re looking for,” an ominous phrase indeed.

All her hedging and hemming and hawing blows the gaff on what could have felt like a revelation, or at least the satisfaction of confirmation: John Lowe, the detective leading the hunt for The Ten Commandments Killer, is The Ten Commandments Killer. After a montage detailing his guilt, Sally cries, “It’s you, John! It’s always been you.” Yup, check, gotcha. Yawn.

It’s almost worth having any vestigial element of surprise dulled just to see Liz Taylor’s acid satisfaction as John finally stumbles his way into the truth, after five years of forgotten scheming and murder. She hands over a gun, telling him with ominous emphasis that he might want it “in case you find what you’re looking for.”

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“The Ten Commandments Killer” tells its story almost entirely in flashback (and again sometimes resorts to flashbacks within flashbacks), which is becoming a tediously common approach for AHS: Hotel. Confessing to Det. Hahn, John recounts his first, long-forgotten visit to the Cortez—“five years ago,” he announces with all the spooky significance, and all the predictability, of a cheesy ghost story’s denouement—and his first meeting with James Patrick March. Seeing the black rage lurking within the frustrated detective, March handpicked John to carry on his legacy, coached him, coaxed out his false sense of righteous fury, and finally arranged for The Countess strip away his last remnants of sustaining joy by carrying off Holden.

“Finish my work, John. Make it your own,” March urges him, but instead, he takes a nearly hollow man, carves out what little humanity that remains, and fills him up with March’s own ambitions, hungers, and horrors. As March stands over him, John Lowe looks less like a man possessed by rage or numbed by drink and disaster, and more like a ventriloquist’s dummy. That’s fitting, given how thoroughly March manipulates him. Wes Bentley’s stiff, wooden mien suits this scene reasonably well, but it would be over-generous to credit that absence of affect to an actor’s or director’s choice when it’s been characteristic of Bentley’s performance all season long. This is an actor who growls “I killed a man today” and “There’s no such thing as justice anymore” in the same tone he uses to order a martini or rebuff a pass.

That’s one reason it’s chancy to build an entire episode around Bentley’s performance, as he recites a rigid history of his hidden murders and rages. Bentley carries the entire episode on his stiff shoulders, his voice making the modest shift from growling whisper to growling shout and back again. The ponderous script from Ryan Murphy doesn’t help, saddling him with long, laborious speeches. Confessing his crimes to his long-suffering partner, Det. Hahn, John ruminates:

“I began to live two different lives, completely separate from each other, one at home with Alex, where a minute lasted every bit of sixty seconds, the other at The Hotel Cortez with James March. Time had a way of making a different journey in that place.”

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The whole episode is full of this stuff, and it’s exhausting. “Five years went by like it was yesterday,” John Lowe says, and probably he’s on his way to cut out my heart, because I’m struck through with the deadly sin of envy that his time moves so fleetly; this episode makes 64 minutes feel like an eternity punctuated only by giggles at the show’s unintentional humor.

Det. Hahn seems pretty darned decent—gently suggesting to his unhinged partner “pal, you haven’t seemed 100% lately,” watching over Lowe’s family, reassuring him he’s an overworked, grieving man and not a murderer—so of course Hahn has to die, and his “instrument of adultery” is added to John and James’ cabinet of curiosities. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” John intones, adding unnecessarily, “That’s one of the Ten Commandments.” Yeah, we get it, but in case we didn’t, the dialogue keeps identifying which sinner is punished for breaking which commandment.

Wes Bentley, standing right where this episode put him. (FX)

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It’s just a mess. Worse, it’s a repetitive, muddled mess. This episode shows John killing Martin Gamboa, the Oscar-blogger beaten and violated with an award statuette, then revisits images of his naked, bloodied body. Even if the premiere didn’t establish the gruesome details of his death, this enthusiasm for lingering over the corpse would be unseemly. But the real offense isn’t one of taste, it’s one of logic. James March feeds John justification for killing Gamboa, suggesting he’s a child pornographer (an allegation Hahn refutes), but The Ten Commandments Killer doles out Gamboa’s punishment for worshipping false idols, not for exploiting children.

There are redeeming elements in “The Ten Commandments Killer,” and since this review has been hard on Wes Bentley, let’s look at his best moment. When he approaches the lobby desk, he remembers his previous visits, and Kathy Bates makes Iris’ relief as palpable and unexpected as her longing to tell him: “I’d look into your eyes, see the pain, and it didn’t seem right for me to add to it.” Gently, with quiet compassion, he says, “I wasn’t ready.” It’s a simple flash of connection between two people trapped in a private hell, and two actors trammeled in a muddy, convoluted script.

That affecting, effective detail doesn’t redeem the episode. Just as James Patrick March’s private vault displays the damning appendages of sinners, “The Ten Commandments Killer” exhibits the worst of American Horror Story’s excesses and indulgences and few of its charms.

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Stray observations

  • That armoire in room 64 seems big for one man to move alone, which could be a design error, but could be generously read as a remark on the painful work necessary to uncover the truths we deny.
  • The show is trying to spin John Lowe waking up at the time of James March’s death as a momentous connection between them, which might work if we hadn’t also seen the Scandinavian tourists waking up to the same clock, the same time.
  • “You had coffee with my wife? You had coffee with my wife?
  • When March gives him a tour of his trophies, ending with a human head, Lowe barks, “I’m going to report this!,” which seems… anticlimactic.
  • Even her admiration of The Countess’ finery betrays Miss Evers’ preoccupation with washing: ”I have no idea how one would launder a thing like that, all those sparkly bits!” she trills.
  • I know some readers find James March’s accent distracting, but Evan Peters’ early-20th-century mid-Atlantic affectations (lifted from “a marvelous professor” at Exeter) and his beaming mug give me the purest jolts of delight to be found in this season, rivaling even Denis O’Hare’s incisive character portrait.

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