While I’m very free about expressing my loathing of American Horror Story: Freak Show, I can admit that at least the show started off strong. The first four episodes introduced Twisty the Clown as the major villain of the show, and though he was horrific just to look at, the primary draw of his terror was that he couldn’t talk. His lack of a lower jaw, covered up by that ghastly smile mask, thrust a mute character to the top of the Best Characters list because his motives for maiming and killing people were kept entirely secret, and there is little scarier (or more compelling) than a villain who is that unpredictable. That is, until Wes Bently’s Edward Mordrake showed up and robbed us of any intrigue by magically granting Twisty a voice with which to tell his sad story. And so, we were spoon fed a voice-overed backstory that satiated a non-existent thirst for explanation. Then, Twisty was gone. Freak Show grew progressively worse after that episode, but had the show shifted its focus and kept Twisty silent for the entirety of the season, I’m positive it could have developed into something worthwhile. This anecdote is brought to you by the experience that American Horror Story does not fare well when it features a grand gesture of exposition, particularly so early in the season. And that’s exactly what Hotel just did, two episodes sooner than Freak Show.
In this episode, the Countess found a new boytoy in the angsty model Tristan, played by the incomparably beautiful Finn Wittrock, whom she “turned” shortly after he sliced his face with a pair of scissors and proclaimed he was done with modelling. (But let’s be serious. No scratch is going to damage that man’s perfect bone structure and facial symmetry.) After they christen Tristan’s newly acquired immortality by doing it in the tub, the Countess regails him with her life’s story, including the glory of the non-judgemental excesses of the late 1970s and an allusion to the rise of AIDS that shortly followed. Not only do we now know all about the Countess’ century-long exploits, but we also know all about this “virus” that they have that gives them vampiric qualities without actually making them vampires. Even if I had already assumed that was the case, the overt explanations are annoyingly unnecessary.
Then, in a scene that made the episode run for a frustrating hour and forty two minutes, Iris explains the hotel’s origins to John. While it’s refreshing to see Evan Peters playing something other than the tormented dreamboat on this show, I would’ve been satisfied to find his sadistic creep, James March, lurking in the shadows of random rooms in the hotel and reminding me of Lloyd from The Shining. (When Tristan stumbled into that room, March could’ve said, “Good evening, Mr. Torrence.” and it wouldn’t have been out of place.) His creepiness only escalated when he removed his ascot to reveal a nasty throat wound, reminiscent of one of my favorite childhood tales from “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” His character had real promise for a minute there. But then Hotel proceeds to feature a long, chiaroscuro-ed flashback that reveals March to be the original Hotel Cortez owner, who only built the hotel to be a murder playground of false passages and garbage chutes of death. We learn the weirdly fastidious laundress, Miss Evers, isn’t just another ominous hotel fixture, but was actually a lackey of March’s with a passion for removing blood stains. And are we not supposed to assume that March’s wife, of whom we only saw a tuft of blonde hair, is the Countess herself? (She said that she was born in 1904, and March’s exposition took place in 1925, which makes her the ripe marital age of 21 at that time.) Iris also explains that room 64, the lodging for cursed Swedish tourists, heroin junkies, and John alike, was once March’s office.
March’s story did serve an additional, if not premature, function in the episode when John realizes through the telling of March’s bible massacre that the serial killer he’s chasing has an M.O. in the Ten Commandments. In what I thought would be a convenient through-line of the season that could create lasting dramatic business, the unsolved murders just became another piece of the puzzle that Hotel put in place for us.
This is not to say that Hotel is doomed to fail in a worse way than Freak Show, since there are plenty of other characters about which we know little, and it’s definitely too early to say where the season is going. We don’t know Liz Taylor’s origin story, or what will happen to Donovan since the Countess dumped him for being suburban enough to want to binge watch House of Cards rather than go out “hunting.” I want to see Iris agonize over her son, which is wonderfully tragic when filtered through Kathy Bates. I’m psyched to see what Sally has in store for Gabriel now that he’s sewn into a mattress. (Though Sarah Paulson is so magnetic that I’d watch her read a dictionary. I love watching her play with cigarettes in this show, as if they’re an extension of her hands rather than a prop.) But still, it’s hard to see the benefit in revealing almost everything about important characters like the Countess and March so early on in the season. We now know most of what the hotel has to offer any occupants unfortunate enough to enter, and, like Twisty’s past, so much of the mystery is already gone.