The people making ‘American Horror Story’ this season sure must be confident in it, because this week’s episode (not even the premiere, but the second of the season) ran an extra long hour-and-forty-minutes (including commercials). If it weren’t good, that might be kind of torturous. Amazingly, I think it may actually be the best episode since the show’s original pilot. Am I crazy for feeling that way?
Crazy is what this show does best, of course, and episode ‘Chutes and Ladders’ (even the title is hilarious) has no shortage of that. The season premiere played up its influences from ‘The Shining’ to ‘Se7en’ in a big way. This one leans heavily on Tony Scott’s ‘The Hunger‘ as it reveals some of the backstory for the Hotel Cortez and the mysterious Countess (Lady Gaga). The episode densely packs a lot of information and happenings into that running time, and I doubt I’ll be able to capture all of it in this recap, but here are some of the secrets I gleaned:
The Countess is confirmed to be a vampire, but not the kind with fangs. “We don’t bite; we cut,” she explains. After his overdose, she turned boy-toy Donovan (Matt Bomer) to be her immortal companion. Other characters appear to be ghosts, including Hypodermic Sally (Sarah Paulson) and the creepy maid. Of her more than a century on Earth, the Countess says that her favorite era was the late 1970s. Nevertheless, aside from a fabulous disco flashback, most of the episode has a heavy ’80s vibe.
When Det. Lowe (Wes Bentley) gets creeped out by his room and can’t sleep, he chases a vision of his missing son and winds up in the hotel bar, where he meets Sally. She tells him a sob story about her history with drugs, and coaxes him to talk about the worst case he ever worked, in which a whole family died. Despite his insistence that he doesn’t drink anymore, she tries to tempt him with alcohol. He refuses and leaves.
New owner Will Drake holds a big party and a fashion show in the hotel. One of the male models is an out-of-control bad boy named Tristan (Finn Wittrock, who played villain Dandy Mott last season). After a drug-fueled meltdown on the runway, Tristan deliberately cuts his own face and declares that he’s done with modeling and storms out. In the process, he catches the Countess’ eye.
Later, she’ll catch him scouring her room for drugs. She turns him into a vampire, which Tristan is very excited about. He loves the youth and vitality and physical perfection (that cut on his face heals right up), and can’t wait to be a real monster. She’s very pleased with him in return, but her existing companion Donovan becomes jealous and upset. The Countess cuts him loose. She’s grown bored with him.
At the party, Drake introduces Lowe’s young daughter Scarlett to his own son Lachlan. When Lowe is distracted, the boy leads Scarlett to a room with an empty swimming pool, in which sit three coffins holding three sleeping vampire children, one of whom looks like her missing brother Holden.
The next day, Scarlett sneaks away from her mother and takes a bus back to the hotel. The coffins are gone from the swimming pool, but she searches around and finds a hidden entrance to the kids’ secret playroom. Holden is sitting there playing a videogame. She questions why he hasn’t aged, and tries to take a photo to show her parents, but the boy creeps her out so she leaves without getting a good shot. On her way out, she runs into Sally, who scares her by showing her a mouthful of icky broken teeth.
Scarlett returns home and finds the place filled with cops. Both of her parents thought she was missing and were terrified. She tries to tell them about Holden, but the photo is blurry and her mother gets upset with her for making up a story like that.
Realizing that something is very wrong with the hotel, Lowe charges back there and threatens to arrest Iris (Kathy Bates) unless she tells him what the hell is going on. She laughs, and willingly agrees to tell him the history of the hotel if he’ll just buy her a drink.
In an extended flashback, Lowe learns that the building was constructed in the 1920s by an oil millionaire named James Marsh (series regular Evan Peters), who was also a crazed serial killer. He designed it to be the ultimate torture chamber, filled with maze-like hallways and convenient chutes for hiding and disposing of dead bodies. With the help of his batty maid Miss Evers (Mare Winningham), who was forever obsessed with cleaning blood and viscera out of bed sheets, Marsh tortured and murdered countless victims until the police finally caught up with him, at which point he killed Evers and himself.
As viewers, we happen to know that Marsh and Evers currently reside in the hotel as ghosts because Tristan crossed their paths earlier.
Lowe says that he doesn’t believe in ghouls or ghosts, but makes a connection between the description of Marsh’s crimes and the serial murder case he’s currently working. He isn’t sure how, but feels certain that the killer will tie back to the hotel.
Meanwhile, Tristan chooses his first victim, a gay hustler he lures back to the Countess’ room. She gets off watching him claim his first life and feed on the blood.
The plot description alone doesn’t adequately convey why the episode works. I really dug the ’80s stylings and atmosphere. The story is already a lot more coherent and interesting than the show’s last three seasons. The creators seem to be really focused on making the series genuinely creepy again, rather than just over-the-top weird. (Make no mistake, it’s still plenty weird too.)
Whether this will hold up for the full 13-episode run, I have no idea, but I’m hopeful.