“I love Vin Diesel” is one of the first lines in American Horror Story: Hotel. It’s subtitled from Swedish; Ingmar Bergman would be proud. The fifth iteration of the American Horror Story mythos starts in Downtown Los Angeles. Locals recognize Downtown as a monument to ruined glory — fading remnants of postwar power structures, whole civilizations destroyed to make way for midcentury modern architecture and late-century globo-capitalism. Locals also recognize Downtown as a living monument of urban potential. Someday, celebrities will go to Skid Row — and not just to fight homeless people.
Our visiting Swedes don’t know any of this. They are young, blonde, beautiful. One looks a little bit like Ashley Benson; the other could be Laura Vandervoort’s less Canadian cousin. They have come to see the sights — “the sights,” in this case, meaning Universal Studios. Like most people who know the definition of “city,” they assume everything in Los Angeles is walking distance. Their taxi driver gives them the bad news: Universal Studios is 10 miles thataway, in Hollywood. (Actually, it’s in the Valley — but the Valley has always been at least as Hollywood as Hollywood.)
The distance is a problem. Still, nothing a quick Uber can’t fix. But maybe our Swedes haven’t heart of Uber. Certainly, they’re the last two hip human twentysomethings who don’t use Airbnb. Instead, they’ve booked into the Hotel Cortez, an opulent building full of carpeted corridors and devious doings. It’s the Overlook and the Chelsea. “It’s retro,” says Vandervoort. “Maybe it will be fun.” Benson’s skeptical. The receptionist is Kathy Bates, or “Iris” as the show insists, who’s just full of bad news. No refunds. No Wi-Fi. No cell service. On the way to their room, they pass a kindly maid carrying bloody sheets. “Terrible accident in room 51,” she says. “Just ghastly.” There are little blond children lingering on the horizon of every hallway.
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There’s a strange smell in the Swedes’ room. They discover that their mattress has been sewn shut; when they open it up, a bald man emerges, screaming. Iris immediately books them into a different room: 64. Benson promises to give the Hotel Cortez a bad review on Yelp. Then she walks into the bathroom, and sees Vandervoort covered in little blond children, their mouths dripping with blood. Yelp will have to wait.
NEXT: Murder Hotel
From this cheerful prologue, we cut to a crime scene. Meet Wes Bentley as John Lowe, police detective with a problem or three. Lowe’s investigating a gruesome murder, with an art-designed tableau. A dead naked woman, nailed to a bed, astride a naked man who is unfortunately still alive. “Unfortunately” because his eyeballs are in the ashtray, not far from his tongue. Someone fed him Viagra and other male potency drugs. “He’s still inside her,” says Lowe, sounding for all the world like a clerk asking if you’d like paper or plastic. (ASIDE: Lowe’s partner is Richard T. Jones, who played a traffic cop in Collateral. In deference to my life’s mission to expand the Collateral cinematic universe, I choose to believe that he is playing the same character, promoted. END OF ASIDE.)
Lowe is investigating murders. Maybe it’s a serial killer; maybe it’s just the usual case load for the kind of TV detective who hangs out in a squad room that looks like the library from Myst. We overhear the details of another victim: a self-described “Oscar Blogger,” found with gold paint chips in the rectal cavity. This is gross, and also pretty much how every episode of Criminal Minds and Law & Order: SVU begins. Lowe tries to relax; he FaceTimes his daughter, and reads her some Little Women. He tries to go home — but then a mysterious phone call from a mysterious man sends him to the Hotel Cortez.
The man on the phone says he’s in Room 64. Coincidentally, that’s the room Kathy Bates books the hotel’s newest guest into. Here’s Max Greenfield, bleached blond and tragically glam, looking like one of those guys who thought being a drug addict would make him a rock star, and realized too late that the truth was vice versa. Up in Room 64, he shoots up some heroin. Then he gets murder-raped by a skinless man with a bladed-dildo strap-on, while Sarah Paulson screams “Tell me you love me!” into his ear.
That is disappointingly only the second craziest sentence I get to write this week, because also: This season on American Horror Story, Denis O’Hare is cosplaying Elizabeth Taylor, or rather, Denis O’Hare is cosplaying Old Elizabeth Taylor cosplaying Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. “Elizabeth Taylor” leads Detective Lowe into Room 64. Nobody in there: Lowe falls asleep on the bed, not seeing Greenfield’s corpse under the bed. Or is it a corpse? We see him wake up, horrified. Or maybe he’s dead, and that’s his ghost awakening into a trapped afterlife: The original American Horror Story trope, reconfigured into a much larger haunted house. Lowe wakes up in the middle of the night and sees a little blond boy. He knows him — “Holden?” — but the boy disappears in the infinite corridors.
NEXT: Enter Gaga
There’s a long and gloriously unhinged musical montage, set to “Tear You Apart” by She Wants Revenge. (The song title and the band’s name both sound like Lifetime Movies I’d love to watch.) We meet a pair of perfect decadents who reside in the hotel’s penthouse. They are Lady Gaga and Matthew Bomer, two people who feel so inextricably linked to the idea of American Horror Story that it’s hard to believe this is the first episode with either of them as main characters. Bomer guest-starred on one episode last season. Gaga practically invented the whole tone of American Horror Story before American Horror Story was a thing — much like how Lady Gaga practically invented our whole modern moment, a thesis I will be returning to throughout my recaps this season.
Gaga’s central casting on American Horror Story this season is interesting for several dozen thousand reasons. As my colleague Jeff Jensen points out in his review of the premiere, Hotel is a kind of reboot for American Horror Story. Technically, every season is a reboot — but this is the first season without guiding light Jessica Lange, the first season set in Los Angeles since the long-ago days of Pregnant Connie and Masturbatory McDermott. Gaga’s role in the show could have easily been played by Lange, at least so far. Press notes list her as “The Countess,” but she’s a recognizable iteration of Lange. An authoritarian guardsman like Sister Jude, a power-hungry hedonist like Fiona Goode. (By the end of the premiere, she’s sold the hotel to a new owner — shades of Elsa Mars, constantly on the hunt for a new Freak Show proprietor.)
But Gaga is also Gaga. I’m not sure to what extent the show is purposefully playing with Gaga’s iconography, and to what extent American Horror Story and Gaga just so completely co-exist in the same genre space that even accidental synchronicity feels purposeful. Our introduction to Gaga could have been one the music videos Jonas Akerlund made for her a few years ago. Cocaine and flowing red robes and a neon wall hanging ask-demanding, “Why are we not having sex right now?”
Gaga — and I’m going to just keep calling her Gaga for now — goes out with her boyman Bomer (who’s character is named “Donovan”). They go to Cinespia, the outdoor-projected film series at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. They watch Nosferatu; they flirt with another couple. There’s a perfect shot of Gaga, in profile, with Nosferatu in the background: It might be my favorite Lady Gaga moment since she hatched from a red carpet egg. Gaga and Donovan take the couple back to the hotel for a playful pansexual orgy. Everyone is wildly naked. (Gaga’s decision to wear underwear seems positively demure in context.) In unison, Gaga and Donovan open up the veins of the young couple, and take an orgasmic blood bath. They share a post-coital cigarette. “And you didn’t feel like going out tonight,” says Gaga. “It’s not the getting ready,” says Donovan. “It’s the clean-up.”
The joys of couplehood! The eternal wonder of downtown debauchery! Across town, we see a different view of lived-in romance. At the Lowe household, the detective arrives home just as his wife leaves. Mrs. Lowe has a busy night; some kid in the Valley has whooping cough, of all things. (Thanks, Jenny McCarthy.) Mrs. Lowe made the chinois that John and his daughter both love. She leaves; John and his daughter agree that it’s sushi time.
While they eat, we cut back to the hotel, and to our poor Swedish visitors. They’re trapped inside neon-lit Iron Maidens, stripped down to their underwear. Iris shows up, promising to “flush their system” of all those antidepressants they’ve been chugging. In sashays Sarah Paulson, playing a character named “Sally.” There’s some history between these two ladies. Iris calls Sally “the beginning and end of all my suffering,” and says she’s “stuck forever in this godforsaken cesspool.” Iris leaves to feed “that thing in Room 33.” Sally frees one of the Swedes, lets her run. She almost makes it to the exit — before Gaga appears and slices her neck open.
NEXT: Golly, this sure is a strange hotel!
Detective Lowe gets a mysterious text from his wife, sending him to 432 Deep Canyon Drive. He freaks out: He calls another cop, goes running into the dark house, sees a shadowy figure. His daughter follows him — and finds two young men with their intestines hanging out.
A flashback gives us the downLowe. Back in 2010, the detective took his family to the Santa Monica Pier. He put their son Holden on a carousel, riding a horse with yellow feet. He turned his back for a second — and then Holden was gone. Half a decade later, Mrs. Lowe doesn’t blame him, per se. But she’s also not too sorry to see him leave. And leave he will — for a little while. He promises his wife and daughter police protection; but he also expects the killer will be coming after him. So he moves into the Hotel Cortez for the foreseeable future: Not exactly a good idea or even a particularly smart bad idea.
But if staying in the Hotel Cortez is dangerous, how about owning it? Enter Will Drake, fashion designer for Mrs. Obama, a rich man seeking inspiration. He walks into the Cortez following Marcy, the realtor from the first American Horror Story who sold the Harmons the house that killed them. Things aren’t going too well for Marcy; she just had to put her dog down. (Of course, that dog belonged to the Harmons — it was the last survivor of American Horror Story 1, really. Feel free to analyze that information as evidence that American Horror Story has decisively parted ways with its past.)
Will and his son Lachlan aren’t looking to buy the place. They already own it. Apparently, this was part of Gaga’s plan. She welcomes him, pleased to meet him. She takes the little boy into a magical white room, hidden in the corridor: A perfect playroom where little kids can play Pac-Man and Tetris and Donkey Kong, all day, every day. Gaga turns to one little boy. “Holden,” she says, “We have a guest.”
So: What the hell is happening here? Gaga’s bloodthirst feels like a clue toward vampirism. But the supernatural forces circulating through this particular hotel seem more elaborate. In a flashback to 1994, we see a curiously ageless Sally shoot up heroin, with Matthew Bomer wearing a grunge-era outfit of oversized flannel and backward baseball cap. Iris arrives, furious: She’s Donovan’s mom, it turns out, and by the end of the flashback, she has pushed Sally out of a window about a dozen stories high. Then she returns to see Gaga, admiring Donovan’s jawline.
So is Sally haunting the Cortez, the way so many ghosts haunted the Murder House? Did Gaga claim Donovan’s soul for herself — or did Iris sell her own, desperate to save her son from a lifetime of addiction? Are those little children ghosts, or immortal vampiric things, or something more devious? What is the demon with the murder strap-on? How does Evan Peters fit in — and Angela Bassett, and Finn Wittrock, and Naomi Campbell, and Emma Roberts? We’ve got 12 more episodes to find out.
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