American Horror Story has, over its five wild and trollish seasons, touched on many weighty topics—family, racism, gender, disability, sexuality, mental illness, aliens, God, Satan, clowns. But look at it in its entirety, and it becomes clear that the true theme of the show is real estate. Murder House, Asylum, Coven, Freak Show, and now, Hotel—whenever the show reboots, the most important thing that changes is location, location, location. The plot might unwind into a dozen threads that never tie back together, characters may seem to shift personalities with each scene, but at least it all happens within a sturdy building (or big tent) that has its own culture and history—the Cheers bar but with more dismemberment. Maybe the focus on place is a metaphor for how the real, historic American horror stories still taint the country, or maybe just it’s easier for these particular TV creators to write setting than it is for them to write characters and dialogue, or maybe the big idea is to spook anyone considering signing a mortgage.
How appropriate it is, then, that arguably the most major meeting of the American Horror Story universes in five years happens because of a realtor. There she is, three-quarters of the way through the Hotel premiere: the twitchy property broker Marcy (Christine Estabrook) muttering about the dog she inherited from the doomed Harmon family that moved into Murder House. She’s there to show off the Cortez Hotel to a New York City fashion designer (Cheyenne Jackson) who, like the Harmons, bought this eccentric bit of vintage L.A. sight-unseen. Big mistake, probably.
The bulk of the episode preceding the realtor tour offers a gut-churning lesson in just how distressed a property the Cortez is. For one thing, there’s no wi-fi or cell service. For another, people die in horrible ways there. The first victims are two Swedish tourists who check in against their best instincts; they’ll later encounter 1) a zombie living in their mattress, 2) two children with a taste for human blood and 3) neon-bedecked medieval torture cages operated by the concierge, Iris (Kathy Bates), who wants to force-feed them a smoothie of animal organs. When the ghost junkie Sally (Sarah Paulson) lets one of the girls free, she’s stopped before the door by the Countess (Lady Gaga), who nonchalantly slits her throat with a fingernail blade.
Gaga’s character lives on the top floor and seems to rule the place, lounging with her boy-toy Donovan (Matt Bomer) under a luminous pink sign that asks one of the great questions of the ages: “Why are we not having sex right now?” The two go out at night to a graveyard screening of Nosferatu, where they pick up a yuppie couple, bed them, and then slit their throats and drink their blood. The entire encounter is set to dark new-wave music from She Wants Revenge and replete with slow-mo visuals of hot, writhing people and then warm, spewing blood. Ryan Murphy has long considered voyeurism—both of the sexual and violent sorts—to be among the higher forms of entertainment; if that notion repels you, as perhaps it should, then this isn’t your show.
More crimes against the human body confront John Lowe (Wes Bentley), a detective investigating murder scenes that feature Hannibal-style visual poetry and Se7en-style moral symmetry. This plot line at first feels like a farce on police procedurals, with Bentley wearing sunglasses indoors and coolly intuiting facts about the murderer from little or no clues. But as the episode goes on, it becomes clear that Lowe’s meant to be the emotional heart of the show. He has a cute relationship with a precocious daughter and a strained-but-loving relationship with his quinoa-casserole-making wife (Chloë Sevigny); they’ve all been scarred by the mysterious disappearance of their little boy Holden.
We later find out that Holden’s at the Cortez, sometimes playing a Shining -style hallway spook but other times just hanging out in a dreamy daycare facility—video games, candy—managed by the Countess. The exact purpose of her abduction scheme isn’t yet clear, but the prospect that the Lowes might be reunited with their missing son could offer the emotional stakes that the previous two seasons have lacked. (Judging by this show’s tendency to forget about its best elements after the first few episodes, do not bet on this.)
The most disturbing moment of all comes when a drug user played by Max Greenfield is raped by a creature who appears to be made of candle wax, wielding an industrial drill between its legs. Again, Murphy (the episode’s director) lets the freakish spectacle play out in full on-screen—lavishing special attention on Greenfield’s pained face—presumably to cause both nightmares and scandalized, publicity-generating tweets. But apparently the Big Theme of the season, beyond real estate, is being established here as well. The rapist is called “the Addiction Demon,” and he appears only after Greenfield’s character shoots up heroin. The message that Drugs Are Bad is reinforced later in the episode during a 1994 flashback where Sally, Donovan, and possibly Iris, die.
If this all sounds immensely convoluted and sadistic, well, welcome to American Horror Story. But there’s reason to hope that this will be among the better messes the show has served up. The four preceding AHS batches can be divided up by the question of the role their real estate played. Seasons one and two revolved around prisons of sorts—places that trapped visitors either because of supernatural greediness (the specters of Murder House) or human exploiters (the experimenters and murders of Asylum). Seasons three and four were more about refuges from the outside world for marginalized people—again, either of the supernatural sort (witches in Coven) or the human sort (the disabled in Freak Show). The prison seasons were better: plausible generators of claustrophobia that allowed Murphy and Falchuck to get as horror-film sicko as they wanted, while also creating characters imbued with very relatable longing for liberation, companionship, and redemption.
Hotel seems more in the prison model, and it may even revive the best part of the best American Horror Story installment: season one’s ghost rules. Those rules said that in a site of great historic evil such as Murder House, everyone who dies on the premises must roam it for eternity, with their only day of freedom coming on Halloween. In season five, it already seems as though a few characters are bound by those same laws. Spirits chained to their environments, vampires chained to their need for blood, and junkies chained to their cravings—there’s a big statement in here somewhere, right? Even if not, after the listless social commentary of Freak Show and the proto-Scream Queens camp of Coven, Hotel’s premiere returned to the frightening essentials—death, desire, and property deeds.
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