“Take any piece you like,” James Patrick March (Evan Peters) tells the intruder he catches pocketing jewelry. “None of it has any meaning for me.” Like March with his possessions, American Horror Story is lavish with its storylines, allusions, and characters—and like March, it doesn’t seem to particularly prize any of them.
The modern-day Cortez is an echo of the Overlook Hotel, but it originated as half Winchester House, half H. H. Holmes’ murder hotel. March, its untrained architect and original owner, built it as “a monument to excess and opulence where he could satisfy his own peculiar appetites,” Iris tells Det. John Lowe. It’s riddled with passages without exits, chutes to dispose of bodies, and at its center, there’s a murder chamber where he slaked his urges in private. John Lowe’s room, number 64, is March’s former office. “If this building has a heart,” Iris tells him, “it’s black as the ace of spades. And you’re sleeping in it.”
This story comes out over the drink Lowe’s been resisting all along. “That’s your thing?” Iris asks drily. “You need to be talked into drinking?” That’s the crux of American Horror Story: Hotel. It’s about addiction, whether to heroin, bourbon, cocaine, blood, or heartbreak. Even March’s murders are presented in the language of addiction. He killed three people a week, “a lot more if he went on a bender,” Iris says.
The Cortez is a twisting maze of dead ends and false fronts, and so is American Horror Story: Hotel. “Chutes And Ladders” (written by Tim Minear) delivers a lot of plot, backstory, and atmosphere in a single episode. It also takes longer than most feature films to do it, and probably could fit them into an hour if it weren’t addicted to its own sprawl.
“Chutes And Ladders” drops a huge amount of exposition, and it mostly sounds like exposition. Iris tells the story of the hotel, in which March tells Duffy the secret to happiness: “To thine own self be true… Polonius,” and tells a hapless builder who stumbles on his secret, “The appetites of the filthy rich are specific. I feed some of that hunger with this building, my art.” Sally explains what John Lowe is really doing at the Cortez: “There’s a part of you that wants to get lost, am I right?” She asks, “Tell me about your very last drunk. What kind of day was it? I like details,” and he gives them to her. Sally tells John about her history of addiction, though she speaks of poetry and metaphorical ladders climbed to heavenly heights, not of being shoved out a window into an alley. Donovan tells The Countess, who knows (and the audience, who didn’t), that she’s running out of money.
Disgruntled by Donovan’s sloth, The Countess converts Drake’s lead model, Tristan Duffy (Finn Wittrock), and she outlines the rules of their condition and survival like a guidebook. They aren’t vampires; they carry “the virus.” When Tristan (who isn’t the sharpest incisor in the bite radius) asks “No fangs?” she tells him, “We don’t bite, we cut.” There’s more. They never age. They have a super-charged immune system. They’re vulnerable to injury—and to discovery. “You’re only immortal if you’re smart.” (He isn’t.) The sun can’t kill them but will “sap your vitality.” They must never feed on the dead, the infirm, “the feeble, the bloated.” And he must never fall in love: “That’s the part you save for me. Forever.”
Lowe and his partner realize what viewers knew all along: The Oscar blogger (now identified as writing for Gold Derby) was killed with an Oscar statuette, and the murders are related to the Ten Commandments, which flash through AHS: Hotel’s credits. (It’s a cute touch that creator Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk’s credit is preceded by “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”)
Tristan narrates what’s so captivating about his new perfection: His drug habit was ravaging him, but now, “I look amazing! I would do me.” And The Countess narrates a bit of her own history, including a fevered disco scene in which she rides onto the dance floor astride a horse, a bevy of scantily clad young rollerskaters bearing the train of her Lady Godiva-length hair, to “I Want Your Love.” She also explains to Donovan why she’s kicking him out of the hotel: “It isn’t our precious virus that makes you. It isn’t who you kill or who you screw. It’s the heartbreaks. Bigger and better.”
Bigger isn’t always better—a lesson American Horror Story has never learned—and explanation doesn’t equal drama, even if the story it’s telling is horrible and haunted. This episode that could fleet along on swift feet instead dawdles along endless corridors. It doubles back on its path, tangling up in nested storytelling and repetition. But like James Patrick March, “Chutes And Ladders” is eager to share its enthusiasms, and the elaborate settings and playful camera work (directed by Bradley Buecker) help keep it lively. Especially effective is the first bar sequence, with the intimacy between Sally and John broken again and again. Liz Taylor stays mostly out of shot, but she’s still firmly present, her shadow crossing Sally’s face or her hand intruding into the frame to clank down a bottle.
Maybe the best part of “Chutes And Ladders” is the silver-screen phoniness of Evan Drake and Mare Winningham, both putting on their best interwar mid-Atlantic accents. Peters sounds like he’s doing a William Powell impression, assured and crisp. He dismisses Tristan’s cocaine as “too tame for me. I’ve found a better way to stimulate.” He slaps a gun into Tristan’s hand, urging him to try the pleasures of killing, but is unshaken by his resistance. In a penetrating voice, March says, “You know. In your black heart of hearts, you know. You’re just like me.” And soon Tristan will be killing with artless excitement.
Mare Winningham’s Miss Evers is by turns earnest and giddy. She’s downright kittenish asking March, cornered by the police, to kill her, and she’s delighted to be a small part of his binges. “What a glorious stain!” she exclaims over a blood-soaked sheet, her voice trilling with contagious pleasure, and her enthusiasm explains why this show sometimes can be so much fun, sloppy as it is. Maybe that’s the best American Horror Story can aim for: to be a horrible, glorious stain.
- Gross or awesome: The Countess isn’t a vampire and she doesn’t bite, but Sally is something else altogether. That shot of her teeth shattering out of her mouth as another set of… something… grew in was both gross and awesome.
- correction: In its original version, this review credited the script for “Chutes And Ladders” to writer Tim Minear as well as creators Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy.
- “The show isn’t over.” “It is for me!” Tristan’s self-mutilation in the dressing room felt like a genuinely nihilistic act, a declaration of the worthlessness of beauty and the emptiness of life, an impression undermined by his rejoinder of “I don’t give a shit! I’m coming out in a Lars von Trier movie next year!”
- “You do have a type,” Donovan tells The Countess, and I laughed out loud because so does AHS.
- The forest of street lamps The Countess walks through is Urban Light, a Chris Burden installation outside the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art.
- Amid the exposition, Alex Lowe (Chloë Sevigny) takes time out to give a stern lecture to an anti-vaxxer mother (Mädchen Amick), so either AHS: Hotel is using its airtime for PSAs or Max, now needlessly suffering from measles, will turn up as one of the wraiths in the Hotel Cortez.