Richard Ramirez walks into the Hotel Cortez. Richard Ramirez died a couple years ago; if you haven’t heard of him, it’s because you only know the really ultra super famous serial killers, like John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Dahmer or Hannibal Lecter or Kevin Spacey. Richard Ramirez was no joke, though: Mass murderer, satanist. He’s checking in for Devil’s Night. He sneaks into a room, bashes in a sleeping husband’s face, then chases the wife down one of the Cortez’ eternal corridors. And there’s our pal James Patrick March, welcoming his old pal with a gift of fresh victims. The husband and wife are from Arizona; the Marriott was full. (Sorry: Were from Arizona.)
Detective Lowe doesn’t hear the Arizona wife’s deathscreams. He’s got his own problems. His wife’s talking divorce. His daughter would rather learn how to make banana cream pie with Gramma than hang out with him for a day of quiet pensive mourning. “Things are a little bit weird right now, aren’t they?” says Detective Lowe. (My third most favorite thing Wes Bentley says in tonight’s episode!) Then he notices the blood pouring from the ceiling all over his Carrie Mathison wallpaper.
Upstairs, he meets Hazel the Ghostmaid. Turns out Hazel has a flashback origin story. Los Angeles, 1925: She puts a sheet over her little boy, turns around for just one second, and the little boy gets kidnapped. His killer took him to Wineville, where he kept all his captives in the chicken coop. The police found the killer — but not before he dipped Hazel’s boy in quicklime and buried him on the ranch. “That is a terrible story,” says Detective Lowe, which is my second most favorite thing Wes Bentley says in tonight’s episode.
Kidnapping is a running motif for this season: It’s like deformity in Freak Show, or adultery in Murder House, or killing Emma Roberts in Coven. Alex kidnaps her own kid, bringing little Holden back home. She takes his temperature: 75.7 degrees. The kid says he’s thirsty, and while she turns her back, he tears the family dog apart and starts slurping him dry. Holden brings Alex back to the hotel, so she can meet his new mommy: Lady Gaga.
Gaga knows all about Alex: Knows about her devotion to Holden — and Holden’s devotion to Alex. (Apparently, there is still some notion of love buried deep under Alex’s Vulcanized exterior.) Gaga claims that she saved Holden from a wasted life of neglect, and specifically calls out John as the neglectful parent. That seems like a pretty harsh crit to lay on a guy for turning his back to answer his cell phone just once — but Gaga’s memory of taking Holden gave us the memorable shot of Gaga leading the child north from the Santa Monica Pier, up the coastline.
That little boy became a Little Monster — a phrase that looms large over the Gaga legend. It’s hard to remember precisely when Gaga gave her fanbase a catchy moniker. It’s even harder to pinpoint precisely when her use of “Little Monsters” shaded into overuse, when it sounded less like she was empowering them and more like they were empowering her. Part of Gaga’s point was always that it was better to be weird, that monsters were more interesting than the alternative.
Before she got famous, Gaga wrote a song called “Ugly Sexy,” or possibly “Sexy Ugly.” She never talked much about that song or its central notion after her 2009 Rolling Stone profile, where she told Brian Hiatt: “I don’t feel that I look like the other perfect little pop singers…I think I look new. I think I’m changing what people think is sexy.” This is already Gaga going Messianic, but it’s also a helpful way to decode some central idea she once had about herself: “How can I be as strange, as weird, as gross, as society’s-definition-of-“ugly” as possible, and still be as tantalizing, as attractive, as fun to look at, as society’s-definition-of-“sexy” as possible?”
One of the interesting things about Hotel is how it’s literalized Gaga’s Little Monsters with the little platinum-blonde vampire kids. They are beings of pure consumption: When they aren’t playing videogames, they’re drinking blood. This strikes me as a fascinating deconstruction of what it means to be a “follower,” at once cynical and poignant. (Remember: The Little Monsters might drink blood, but Gaga drinks their blood.)
Gaga tells Alex that Holden has an ancient virus, a blood disorder that gives him health, vitality, and everlasting life. The only way Alex can join Holden is to join him. The price? “Undying loyalty. You’ll be working for me.” And remember: Gaga, or the version of her we’re seeing on Hotel, will tolerate only servants, not competitors. (Ramona Royale found that out the hard way last week.) Alex refuses, runs away. Gaga smiles. She’ll be back.
NEXT: “Sweet Jane”[pagebreak]
Downstairs at the bar, Detective Lowe decides that he could really use a drink. Poor Bentley really has the toughest role of the season. He’s become an archetype that is key to American Horror Story lore: The McDermott. See, in every iteration of American Horror Story, there is always a central protagonist figure who gets introduced in the premiere as a normal everyperson suddenly entering a strange new world. By episode four, the show starts to lose interest in that protagonist, because the crazy supporting characters are so much more interesting.
Dylan McDermott invented this archetype in Murder House, and Evan Peters perfected it in Asylum, where Kit Walker was a totally normal 2000s guy with the misfortune of living in the racist/repressed 1960s. Taissa Farmiga was the McDermott of Coven: The Day One centric character, she was barely a hall monitor by midseason. In Freak Show, Finn Wittrock turned Dandy Mott into an inverted McDermott: A “normal” guy who’s actually powers of ten crazier than the more obvious weirdos in the big tent.
A key character trait of any McDermott is the complete inability to realize when you are talking to a ghost, an alien, a Satan, or a don’t-call-it-a-vampire Viral-Infected Immortal Sexmonster. Thus, Detective Lowe doesn’t realize that he is talking to the ghost of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, even though he tells the ghost she looks just like Aileen Wuornos, and the ghost says she is Aileen Wuornos, and at one point Liz Taylor tells Detective Lowe: “Hey guy, that’s definitely the ghost of Aileen Wuornos, and you definitely were the best thing about Soul Survivor, and I feel like Ocean’s Twelve would’ve been way better if it was you instead of Casey Affleck.”
But his vision is too blinded, by martinis and by McDermottude. The sweet tunes of Natalie Merchant serenade the flirtation between Detective Lowe and Aileen: “Carnival,” the latest intriguing musical choice in a season full of them. (The best thing about ratings success: Papa Landgraf ups the soundtrack allowance.) Detective Lowe makes a decision. He wants to have sex with Aileen Wuornos. Betcha that won’t happen on Empire anytime soon!
On the way to Detective Lowe’s room, Aileen bops him on the head. (Quick shout-out to The Lily Rabe, returning to American Horror Story ever-so-briefly as the true-life killer who gave Charlize Theron an Oscar.) When Lowe wakes up, he’s being held captive. Aileen starts launching into a long pre-murder soliloquy, which dead-ends into my most favorite Wes Bentley quote of the night and maybe the best line spoken by a human being on television this year: “I’M TIED TO A CHAIR!” He manages to escape and knocks Aileen out, threatening police. But downstairs, Liz Taylor hands him an invitation to a very special party: Devil’s Night, in Mr. March’s room.
Donning the tuxedo that was sent special to his room, Lowe walks into a very strange dinner party. There’s James Patrick March, and Aileen, Richard, and John Wayne Gacy, and Jeffrey Dahmer. In walks the Zodiac, overdressed as always, who sits down across from Gacy. (ASIDE: Gacy was played by John Carroll Lynch. In the movie Zodiac, John Carroll Lynch played a real-life figure who may have actually been the Zodiac. On Freak Show, John Carroll Lynch played Twisty, the clown serial killer. In tonight’s episode, Lynch put on clown makeup, because Gacy was a clown when he wasn’t a serial killer. END OF ASIDE.)
The dinner is a real kick, especially because the eternally underrated Seth Gabel gives an already-underrated performance as Dahmer. Inevitably, Detective Lowe winds up watching in horror while the murder-ghouls start to kill a man to the sweet dulcet tunes of “Sweet Jane,” originally by the Velvet Underground. (If the Velvet Underground didn’t exist, Ryan Murphy would make a show called Velvet Underground. Maybe he will. Don’t tempt him!)
John is horrified. “John’s clearly not yet our kind,” says James Patrick March. Was this whole dinner some kind of initiation? Is this season all about the corruption of John? One of the things I kind of love about this season is that, four episodes in, it’s still not quite clear how all the power dynamics circulating through the Cortez play off each other. March seems to rule his quadrant quite effectively, and violently — but Lady Gaga is also the clear overlord of the hotel, aware of all that happens therein. Neither of them actually own the hotel anymore, of course: That would be Will Drake, who is currently such a patsy that the basic rule of hyperkinetic-whiplash American Horror Storytelling argue he’ll be on some kind of tyrant kick by episode 8. Is Detective Lowe the hero who will triumph over these forces? Are they battling for his soul? Is Liz Taylor the risen Jesus? Is Emma Roberts playing Hillary Clinton?
And then there’s Sally, who plucks a business bro off the street and sacrifices him to the Devil’s Night assassin crowd: Tithe, apparently, for being left alone the rest of the year. Sally has seemed like a demonic bad-influence force. But she is genuinely tender with John when he wakes up from his ghostly nightmare. “You have to trust me,” she says. “I’m your protector.” Or is she genuine? Does she want John dead: A kindly man to stay with her forever? Or does she want John to free her: To finish whatever business she left unfinished back when Cobain was still alive?
Alex returns to Gaga’s penthouse. Of course she does: She can’t live without the love of her life. Gaga is dressed all in red, which is a clear reference to her acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.
Now, as we all know, the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards are the best VMAs of our current century and possibly the best VMAs ever. That was the year Kanye interrupted Taylor, a moment that inadvertently created the next half-decade of Kanye and Taylor. Beyoncé performed “Single Ladies” and won Video of the Year — and then Beyoncé actually let Taylor finish, bringing Swift back onstage to give the rest of her speech. Taylor herself performed “You Belong With Me” on the New York subway, one of the most important moments in her career from a semiotics perspective. Jay-Z and Alicia Keys did “Empire State of Mind” at the specific moment when “Empire State of Mind” transformed into our generation’s “Born to Run.” In any other year, Pink’s “Sober” would have been the best VMA performance, and it barely makes the top five for 2009.
Lady Gaga won Best New Artist that year, and accepted the award dressed in all red. See here:
“It’s for God, and for the gays,” she declared. A fine sentiment — and unmistakably political, less than one year after Prop 8. That was Gaga at her most sincere. But the best Gaga moment of the night came earlier, when she performed “Paparazzi.” Gaga has had bigger songs and crazier songs, songs that are more fun to dance to and songs that are more fun to sing at karaoke. IMHO, she has not had a more perfectly Gaga-esque song than “Paparazzi,” and she never had a better performance of that song than this one:
I get the gripe that so many of Gaga’s performances are so obviously “performances,” with quotemarks and some implied lack of authenticity. (She uses stage blood.)
But this gripe misses the point. All performances are inauthentic to some extent: That’s the difference between “performance” and “living.” Unless you think life is just a performance, in which case radical inauthenticity is its own truth. (My fourth most favorite Wes Bentley line of the night: “Is anything real?”.) And once you have seen Lady Gaga do “Paparazzi” like that, it’s hard to watch a normal VMA performance, in the same way it’s hard to take Law & Order seriously when you’ve watched The Wire. Shouldn’t every performer be dead at the end of their performance: Hanging bloody and breathless from the middle of the stage, while camera flashes praise them and loud applause judges them?
Of course, so much of Gaga’s initial presentation circulated around the idea of Death and Stardom. Someone always seems to be dying in Gaga’s best videos: Skarsgard in “Paparazzi,” her lover in “Bad Romance,” Tyrese in “Telephone.” She loves Andy Warhol, who loved Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. If Gaga had died back in 2009 — or let’s say “Faked Her Own Death” as part of some elaborate Andy Kaufman performance art — would she be pop music’s Marilyn, its James Dean?
Impossible to say, fortunately: She lives still. On this season of American Horror Story, she has lived a hundred years, could live forever. Is that a good thing? By the end of the episode, she’s brought Alex into the terrible grace of her immortal life. The true nightmare begins when you no longer fear death.