One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
**Trigger warning for survivors of sexual assault – episode contains a graphic rape scene.**
American Horror Story has always represented co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk at their most luridly unrestrained, but the premiere of this year’s installment, subtitled Hotel, is a true deluge of dark decadence, even by their standards.
The only hour made available for critics (an out-of-character move for FX, and perhaps one consequence of Murphy and Falchuk’s very busy schedule this year), it’s a sprawling, over-stimulating smorgasbord of an episode, so consumed with introducing the show’s latest house of horrors, and all its ghoulish inhabitants, that in its entire 62 minutes it barely ever comes up for air. The effect is both exciting, given that American Horror Story‘s knack for highly visual storytelling has never been more evident, and a tad exhausting. Last season took viewers inside an actual freak show, but Hotel‘s premiere is by a considerable degree the most carnivalesque the series has ever attempted.
If the show is surrendering to its more hoarily theatrical instincts, though, it must be said that Murphy and Falchuk have erected one hell of a tent for this year’s performance. Before the opening credits roll, a pair of Swede tourists check into (and, predictably, wind up ensnared by) the Hotel Cortez, a gilded, Deco-era dreamhouse that exists as something of a mirage in downtown Los Angeles. Less than enthused with its ornate but old-fashioned architecture, they at first attempt to check out, but gruff receptionist Iris (Kathy Bates, at her most cantankerous) convinces them to give one of the rooms a try. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well – even if its era and upkeep have rendered it something of a mausoleum, the Cortez still has plenty of life within its walls (and its mattresses, as said Swedes soon realize).
Unfolding more as a loosely connected series of geographically anchored shorts than a wholly plot-driven episode, the premiere soon introduces a macabre menagerie of players, from a jaded, faded, cross-dressing bellboy named Liz Taylor (Denis O’Hare, predictably insane) to a sinister junkie (Sarah Paulson) who frequents the Cortez and seems to personify all the moral decay and addiction that has come to roost within it. In keeping with the series’ model, American Horror Story: Hotel revolves around a set of lost souls, all anchored by their assorted demons in a physical location that has begun to reflect them.
All those haunted denizens are mere minions, though, compared to the Countess (Lady Gaga). A mostly silent blood-sucker with the high fashion of a Parisian royal, she glides through the Cortez’s halls, a savage-looking (and very Gaga-esque) chainmail glove marking her as the hotel’s uncontested apex predator. And it doesn’t take long for us to find out just how deadly she really is, once a hapless human couple is lured back (from a park screening of Nosferatu – subtlety, thy name is not Ryan Murphy) for a night of tantric, very gory sex with the Countess and her devilishly handsome boy-toy Donovan (Matt Bomer). This spider-and-fly seduction, perfectly soundtracked by She Wants Revenge’s “Tear You Apart,” is hypnotic.
Outside the Cortez’s walls, but not its reach, is Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley), investigating a grisly series of homicides in the Los Angeles area that seem inexplicably connected to one of the hotel’s rooms. Snooping around the Cortez and suspiciously eyeing its creepy staffers, he’s the closest American Horror Story has ever had to a straight-man hero, and though his B-plot shamelessly lifts from Se7en and Zodiac, Bentley’s magnetic enough in the role to avoid impeding the episode’s otherwise frenzied pace.
The slightest inkling of an overarching plot begins to materialize by premiere’s end, with the Countess encountering the hotel’s lively new owner (Cheyenne Jackson), but in this first episode Murphy seems much more concerned with touting his new queen of darkness than exploring her – which may be just as well, given that Gaga is a pretty paltry substitute for the absent Jessica Lange in all departments save aesthetic ones. At this stage, the Countess seems to be more of an idea than a flesh-and-blood character, like Murphy’s more-is-more approach given physical form, and Gaga embodies her fearlessly.
Murphy directed the premiere, and his fetishistic predilection for homage is on full display, with more constricting fish-eye lens shots and visual hat-tips to the work of Shining cinematographer John Alcott than you’ll see on any other episode of television this year. Understatement has never been in the showrunner’s vocabulary, but Hotel gives him the freedom to overindulge even more than usual, peering through peepholes and unleashing nightmares around his unsuspecting human victims with screw-loose gusto.
Often, it feels like too much. A graphic rape scene involving Paulson’s character, a platinum blonde junkie (Max Greenfield) and some horrifying demonic entity sporting a face like a melted candle and a jewel-encrusted drill-bit dildo is the series’ most queasily disturbing moment to date – as well as one of its most bafflingly misguided, given that the scene seems to work more as pointless brutality than dramatic plot point. Murphy lingers on every depraved second – and though he’s notorious for pushing the envelope in pursuit of his own artistic expression, Murphy’s Hotel is filled with too many sights contrived simply to top the series’ previous grotesqueries.
American Horror Story hasn’t maintained a cohesive narrative structure since Asylum, which was also the series’ darkest and most character-driven chapter. Coven sported more pop culture snark than meaningful plot progression, but it went completely off the rails by midseason. And though Freak Show started strong, it wound up collapsing under the weight of its body count and over-the-top spectacle. Hotel, early on, is already at a cross-roads. While Lowe’s serial killer investigation is one of the most bizarely normal elements Murphy and Falchuk have ever mixed into this show, they’re simultaneously flooding the screen with so much phantasmagorical nightmare fuel that everyone but Gaga’s Countess – including the viewer – could end up drowning in it.
Most tune into American Horror Story for the horror more than the story, the WTF thrills and the ostentatious frills, and Hotel is quickly sending that side of the series into overdrive. But that same enthusiasm for over-the-top antics might alienate those less on board with Murphy’s psychosexual stagecraft. By the time the inevitable Eagles song kicks in (“You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave!”), buckets of blood have already been spilled, creepy vampire children and a demented serial killer are waiting in the wings, Gaga’s malevolent Mother Monster has made her appropriately grand entrance, and one gets the sense that Murphy and Falchuk are still far too enamored of their new atmosphere to begin doubling down on a strong narrative.
Hotel, for better or for worse, embraces the very same midnight madness that could prove its undoing. It’s both aware of its chaos and totally unconcerned with taming it – and whether or not you have an appetite for whatever fresh hell Murphy and Falchuk have cooked up this season will largely depend on your ability to just sit down and enjoy what American Horror Story has apparently become: a threadbare yarn, extravagantly told.
Hotel's introduction is a sprawling phantasmagoria of depravity and decadence, but it already risks being strangled by its own needlessly elaborate aesthetic and excessive brutality.