As one might expect, American Horror Story: Hotel isn’t wasting any time taking things to the max. We’re only two episodes in and we’ve already seen a blood-soaked orgy, numerous throats slashed and slew of sadistic torture scenes, but what “Chutes and Ladders” does far better than the premiere episode is go big in the shock value department, but while delivering the necessary story details.
The episode begins with what is likely a normal day at the Hotel Cortez. Sally is busy sewing poor Max Greenfield into a mattress, Iris is letting the vampire children suck the remaining Swedish tourist dry and The Countess is back on the prowl. Meanwhile, in room 64, John is just trying to get some rest, but he’s haunted by some disturbing visions including the dude with the strap-on drill. Then, to top it off, he spots his missing son Holden and chases him through the hotel before parking himself at the bar for a chat with Sally. You know what, Sally? I like details as well.
American Horror Story has become increasingly obsessed with wowing viewers with sex and gore, but, oddly enough, one of the episode’s most memorable moments is a simple, genuine conversation. Not only do we learn more about John’s situation via a gut wrenching flashback, but then we also get to see Sally react, emote and start to come across like a real person. She doesn’t contribute much to the episode after that, but now that we know that she isn’t just some heartless, one-note, maniacal junkie, we can view her quirky behavior in a slightly different light.
Things get showy again when Will Drake opts to throw a flashy fashion show at the hotel. A sobbing Sally gets the boot, but Drake insists that John and his daughter Scarlett (Shree Crooks) stay for the show. While John watches bad boy model Tristan Duffy (Finn Wittrock) act like an ass and pick a fight on the runway, Scarlett sneaks off with Lachlan who shows her where the vampire children, including her brother Holden, are fast asleep in coffins.
While she heads home and (very convincingly) tears up while watching home videos of better times with her brother, Tristan continues his rampage at the hotel. After slicing his face open and declaring that he’s done with with modeling, he breaks into The Countess and Donovan’s suite, desperately searching for cocaine. After The Countess stops Donovan from tearing him to shreds, Tristan stumbles through the hotel and leads us straight to Evan Peters’ character, James March, a dapper man with a gaping hole in his throat who’s got a thing for murder. Tristan may be an entitled, temperamental addict, but he’s no killer – not yet at least – so makes a mad dash out of there and winds up running right back into The Countess.
Then we cut back to Scarlett who’s still hung up on seeing her brother but, for some reason, doesn’t bother to tell her parents. Instead, she makes her way back to the Hotel Cortez solo and has a chat with Holden in the vampire kid game room. Even though he hasn’t aged a day, she still thinks she’ll bring him home and surprise her parents, but when he attempts to take a bite of her neck while taking a selfie together, she bolts. Trouble is, she doesn’t make it home fast enough. Mom and dad already called the cops, and they’re not in the right state of mind to hear her story about how Holden’s still alive.
Meanwhile, back at the hotel, The Countess turns Tristan and gives him a little vampire 101. It’s a whole lot of exposition, but Tristan is a bloodsucking newbie and Gaga is surprisingly convincing so the rundown feels fairly natural. Gaga really gets to show what she’s capable of when Donovan walks in and realizes he’s been replaced. The Countess dismisses him pretty harshly, but Gaga also manages to infuse the character with an enchanting warmth that has you so intoxicated with her exploits that she commands your attention much more so than the heartbroken Donovan.
Down in the lobby, John is back and he isn’t happy that Iris let his daughter roam the halls of the hotel alone. He demands that Iris tell him what’s really going on and that leads to the best sequence of the show yet, the story of the man who built the Cortez, Mr. March. Back in 1925, Mr. March moved out west to build a monument of excess and opulence that also happened to be his own personal torture chamber. With his trusty laundress Miss Evers (Mare Winningham) by his side, Mr. March could torture and kill victims as he pleased and still wind up with clean sheets. Eventually his crimes catch up with him, but he and Miss Evers have no problem offing themselves before the cops can get to them. It’s a brilliantly refined sequence that tells a complete, satisfying and very disturbing story. Even though Peters has appeared on every season of American Horror Story, he still manages to lose himself in the role, which is quite the achievement considering March is such a showman.
Unfortunately a brief scene during which John tries to piece together details from various crime scenes sucks the momentum out of the tail end of the episode, but, overall, “Chutes and Ladders” is a solid new installment that starts to make the Hotel Cortez, its occupants and their insane antics feel more cohesive.
Episode Rating: ★★★★
Odds and Ends:
- “The hour between 2 and 3am is always the worst.” I’ll be sure to keep that in mind, Sally.
- “Call the cops, man. I don’t give a shit. I’m coming out in a Lars von Trier movie next year.” – Tristan
- Sorry, Tristan. That’s what you get for snatching something off a used room service tray.
- “The only thing that can undo you now is your own recklessness.” – The Countess to Tristan
- “Oh, Mr. March. I really don’t know. Well, a part of me wishes you would go first so I could launder the sheets.” – Miss Evers