Iris (Kathy Bates) (Prashant Gupta/FX)

“I do better without words,” Rudolph Valentino (Finn Wittrock, putting that flawless forehead to excellent use) tells the star-struck bit player he’s invited for dinner. Like Valentino, American Horror Story: Hotel does its best work wordlessly: a playful tango that becomes a three-person seduction, two usually unflappable women standing fear-struck as they peer into its darkness, a flapper stumbling down a hallway, then swaying on the ledge of a window above a dirty alleyway.

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The Countess (Lady Gaga), Iris (Kathy Bates) (Prashant Gupta/FX)

“Flicker” (written by Crystal Lui, directed by Michael Goi) is notable for its short running time—or what counts for short in American Horror Story reckoning, overrunning its time slot by just three minutes—and a correspondingly tight narrative that tells how The Countess became the immortal blood-thirsty creature she is, how she met James Patrick March, and how she came to live in the Hotel Cortez.

Elizabeth (no countess yet, just Elizabeth, a plumber’s daughter from Bensonhurst aspiring to stardom) isn’t disillusioned to learn that Natacha Rambova (Alexandra Daddario), “one of the most exotic women in the world” and Valentino’s wife, was once the humbly named Winifred Hudnut. That only makes her more inspiring: “She transformed herself.” The woman who would become The Countess knows the importance of transformation.

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And Lady Gaga transforms herself here. Finally, she’s got something to play besides icy hauteur and deadly appetite, and she has some fun with it. At dinner with her silver-screen crush, a host of emotions flicker over Elizabeth’s face: excitement, apprehension, defensiveness, desire, and a brash little smile that sneaks out now and then despite the tension obvious in the set of her shoulders and jaw. She’s awed, but not cowed. Elizabeth may be the little mouse among cats, but she’s not afraid to bite back. When Valentino brushes aside her aspirations along with her compliments, she speaks up. ““No, I don’t agree. I don’t agree at all,” she says firmly, lecturing him on film as the true American art form and the road to immortality.

Valentino, the film god, does grant his little mouse immortality— not the immortality she hopes for, but one she takes ardently. “Yes. Yes, and forever!” she cries, not knowing that March lurks beneath them in the mausoleum, plotting to wall up his wife’s lovers as certainly as the stunt double is walled up in Valentino’s grave.

Despite its glamorous trappings, this season of American Horror Story doesn’t shy away from the tedium, the sheer grubbiness, of eternal life. Refreshed from their long, hungry immuration, Valentino and Natacha stride into the night to a refrain strikingly similar to The Countess and Donovan’s hunting music, but that doesn’t wipe away the image of them as ghouls shambling through the rank halls of their massive tomb, feeding on rats.

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Valentino’s transformation into one of “the afflicted” at the hands of director F. W. Murnau is told as a silent film of its own, and so is Murnau’s metamorphosis (a flashback within a flashback within a flashback). Valentino’s narration describes it as an adventure and a seduction, but the image of Murnau’s shadow looming over him in the dark is pure Nosferatu. It’s a horror story disguised as a romance.

Defending her hasty marriage to her lovers, Elizabeth disguises her romance as a horror story. She disowns March as meaning “nothing to me” and paints herself as a victim who “ached to be consumed” by his darkness. But the flashback to their honeymoon tells a different story. He rips her clothing, chokes her, slams himself into her—and she answers his brutality with her own. (“Darling, you are a revelation!” March beams.) Elizabeth isn’t consumed by her husband’s darkness; she’s exalted by it. When she stumbles upon him bleeding out a corpse, she instructs him to pick someone better-heeled next time… and to let her watch. Even before she was The Countess, she was a killer at heart.

These little glimpses of black-and-white are clever stylistic homages to the silent-film legends the episode name-drops, but they’re also clever reminders that, in the world of American Horror Story, even lovers romanticize, mislead, or manipulate each other. Nothing here is real. Every gleaming surface is a veneer, like the veneer of calm The Countess affects—a veneer that chips when she sees the steel plate secreted in the wall of the Cortez, and shatters completely when she realizes March has walled up Rudolph and Natacha for nearly 90 years. Each flickering silent-movie flashback is a reminder that in this world, promises of love, glamor, passion are as solid as the flickers of light on a movie screen and, despite all the talk of eternity, as ephemeral.

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When it relies on words, not images, the show gets a little clumsier. John Lowe continues to be stubbornly clueless. He thinks he’s cannily maneuvered himself “exactly where I need to be” by faking a breakdown (in the midst of his actual breakdown) and signing into the psychiatric hospital where his chief suspect is being held. But he’s overlooking the real mystery all around him. Face to face with another of the Cortez’s eternal children, Det. Lowe ignores the import of everything she says: telling him she can’t eat food and doesn’t want to “feed,” that she can’t grow up, that she’s long outlived her father, that she’d rather die than suffer her unending childhood. Is the LAPD’s star homicide detective willfully oblivious, is he numb with grief, or is he, too, telling himself lies?

Even before they know of the blood affliction F.W. Murnau contracted in the Carpathians, the characters of “Flicker” are seduced by the allure of immortality. They strive to become gods, if not through the flicker of film and the adoration of the masses, then by sacrificing their humanity. But one by one, they all end up as monsters. Even John Lowe. Maybe especially John Lowe.

Stray observations

  • “How would somebody even know their anus needs bleaching? I couldn’t pick my butthole out of a lineup.” Iris, never change.
  • Evan Peters’s highly mannered, pop-eyed, clipped-voice period persona is spectacular, but his ability to keep an undercurrent of menace rippling under the hilarity is even more impressive.
  • Det. Lowe isn’t the only one making questionable decisions. Maybe Natacha and Rudolph are driven by necessity to ambush Elizabeth at his graveside, despite his famous face and her local renown as the mysterious mourner, but sticking around the mausoleum for some three-way dry-humping seems unnecessarily showy for the most famous man in the world who’s trying to fake his death.
  • Even in death, an actor is an actor. “To be clear, I did do most of my own stunts.”
  • In the logic of many horror narratives, the construction worker wary enough to know the closed-off wing smells like death would survive the attack, left behind to tell the tale of his incautious colleague’s fate. But in American Horror Story, the wary and unwary, the worthy and the unworthy, all perish indiscriminately. There’s a moral of a sort in the wanton slaughter.

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