This review contains spoilers
Fans wondering when Evan Peters was going to show up will be pleased to know that the 28 year old puts in an appearance this week, only perhaps not quite in the way we were expecting. I don’t mean any disrespect to Peters as an actor when I say that throughout AHS his characters, while diverse in their circumstances, have been fundamentally very similar: all have been troubled young men, love interests, and, with the exception of Tate in Murder House, very much the good guy. Well, not anymore.
Enter James Patrick March, the original owner of Hotel Cortez. March is a self-made man, a Clark Gable lookalike, and H. H. Holmes-esque serial killer, who, in the mid-1920s, designed the hotel to be his own personal murder playground. With the help of his loyal maid, he was able to kill an average of three people a week, in the most sadistic ways possible (think a sledgehammer to the head, being walled up alive, or, in one unfortunate woman’s case, being stabbed and slashed to death mid-coitus). March seems untouchable until he makes the mistake of extending his murderous antics beyond the walls of the Cortez, and when his arrogance causes the police to come knocking, he slashes his own throat. Like many of the hotel’s previous occupants, however, its owner may be dead but he certainly isn’t gone, and dying has had no effect on his bloodlust.
Peters is wonderfully unsettling as March, seeming to relish the opportunity to play a villain who delights in his own evil. I’m pleased that he’s finally been given the chance to fully demonstrate his range, and judging by the fact that when we’re introduced to him in the present day he’s making casual chitchat while murdering someone, I imagine his character is going to be a memorable one.
Speaking of the undead, the other major plot point of this episode concerned Lady Gaga’s character, Countess Elizabeth. There’s trouble in paradise this week, after her companion of twenty years, Donavon (Matt Bomer), suggests that they stay in rather than attend yet another art exhibition, and before long she has her eye on someone else. That someone is Tristan Duffy (Finn Wittrock), a male model with a cocaine addiction and a bad attitude. “He’s full of rage,” the Countess tells a jealous Donavon, “I can still smell it.” By the end of the episode, Duffy has become the Countess’ latest paramour, and Donavon is asked to pack his bags.
My favourite scene from “Chutes and Ladders” was the one in which Gaga’s character explains the rules of vampirism, or “The Virus”, as she calls it, to Duffy. As a bit of a geek when it comes to vampire lore, I loved that the show’s version of the mythology incorporates aspects from multiple sources. Like traditional vampires, these ones can be killed by a stake through the heart, and while sunlight isn’t lethal to them, it should be avoided. Like Anne Rice’s vampires, they should not feed on the diseased or drug-addled, and especially not the dead. When the Countess tells Duffy that he should “never drink from the dead”, my ears pricked up as that’s an exact quotation from Interview with the Vampire, which I imagine was deliberate. In fact, the Countess herself is, in a way, a reference to vampire mythology, as she was presumably named after Elizabeth Báthory, the Hungarian countess and serial killer who was alleged to have bathed in the blood of young women to retain a youthful appearance. I don’t know about anyone else, but little details like this are one of the things I love most about AHS.
With Jessica Lange gone, AHS: Hotel is very much Lady Gaga’s show, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. She embodies the Countess with all the sexuality, mystery, and underlying cruelty needed to make us want to know more, plus she looks incredible whilst she’s doing it – her costumes alone are, frankly, reason enough to watch the show. I’m glad that we got to see a little of her backstory this episode, as well as an insight into her particular brand of vampirism. Something I’m particularly curious about is her elusive maker, who we are told infected her with “The Virus” in 1904. It has been much commented on that many of the show’s male characters look remarkably similar, and according to Ryan Murphy this is because the Countess’s taste (excuse the pun) in partners relates back to the one who made her.
Although I enjoyed this week’s episode, something that didn’t escape my notice was the fact that, while stylish and visibly striking, thus far the season hasn’t been particularly scary. I know it’s only the second episode, but bearing previous seasons in mind, that’s no excuse. I watched Murder House through my fingers right from the start, and the first episode of Coven was so upsettingly grisly that I shut my laptop after the first scene. With the exception of a rather gruesome moment involving Sarah Paulson’s character losing her teeth, nothing in this week’s episode frightened me. I can only hope that Falchuk and Murphy are purposefully lulling us into a false sense of security.