Did last week’s premiere of American Horror Story leave you with more than a few questions? You’re in luck. This week’s installment, “Chutes and Ladders,” has no trouble doling out some answers.
It also marks the first appearances of beloved returning AHS players, Evan Peters and Finn Wittrock. The former is taking a delightful turn from his the sort of dark, but lovable sadsack, this time clearly relishing the opportunity to play one of Horror Story’s most heinous villains.
We also had a brief moment with Denis O’Hare’s “Elizabeth Taylor,” who stole the show with one line: “Skinny jeans are out. Fringe is in. Ponchos are forever. Make a note of it.”
Duly noted, indeed.
There’s plenty more to learn in our SPOILER-filled recap below.
It’s time to know your Hotel herstory, children, so get out your notebooks and pay attention. It was the 1920s, and handsome hotelier James Patrick March (Peters) was constructing the Cortez, a gorgeous monument to Art Deco and also murder. Much like the heinous deeds of H.H. Holmes, March had constructed the Cortez to suit his very specific needs. Requirements include chutes to dump the bodies of his victims, soundproof walls, and hallways and doors to nowhere. March delights in murdering guests, contractors and seemingly anyone else he can get his hands on.
In our black-and-white flashback, we see him begin to focus his killings with a religious bent, inspired by deep resentment for his faithful father. His exploits ended when he started to get a little sloppy with the evidence, leading the cops straight to him. (Some suspect his wife — looking and sounding more than a little like Gaga, based on a short glimpse — turned him in.) Regardless, his spree comes to a dramatic end, when police had him trapped in his office with his loyal laundress Miss Evers (Mare Winningham). She’s so devoted to him (and her craft) that when he asked her in which order they should kill themselves, her first reaction was “Part of me wishes you could go first, so I could launder the sheets.” Eventually though, she confessed it would be an honor to be his last victim before he kills himself.
That’s not our only flashback of the evening, but we’ll get there in a moment. In the present day, the Cortez’s new owner Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson) is throwing a big fashion show. Even Naomi Campbell is there, playing the editor of Vogue magazine. (Ryan Murphy somehow managed to pass on just naming her Schmanna Schmintour.) The runway show’s a chance for John Lowe (Wes Bentley) to mix it up with Campbell’s character, Claudia Bankson, and for Gaga to draw as much attention as the fashions themselves. She really captures the attention of bad-boy model Tristan Duffy (Finn Wittrock). You know he’s a bad boy, because he’s got hair like Rufio in Hook. Gaga can smell his rage, and it’s not long before he finds himself in her embrace (after a brief run through the hotel looking for smack or money or both that leads him to a brief exchange with the ghost — ? — of March).
Gaga has, in the parlance of True Blood and other vampire tales, “turned” him, which is convenient for us as viewers, because we get to bare witness to his Vampire 101 Orientation. She tells him that they don’t have fangs (they cut their victims open, instead); not to drink the blood of the dead, feebled or “poisoned”; don’t get caught and don’t fall in love. You’re vulnerable to stakes and silver bullets, but keep in mind being immortal is not the same as being invulnerable or unkillable. The sun won’t kill you, but it does sap your vitality. All the typical trappings of vampirism aside, Gaga refers to their condition as a “virus.”
If the “virus” metaphor wasn’t already making you nervous for whatever grander social message you just know is coming eventually, the virus’ association with sex, partying and excess certainly doesn’t help matters. Gaga recounts her favorite decades since her birth in 1904, settling on the 1970s, when she was queen of disco. (And, just to reinforce that sex/excess connection to the “virus,” let’s not forget to note how Tristan later uses Grindr to score their next meal.)
Of course, there’s only room for so many beautiful, pouty vampire boys in Gaga’s penthouse, so Tristan’s arrival means Donovan (Matt Bomer) is out. Gaga attempts an amicable split, but where else exactly is someone like Donovan supposed to go? I guess we’ll see.
Maybe he could crash in John Lowe’s room. It seems like a real party. The detective is not having his most restful slumbers, as dreams/nightmares(?) of the Addiction Monster, a decomposing couple doing it in his shower and his lost son haunt him. He pulls up a stool next to the perpetually crying Sally (Sarah Paulson) at the bar. She offers up her pitiful tale of how she once wrote songs with Patti Smith, until heroin ruined her. Sensing Lowe has struggled with addiction too, she goads him into describing his last drunken episode. Not sure it’s as fun as she thinks it’s going to be, after he recounts working on a grisly case (a father finds that he’s accidentally poisoned his family with carbon monoxide from a generator and shoots himself in the head out of guilt). After working the scene, Lowe went on a bender, which he then tried to make up for by taking his family to the beach. And that was the day he lost his son.
Now, however, might be a great time to start drinking again, because things are only going to get weirder for the Lowe clan. During one of his daughter’s visit, she finds the coffins of the little strange children that run through the hotel and drink the blood of the guests. Among them, she thinks she spots her lost brother. She grabs a photo for reference from home and hops a bus back to the hotel. She finds him in the video game room, not having aged a day since his disappearance, and he’s got no interest in returning to their house. This is home now. She tries to grab a selfie (ugh, Generation Z, am I right?), but as she snuggles up close to him, he goes to bite her neck and she flees.
When she gets home, her parents are freaked. Having lost one child already, when another inexplicably goes missing for a few hours, it’s definitely worth a panic. The young girl tries to explain to John that Holden is alive at the hotel, but the suggestion sends him into a rage. It’s an odd reaction given that he’s seen the boy a few times at the hotel himself. Surely there’s a part of him that’s wondering if it’s real. The scene is also a chance for his wife (Chloe Sevigny) to harangue him about losing their son. (Earlier in the episode she harangued a yuppie mom about not vaccinating her son against the measels — another virus, another social comment, another chance for Chloe Sevigny to be dour and zero fun.)
If his life at home is stressful, he’s not getting any respite at work. At the precinct, a package arrives containing the murder weapon from that blogger who was bludgeoned and sodomized. It’s an Oscar statue covered in blood and lord knows what else. Suddenly, Lowe has a breakthrough, thanks to a very informative conversation with Iris (Kathy Bates) earlier. He connects the recent murders of the Oscar blogger (worshipper of false idols), the adulterous couple and the murdered brothers (who may have killed their own parents) with a spate of killings from the the ‘20s that has similar connections to the Ten Commandments. A ha! A clue!
For only the second episode, it is refreshing to see these flashbacks and parallel timelines already so closely intertwined. So often, AHS front loads its seasons with so many disparate plotlines, only a fraction of which connect, and fewer still reach satisfactory conclusions. It’s nice that the hotel and its history are already directly connected on this central murder plot.
Did this episode need to be so long? No. It definitely did not. (The Gaga ‘70s scene seemed especially indulgent.) I’m not particularly as smitten with Wittrock as the blasé model-turned-vampire as I was with his twisted take on Dandy last season. His performance as the spoiled, murderous Dandy was a revelation — menacing, sexy and bizarre all at once. So far, Tristan is little more than a beautiful bro in a wig. Maybe the virus will make him more interesting, but, for now, we’ve seen petulant models before (and thanks to Naomi Campbell’s appearance, we’ve also seen petulant models playing petulant fashion editors discussing petulant models).
Right now I’m most curious if all the hotel’s various characters have the virus, or is it a mix of vampires and Murder House-style ghosts? The children, Gaga, Bomer and Wittrock all feel like vamps, but the rest of the residents (Addiction Monster, Mr. March, Miss Evers, Sally) don’t seem the same.
What did you think of the episode?