Somewhere between the conflation of characters and all their tragic histories, and American Horror Story‘s consistently bloated version of reality, this episode totally lost me. And just when I was ready to fully support it; if not to applaud its audacity (for better or worse), then to spite the hyperbolic prudes that condemn it. But it’s a real shame when the “most vile and shocking content” on television becomes boring and tedious. It takes a show like American Horror Story to make one wonder how any show with more than two main characters can sustain itself for a season without becoming a jumbled mess. Perhaps those other shows have a shortage of lazy expository flashbacks and fewer “actors” that are shoehorned into the script simply because they’re friends of Ryan Murphy. I do believe the latter to be the cause of much tedium on this show.
There’s a great comparison to be made here in the presence of Lady Gaga and Naomi Campbell. One is an extraordinarily successful musician, the other a similarly successful model, and neither can call acting their chief skill. The difference between them is that for a brief time Gaga attended one of the most prolific theatre universities in the country, of which one does not get accepted on the merit of shock value. Her shtick was acquired, but her talent was always there, so she can hold her own against the might of Angela Bassett and the versatility of Finn Wittrock. Naomi Campbell, on the other hand, may possess her own particular reckoning force, but does not have such savvy for spoken word. Her delivery is flat and she follows her blocking like a dancing diagram, as though there were feet drawn on the floor to show her where to go. I don’t necessarily dislike her as an actor (she may not necessarily deliver lines but at least she reads them decently well), but American Horror Story lacks the propulsion that Empire has in spades that could mask any shortcomings in her performance. Cameos don’t make a show bad, but they can disrupt the pacing that could ultimately work against the show’s progress.
I just want to put this show in a straitjacket to keep it from meandering so much. The episode begins with a clear mission: Tristan, dispatched by March, is to kill new owner Will Drake to prevent him from changing the hotel from murder palace to fashion studio. Except, of course, there’s a complication. Turns out the Countess is broke and needs to marry Will Drake for his fortune, then he can be killed. Why she needs to kill him then, I don’t know. And how she can afford all that high fashion and fine art and nose candy, I know even less. The episode’s initial mission is forgotten pretty quickly, what with the unnecessary murders, suicides, and flashbacks. There were three, count ’em, THREE flashback/voiceover combos this episode, and these hiccups in narrative are causing an already convoluted show to become more cumbersome. What happened to the good ole days of Murder House, when most flashbacks took their place as the cold open of the episode, so as not to disrupt any momentum the story was building?
All of this time spent explaining things that have little relevance to the stories at hand prevents other moments that require additional explanation to occur. The Countess says, “What if I told you Wlil Drake had to die?” and for some reason, the implicated nods in understanding and agrees, similarly displeased with his life. I mean, come on, man. Sure, you may be requiring some inspiration if you envision a pair of board shorts in a pot leaf print as part of your next collection. But to kill yourself? Particularly at the behest of some broad you don’t even know that resides in a hotel that you own and should have no reason to live there still? There was no indication that Will took her propostion to be anything but metaphoric, which is remarkably confusing. Donovan’s motives are about as weak as Will’s sudden willingness to kill himself. Okay, so your mom made you eat a lot of fiber. There are children on SVU that hate their parents much less for much worse offenses. It’s not hard to believe that Iris would be ready to end it all after Donovan’s tirade against her, but for Donovan to do a complete 180 after one heart-to-heart with Liz Taylor? If the show was reaching for an empathetic tear, it got an exasperated eye-roll.
Even still, that scene at the bar was the best one of this whole hour and sixteen minutes (with the exception of Angela Bassett licking blood off Gaga’s boob. Whaaaat.), and it was solely because of the criminally under-used Denis O’Hare. The episode was suddenly infused with energy, and not just because of the refreshing veracity and fervor with which he was speaking, but because he is actually an actor. Not a musician, not a model, not just a pretty face. His presence informs the scene with a kind of power that Jessica Lange always had, and that, when not bogged down with drivel, Sarah Paulson has often, and brings a muddling episode up to the light. If there was anything in this episode that wasn’t baffling, it was all thanks to Liz Taylor.
Oh, and a huge plot hole came to me during this episode. The Ten Commandments killer that John is chasing is extraordinarily inconsistent: Thou shalt not kill. Whoops. I’m sure the show will shrug off that contradiction using parts of the explanation Sally provided in this episode; something about murder and killing not being the same. At this point I’d be fine with either, as long as this show figure out how to not rely on them to propel the story, because no amount of blood alone can derive excitement from a drudgery of a show.