“I have nothing but time and imagination,” James March says, trying to coax John Lowe away from his wife and back to their murderous endeavors. American Horror Story: Hotel acts like it has nothing but time, but as the season ticks on, time is running out.

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It could be better marshaled, but there’s no shortage of imagination here. “She Gets Revenge” is any uneasy mix of some heady images, some great laughs, and a few stand-up-and-cheer moments, all surrounded by cumbersome digressions. At a point where the story should be constricting, it’s expanding instead.

Was anyone clamoring for a reunion between Alex and John Lowe? Or for a flashback explaining Alex’s predicament? Or for another visit to The Vampire Kids’ Playhouse? (Yeah, yeah, they’re not vampires, the show has been tediously clear that this isn’t vampirism, it’s an ancient blood virus that produces bloodsucking near-immortals functionally identical to vampires.)

If you’re only going to give Angela Bassett one line, “Mama smells appetizers” is a solid choice, but the li’l vamps were presumably brought to The Cortez to provide Ramona with a brood of her own, not because the show cares about them or their fate or has succeeded in making us care about them. Their clumsy return is made clumsier by the half-hearted attempt to flesh them out as characters. (OH NO, KIMMY’S DEAD! Was Kimmy given a name just so we’d care when she died, because, uh, that didn’t work.)

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When a show keeps this many irons in the fire, every story suffers. John Lowe reminds his wife, “We have another child,” and Alex hears it as the accusation it is. “I haven’t forgotten about Scarlett,” she answers. But AHS: Hotel sure tried to. It used her to draw John’s attention to the hotel, then packed her off to Grandma’s, and any mention that her double-life-leading dad and vampire mom (I KNOW, SHE’S NOT A VAMPIRE, BUT CLOSE ENOUGH) (I’m starting to understand, and I mean understand, how this show has driven my predecessors to distraction and randomness and ALL-CAPS MANIA) ever checked up on her is pure afterthought.

Sally (Sarah Paulson), John Lowe (Wes Bentley) (Prashant Gupta/FX)

Then there’s the dialogue—the tiring, on-the-nose dialogue. Confronting John after he makes love to his estranged (VAMPIRE! SHE’S A VAMPIRE!) wife, Sally barks out, “Did you come inside her or did you shoot on her tits, like you do with me?” In case the implication of that question is lost on the audience, she clarifies it—twice. “With the whore, it’s always on the tits. That’s what I am to you, a whore.” You can’t accuse AHS of obfuscation.

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Even the sweeter moments and more touching characters suffer in this overworked swelter of storytelling. There’s good logic in Liz Taylor’s desire to settle her unfinished business with her son, and it’s… gosh, it’s just plain nice that Douglas (Josh Braaten) recognizes and accepts him so earnestly. There’s emotional honesty in a son with reservations about a long-absent parent. O’Hare and Braaten act the hell out of their scenes, keeping them understated, dramatic without being melodramatic, and suffused with a delicate tension. But however well-executed they are, they’re simply not necessary enough to be entirely welcome.

The Countess (Lady Gaga), Donovan (Matt Bomer) (Prashant Gupta/FX)

“It did feel great at the time, but now I have a bit of a mess to deal with,” The Countess confesses to Donovan over dinner. That could be the motto of AHS writers, who succumb to momentary thrills that leave a lot of stinking remains cluttering up the story. More stories don’t make a show more gripping. Better stories do, and tighter stories do. American Horror Story: Hotel is too much like the arsenal Iris assembles on her chenille bedspread. It’s an embarrassment of choices, and someone needs to just pick one and run with it.

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Then again, maybe necessity isn’t a great metric for judging this show. Every time I get fed up with American Horror Story, it pulls out some lagniappe that earns back my attention, my affection, and just a modicum of my trust. “She Gets Revenge” boasts a half-dozen of them, like James March’s leather helmet:

There’s Miss Evers rejoicing over modern detergents and washing machines, and there’s Donovan dancing to “Hotline Bling”:

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There’s Will Drake returning from death to embrace his wife, Kim Novak costume and all, and explaining his absence to the police with a line reading straight out of 30 Rock: “I was just exploring the new renovation on the 7th floor and got lost in the hallways for two days!”

“… for two days!” (Lady Gaga, Cheyenne Jackson) (FX)

And then there’s this:

“A glorious, blazing, final act.” (Denis O’Hare, Kathy Bates) (FX)

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Iris and Liz Taylor teaming up to strike back at The Countess was inevitable, but it’s still thrilling to see. And it’s a heck of a cliffhanger for the holiday break, showing that no matter how it dawdles along, in the clinches American Horror Story: Hotel can grab a viewer’s attention with delicious, merciless precision. Finally, for one glorious moment, it’s all action and no distractions.

James March is a ludicrous peacock of a man—oh, sure, and evil, just monstrously evil—but he has a point. There’s virtue in ignoring distractions, in sticking to the essentials. And though Liz Taylor was right not to cave to her suicidal impulses, she was also right about this: If you’re going to do something, go big and make a clean exit.

Stray observations

    “I’m a contractor! I make optimistic predictions!” Does anyone get the feeling James Wong (writer for “She Gets Revenge”) has tangled with household renovations lately?

    “We can dump someone in there, maybe this weekend,” The Countess tells Donovan, but surely she’s the one who’ll ultimately end up in the prison she built.

    As Sally screams at the departing John, there’s a flickering frame in which a ghoul strokes her hair.

    “Has anything changed since I gave you the papers?” Alex asks John. Wellllllll, you contracted an ancient blood curse, you started a nest of baby-vamps, and he remembered he’s a theatrically gruesome serial killer. Marriage is about growing together, so good luck, you crazy kids!

    Not to belabor the point, but since Alex told John (and by extension, retold us) the story of infecting Max, and since he’s willing to consign those children to a dark maze of eternal confinement, he must know they’re vampires (yeah, no, not vampires, but y’know, kinda like vampires), right? So he knows she’s a ageless blood-drinking creature? And he knows Holden’s an ageless blood-drinking creature? And he’s taking them home… to his daughter? Sounds like grade-A parenting, Det. Lowe.

    “There’s something solid behind your eyes” isn’t a line you can safely deploy on an actor as wooden as Wes Bentley has been in this role, unless you’re trying to make the audience laugh.

    “I must away! Bye now!”

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