The suspenseful anthology style of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s twisted mega-hit American Horror Story means one thing when each season’s early-October premiere arrives: the anticipation is particularly palpable. Fans return to their television sets under the grim darkness of a Wednesday night with a fear of the trademark, unflinching gore that is sure to come their way. Coming into its fifth season, worries that the terror periodical had lost its shock value had never been higher. As the halfway point of this fall’s serving of tongue-in-cheek blood and guts approaches, the stakes have certainly been raised, though questions of storytelling finesse still hang in the air.
The first episode of the season throws all the moving pieces of the creepy Hotel Cortez onto the table, accompanied by a narrative that seems out of breath by the time every last shudder-inducing frame has been crammed in. Good-guy cop John Lowe, played with notable conviction by Wes Bentley, struggles under the crumbling weight of his traumatized marriage while following an anonymous call to the strange establishment. Lady Gaga, as the bloodsucking hotel owner Elizabeth, works with her live-in boyfriend, Donovan, to seduce a couple back to the art deco monstrosity to slit their throats. Ghostly, vampiric children with identical, white-blond hair lounge in a surprisingly accommodating game room, complete with a video game console. Denis O’Hare and the barest hint of his black humor shine as Liz Taylor, the cross-dressing desk clerk.
If these snapshots sound more like fragments than a cohesive episode, that’s because they are. The premiere encapsulates this season’s greatest weakness in its unchecked ambition, scattering loose ends at a loss of coherent narrative. Whereas season one used its bizarre Rubber Man and leering phantoms in constant service to the bloodbath of a holistic ending, AHS: Hotel already seems to be tipping down the path of the scatterbrained and unresolved.
Though the worry of an unsatisfying finale looms in the distance, the current pandemonium retains the undeniable brand of gut-twisting entertainment that put the show on the map in the first place. While the pieces sometimes appear disjointed, leaving a viewer whiplashed from one scene to the next, they ring with intricacy when singled out for individual attention. The dexterity of Murphy and Falchuk as character creators has never been in question, and the eclectic cast of new and old performers brings each storyline to a limelight of its own.
This mastery is seen no better than in the chilling second episode, “Chutes and Ladders,” where AHS alum Evan Peters enters the picture. Portraying the debonair and psychotic James March, Peters sports a corny, affected, 1920s intonation and matching heinous mustache. In lieu of connections between the modern-day hotel’s manifestations of atrocity, the audience is given the backstory blueprints of the Cortez’s 1925 construction by a millionaire with a penchant for violent killing. Peters and Miss Evers (Mare Winningham) offer in their unflinching gore and twisted codependency an enthralling, character-driven foundation for the madness playing out 90 years in the future.
John Lowe, the sympathetic front man, gets his own screen time to flesh out inner demons in another grounding plotline. The desperate search for his son Holden, lost on a crowded carousel five years in the past, keeps the hectic supernatural tinged with humanity, another of the show’s original strong points. Alongside Hypodermic Sally’s pathetic desperation for love and Iris’ near-stifling efforts to reconnect with her grown son Donovan, Lowe’s plotline maintains the human core that allows even the most extravagant scares to hit close to home.
When Lowe begrudgingly checks into Room 64 at the end of the first episode, the viewer is left in the unexpected tension of rooting for the detective to get to the bottom of the supernatural vortex and also shouting for him to run in the other direction. Amid the cheap scares and psychological shivers piled on viewers, it is this diabolical human pull that lets the very real terror of the characters continue to be paralleled in those watching from the safety of their couch.
Featured Image by FX Networks