The latest episode of ‘American Horror Story’ devotes a considerable portion of its runtime to a very long flashback. That’s just one of the questionable decisions made in this entry.
We start in the present day. New owner Will Drake has ordered renovations to some of the hotel’s floors. A couple of his contractors discover a steel wall behind the brick, beyond which lies a hidden wing not on any of the building plans. It appears to have been sealed off for decades. As they enter to check it out, the men are attacked and eaten by a pair of extremely old and emaciated vampires. Iris and the Countess later discover the bodies. The Countess says that she doesn’t know what was in that wing, but she seems visibly scared by it.
Next, we flash back to 1925. The Countess, before she was a vampire (or a countess) is working in Hollywood as a bit-part actress in silent films. On the set of her latest job, she’s seduced by none other than legendary screen heartthrob Rudolph Valentino (Finn Wittrock, who also played Tristan the model this season). He introduces her to his wife Natacha Rambova (Alexandra Daddario), with whom he was supposedly separated. They reveal that their split was a sham for business purposes and they’re still very much together. The Countess is confused for a moment, until they teach her what a threesome is.
A social butterfly, the Countess attends the grand opening party for the Hotel Cortez. While there, news breaks that Valentino has died during a trip to New York. The Countess is devastated and nearly commits suicide (as, supposedly, many of the actor’s fans actually did) until James March saves her. They have a whirlwind relationship and marry in the hotel. When she stumbles upon her new husband murdering a hobo, the Countess even offers to assist with his little hobby.
Despite her marriage (which is of convenience, not love), the Countess still grieves for Valentino and leaves a rose at his grave every day. On one such occasion, Valentino reveals himself to be still alive – or rather, now undead. He explains that he had a chance encounter with film director F.W. Murnau, who discovered that vampirism was real while researching his ‘Nosferatu’. Murnau offered Valentino immortality so long as he faked his own death. (It was his stunt double in the casket.) Valentino quickly made Natacha a vampire as well, and now they want to share their gift with the Countess. She happily agrees, much to the dismay of her husband March, who was eavesdropping on the conversation.
Given the timing of events, I assume that baby Bartholomew must be Valentino’s son.
We then return to the present again. The Countess visits March in his room for a monthly dinner engagement. She announces her plans to marry Will Drake. Feeling that she’s rubbing the news in his face, March tells her what really happened to her long lost love. After discovering his wife’s treachery, March kidnapped Valentino and Natacha, locked them in the secret wing of the hotel, and sealed them in. They were the two vampires who attacked the construction workers. The Countess is horrified by this news.
Meanwhile, Valentino and Natacha, half-crazed from decades of starvation, regain their strength by feeding on several hotel guests and stroll out of the building.
After having apparently suffered a mental breakdown, John voluntarily checks himself into a psychiatric hospital to get professional help. His doctor sees this as an important first step. It turns out, however, that John has ulterior motives. The suspect arrested in the Ten Commandments murders is being held in that hospital. John knocks out the guard and breaks into the room, where he finds a young girl named Wren.
John is confused. The girl admits that she helped the killer with his crimes. John assumes that she must have been forced or coerced, but she insists otherwise. In a flashback to 1986, we learn that her skeezy father almost molested her (he was waiting for her to hit puberty) until the Countess rescued her, and turned her into a vampire so that she’d never grow up.
John doesn’t really pay much attention to this story. Caught up in his own need to play hero, he helps her escape the hospital – or, more accurately, he decides to escape the hospital and drags her along with him. Once outside, she tells him she’s sorry and jumps into the path of an oncoming truck.
The extended flashback throws the pacing and structure of the episode off. It feels unbalanced. Worse than that, however, is the decision to reuse Finn Wittrock to play a new character, especially since it comes just one episode after his previous character, Tristan, was killed off. If this was intentional, to suggest that the Countess liked Tristan because he reminded her of Valentino, it comes across as terribly gimmicky.
Nor am I a fan of the decision to besmirch the reputations of real historical figures like Rudolph Valentino and F.W. Murnau by suggesting that they were murderous monsters. Yes, I understand that this show has just lifted that premise from the movie ‘Shadow of the Vampire’ (in which Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’ star Max Schreck was revealed as a real vampire), but I still don’t care for it.
My money is still on John himself being the Ten Commandments killer – though, if that’s the case, wouldn’t Wren have recognized him? Perhaps she did, but was just pretending not to in order to play along with his delusion? I hope this is explained satisfactorily.