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American Horror Story, Ep. 5.01-02, “Checking In” and “Chutes and Ladders”

American Horror Story, Ep. 5.01-02, “Checking In” and “Chutes and Ladders”

American Horror Story: Hotel, Episode 1, “Checking In”
Written by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk
Directed by Ryan Murphy

Episode 2, “Chutes and Ladders”
Written by Tim Minear
Directed by Bradley Buecker
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm (ET) on FX

It is an unfortunate responsibility to be a critic of American Horror Story, because in many ways it defies criticism, intentionally so. Toward the end of Hotel’s second episode, Iris (Kathy Bates) fills in John (Wes Bentley) about the history of the hotel’s creator, James Patrick March (Evan Peters). An extremely wealthy oilman, he built the Hotel Cortez in 1925 essentially because he could, as a “monument to excess and opulence, where he could satisfy his own peculiar appetites”. This is presumably, and fittingly, a comparison to series creator Ryan Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk, with the murderous and indulgent March standing in for the pair.

This season in particular is greatly indulgent, extending the runtime to 70 minutes and mostly filling it with either style or exposition. Let’s get this clear: this season has yet to truly establish what it is going to be about, as is typical of AHS. All the audience has received in the first two episodes are moments of high style and moments of extended and obvious exposition shoddily filling in character backstories. By its fifth season, the writers know they can get away with this lazy writing without consequence, so they keep doing it.

The problem is that viewers aren’t falling for it anymore. The audience has lost its confidence in the storytelling of this series, even as the writers seem to only grow in confidence (as evidenced by their indulgence). It is incredibly easy to fall under the spell (perhaps Siouxsie & the Banshees’ “Spellbound” plays at the end of the second episode for a reason). The presentation is so assured that it inherently gives the impression that this is all going somewhere. Unfortunately, viewers have no reason to believe that it will. The last two seasons, by and large, never went anywhere. The easiest criticism to lob at the show is that it’s all style and no substance, though that wasn’t always the case. The second season, Asylum, had plenty of style, but it was also surprisingly poignant at times. That season remains the show’s best by far, and as confident as Hotel thus far seems, one must remain suspicious of that momentum, which could be proven as illusory yet again.

Let’s talk a bit about sexual violence on this show, because it should be discussed. Too often, Ryan Murphy et al. have relied on rape in particular as an extreme form of shock value, and it is extremely irresponsible by now. Not only that, but it’s lazy. It’s the ugliest form of the ethos of excess and indulgence, allowing a growth in graphicness and exploitation. The rape scene in the premiere is one of the most upsetting things I have experienced on television, and it goes on way too long. It is empty of emotion or even plot. It is devoid of purpose, and acts only to up the ante of how far they can go. It is appalling, and it is boring, and it is deeply disappointing.

There are countless redeeming things about this season of American Horror Story, however, and that’s the rub. There’s a theme of addiction running through many of these characters, which is suitable considering the addictive effect the series undoubtedly has. There’s the hotel itself. It feels not exactly stuck in time, though there are several references to that phenomenon, but more so sits outside of time. The production design of the Art Deco-style building and interiors is gorgeous, and that combined with some purposeful camerawork and music often enough evokes an Italian giallo film, which is never a bad thing. AHS is also still unparalleled in making striking moments, best displayed in Lady Gaga’s introduction as The Countess, a vampire who is first seen in an extended sequence without dialogue that is more of a music video than a narrative function. It quickly leads to an erotic orgy scene that goes from hot and heavy to positively gruesome, and is undeniably effective. There are also several truly chilling images in the first two episodes, something completely lacking in Coven and Freak Show. In addition, there will always be enough talented actors to give it their all, even without Jessica Lange (whose absence is unavoidably felt) and even with Gaga yet to show if she’ll bring much at all to the table.

So there are notes of promise, absolutely, but the audience has been led down this misleading road before by Murphy and company. It’s a particular kind of experience that warrants being heralded as unlike anything else on TV, though that’s a bad thing just as often as it’s a good thing. Iris also says in the premiere, “Trust me, this place will grow on you.” One needs to ask if they’re ready to have that kind of confidence in American Horror Story once more.