“Call the cops man! I don’t give a s—! I’m coming out in a Lars Von Trier movie next year!”
American Horror Story inevitably points back to Hollywood. So many failed actresses found their way from film sets to the Murder House. Madison Montgomery in Coven was the flip side: An actress spoiled rotten into decadence and sociopathy. Coven was, in its best moments, a very meta meditation on the plight of actresses, with Jessica Lange playing the wise elder raging against the dying of the light, murdering anyone young enough to remind her what age really is. Freak Show pushed that metaphor further, and exploded it: In the fourth iteration of American Horror Story, performance was both the by-product of and the cure for being weird, or unusual, or somehow anti- whatever society wants us all to be. Asylum by comparison was less interested in the dreams of show business people and more interested in the dreams they make: Recall Sister Jude, drunk on Communion wine, playing an old Cecil B. Demille picture for the benefit of her crazies; or Sister Jude, blitzed by electroshock, musical-numbering “The Name Game.”
And now, we learn that the Hotel in Hotel has an origin story that dates back to the dawn of Hollywood as Empire. Enter Evan Peters, with a pencil-thin mustache and one of those accents that died out with Method Acting. Enter James Patrick March, art-deco freak, oil tycoon millionaire, murder fetishist. The kind of guy who would build himself an undersea Ayn Rand Metropolis, if this were BioShock — or who would spend his evenings teaching people important moral lessons via torture, if this were Saw VII.
Over an hour into the second episode of American Horror Story: Hotel, we get the full James March tale. A hotel built for perfect murders, with secret rooms, walls lined with asbestos, doors to nowhere. (We see him kill a woman mid-coitus; we saw him pull the old Cask of Amontillado trick with another.) This could be less Hollywood than just California: One thinks of Mrs. Winchester and her Mystery House, filled with stairs to nowhere and hidden floors. And yet: A rich man shunned by East Coast elites arrives in Los Angeles and builds a private empire where he can live out all his worst fantasies. Isn’t that the origin story of every great and terrible Hollywood king of the studio era?
James March dies before the cops could get him. His penultimate victim is his beloved Maid; his final victim is himself. Now, decades later, James March haunts the lower floors of the Cortez, and the Maid can still get any stain out of any mattress.
Iris tells this story to Detective Lowe, one lonely night in the Cortez. Lowe is impressed: “You should be writing for the movies.”
There are ghosts in the Cortez: March and his maid, Sarah Paulsen and her bad attitude. But what of Lady Gaga, and her dude-concubine, and her little children? This episode confirmed that they are vampires, kind of, albeit vampires with their own rules. We saw the little children suckling the last pints of blood from the last remaining Swede; afterwards, they retreated to the videogame room, where Iris transferred their blood into a decanter for Gaga.
“Children” are a running idea this season. So far, the only thing Chloë Sevigny has gotten to do this season is chastise a wealthy housewife for giving her kids the measles. The housewife is an anti-vaccine kook. “We did what she thought was right,” she says, utterly wrong. The Lowes aren’t really in a position to criticize. They lost one child already; in Wednesday’s episode, their daughter slipped her police escort and went missing for hours. (Proof that there really is public transportation in Los Angeles: She rode the bus from the suburbs to downtown, round trip, in a mere five hours!)
Here’s a question: What the hell is Detective Lowe doing in this wacky hotel? “Chutes and Ladders” built up the idea that he isn’t just investigating. He’s looking to walk on the wild side, maybe. He shared a late-night drink with Sally, listening to her sob stories about writing songs with Patti Smith in the golden days before smack. He drank ginger ale; he hasn’t had a drink in quite some time. The last time he tied one on was right after he saw a grisly crime scene: A man who accidentally murdered his family and then definitively murdered himself. A dark vision of Detective Lowe’s future, perhaps? (ASIDE: For a second, I thought the house of the flashback crime scene was the Murder House. I don’t think it was? Also, I choose to believe that the show won’t go back to the Murder House until the last scene of Hotel, which will also feature Jessica Lange in a quadruple cameo as every character she ever played on Hotel, and all those characters will be playing poker with Thanos. END OF ASIDE.)
Also, yes, then there was a fashion show? In the middle of the Cortez, heretofore a completely empty and decrepit-looking ruin? I have no sense of how big the Cortez is supposed to be, which isn’t the worst thing: It feels like anything can happen here. Case in point: Finn Wittrock, Dandy that was, reappearing as Tristan Duffy, bad-boy male model. He’s the guy who doesn’t give a s—; he’s the guy who’s in a Lars Von Trier movie next year.
NEXT: Get up, come on, get down with the Virus[pagebreak]
Tristan walks the runway. Also present is Naomi Campbell, playing the same Naomi Campbell she played in Empire, basically. (I have no idea why we as a culture suddenly want to welcome Naomi Campbell back with open arms; maybe this is just the decadent part of the decade.) After pulling all kinds of bad moves on the runway, Tristan announces that he’s done as a model and slices a perfect gash into his cheek.
After wandering through the hotel and meeting half the weirdoes therein, he finally meets Gaga, who welcomes him to a new life as an immortal. They have wild sex and then wilder sexposition. Tristan has “The Virus” now — passed on by drinking Gaga’s blood. He has a supercharged immune system — but he’ll die from a silver bullet, or a stake. Actually, maybe it is wrong to call whatever this is “Vampire.” The repeated phrase “The Virus” carries some uncomfortable-intriguing STD overtones — and there’s an evocative grabbiness to the idea of Gaga-Bomer-Wittrock as party people and diseased infected people.
This explanation gave us our Peak Gaga Moment of the Night. When Tristan asked her about all her favorite moment in her century-plus lifetime, she said: “Every decade has its decadent period. That’s when I’m most alive. I love the late 1970s the most. I was the Disco Queen. I still am.” This makes complete sense in the context of the career of Lady Gaga, who emerged and defined the culture at a laser-specific moment in time. The music video for “Poker Face,” the first glimmer of what a fully realized Gaga event would be, arrived in late 2008, about the moment when people started promoting the Recession to a Great Recession.
In a sane world, this should have been the moment when we all rediscovered Neil Young and protest rap and story-songs about working class heroes unionizing against fat-cat corpo-kings. But we are all insane. It takes most people a while to realize that; Gaga seems to have figured out that essential truth right around the moment she hit drinking age. For whatever reason, the initial Recessionary burst reformulated Americans’ essential materialist lust. We didn’t want soft-light visions of decadence; we wanted visions of money burnt into the flames of debauchery. (Exit The Hills; enter Jersey Shore.)
Gaga fed into this moment perfectly: Simultaneously more over-the-top than any performer of the 2000s and somehow grungier, weirder, dirtier in the best way. The real meaning of “Poker Face” is doubly trashy: It’s either a paean to trendy Megan Fox-era bisexuality or a homophonic bit of dirty wordplay. And only Gaga could have created “Paparazzi,” a song which takes all the madness of the mid-2000s press coverage — this was the era when Newsweek did a cover story on Britney Spears drinking too much with Paris Hilton, while there were two wars on — and takes it all weirdly seriously. (Only Gaga circa then could have turned a Paparazzi into a figure of romance and noir: “I’m your biggest fan / I’ll follow you until you love me.”)
The jag against Gaga was always that she was somehow inauthentic or unoriginal. This has always been a silly thing to say, especially in America, a country which is either a gritty reboot of Ancient Greece or the Army of Darkness to England’s Evil Dead. But certainly, the most common accusation was the idea that Gaga was overly homaging Madonna in particular and the whole idea of the late ’70s New York that birthed Madonna. So it’s only appropriate that Hotel contrives to reclaim the entire American century for Gaga: There she is, circa Saturday Night Live, partying all night with people who don’t ever want to see the sun. She mentioned her fallen friends: “Andy. Keith. Robert.” I have to believe that’s “Warhol, Haring, and Mapplethorpe,” all great New York artists, all dead by 1991.
None of this interests Tristan, of course. He’s a child of now. He wants to hunt Kendall Jenner: “Bitch blew me off at Coachella.” Tristan is hip. He’s now. He’s so cool that all his favorite Kardashians are Jenners. He calls up a handsome bearded man on Grindr — so he can drink the man dry with Gaga. On Hotel, Gaga has lived a long time, and she has many memories — but perhaps her secret is that she keeps finding new people to keep her young. When she met Donovan, he was a Cobain-type with a flannel shirt and a drug habit. That was the ’90s. Finn Wittrock was barely even born then. So it’s goodbye Donovan, hello Tristan. Gaga keeps getting older, but the boys stay the same age. And Gaga stays the same age, too.