There is no way in hell that the Hotel Cortez could actually exist in modern-day Los Angeles, because if it did, I would be booking a room faster than you can type Kayak dot com into whichever internet browser you prefer. I don’t care if there is a creepy maid steaming bloody sheets in the hallway or some sort of faceless condom man crawling out of the matresses, I would not pass up a chance to spend a night in an Art Deco masterpiece as sumptuous as the Hotel Cortez. The paneling! The woodwork! The giant empty lobby with staircases going God knows where! The basement full of Brooklyn warehouse rave party neon torture devices! It’s absolutely gorgeous.
So far everything about the season is as plush and tactile as one of those maroon velvet sofas that are littered all over the place like they wouldn’t fetch top gay dollar on First Dibs if Liz Taylor were a little bit more enterprising. Speaking of Liz Taylor, the surly and greedy transgender bellhop, the best shot of the whole show was her leading Detective John Lowe down the hallway to Room 64 (duh duh dunnnnnn) with her silk caftan fluttering behind her like a million butterfly wings. I have never seen television before that I wanted to reach out and touch quite like that.
I’m focusing so much on the way the show looks because, let’s face it, AHS is very often style over substance. Maybe that’s a little harsh, but it is fair to say that it is always much stronger visually than it is structurally. When I think of the show, I don’t think of moving scenes or amazing characters. I always think of the visuals that lure you in and then slit your throat while you’re writhing around on satin sheets with naked Matt Bomer on top of you. (My ideal weight is naked Matt Bomer on top of me.)
On that account, Lady Gaga, who we barely got to see this episode, is absolutely killing it. It is never a surprise to see her rocking some sort of avant-garde ensemble, but here she seems to both seamlessly blend into this very textured world and manage to stand out at the same time. Brava for her (and the costume department)!
Still, all of those wonderful shots, props, and costumes nominally are there to serve the story, which so far I find intriguing even though it’s about as twisty and confusing as the hallways of the Cortez that are infested with freakish toe-headed children in adorable school uniforms. Our way into the story seems to be John Lowe, who is investigating a string of murders in LA, and being taunted by the killer. (He is also married to Chloe Sevigny, which makes him the luckiest man on earth.) The first couple we come upon is a dead woman perched atop a man with his eyes and tongue cut out. The woman is dead and her hands are nailed to the headboard. We also find out that they’re going to have to cut off the man’s member to extricate him from the corpse. Poor guy.
While we’re told these two were cheating on their respective spouses, we know nothing about the second couple that Lowe finds, being prompted to an abandoned house by a really creepy man’s voice on the phone. They’re suspended in mid air with their guts hanging out of them. Based on the flashing neon commandments in the opening credits I thought this was going to be some sort of “10 Commandments Killer,” but I’m not sure how the exposed innards link up to the commandments in the same way the adulterers do. Maybe they were thieves? Maybe they didn’t respect their father and mother?
The same creepy voice leads Lowe to the Cortez where he takes a nap in Room 64 (duh duh dunnnn) and at 2:25 a.m. (dun nuuuuuuhhhh) he wakes up and sees his son, who was kidnapped 10 years ago, running around the halls. Seemingly this place puts some sort of spell on him and he decides that the best way to keep Chloe Sevigny and his surviving daughter safe is to move into the Hotel Cortez. Yup, that makes all the sense in the world.
Gaga’s Countess, who lives in the penthouse of the hotel with her lover Donovan (Bomer), is keeping Lowe’s son alive in a creepy spaceship room where ageless children play video games and are strung out on candy. We first meet the Countess and Donovan when they lure another couple back to their place and slit their throats, drinking up all the blood that they can like its free vodka sodas at a fashion party. I guess they’re like vampires or something? Considering how much the Countess (not to be confused with Countess Crackerjacks of Real Housewives of New York fame) loves her nose candy and blood and those jonesing kids in the Tetris room, it seems like this season is going to be all about addiction and the lengths some will go to feed theirs.
This is especially true of our friend Sally (Sarah Paulson), who I think is the most intriguing character so far. She’s an old junkie who lives in the hotel and, ten years ago, lured Donovan into the Cortez to shoot up with him. They share needles, and he seemingly dies of an overdose. How he got back to life we don’t quite know yet, but a little mystery never hurts. As for Sally, Donovan’s mother Iris pushed her out a window and she survived, so maybe she was undead already?
Sally is also one of the torture demons living in the Cortez, as we see when Max Greenfield checks in looking like a rejected member of NSYNC with his 1997 fuzzy jacket and his frosted tips. He’s there to shoot up, but before he can even enjoy his high, the Faceless Man — the same one that crawled out of the bed to scare the Swedish tourists — attacks him with a razor dildo that he shoves someplace, how shall I put this, rather sensitive. But it’s Sally who comes in to stop it. Does that mean the faceless man works for her? Anyway, once Max says he loves Sally, the attack ends, he dies, and she fills up that little hole inside of her that needs to be loved. (Is that her addiction?)
Sally also pisses off Iris, the front-desk woman and the world’s most disgusting nutritionist, who is force feeding the Swedish tourists in the basement (Hostel much?). It seems like they are going to be food for “her,” which I assume is the Countess, but maybe it’s someone else we haven’t met yet? Anyway the Countess is going to have her hands full now that the hotel’s new owner, Will Drake, has arrived from New York and wants to remodel the place. He even got a tour from the same ghoulish real estate agent who sold the Murder House several times. It seems like this world harkens back to the earlier world of AHS, but we still have plenty of secrets to discover, plenty of characters to meet, and plenty of ways in which we can be disappointed when the whole thing falls apart. But for right now things are good, and they’re actually looking great.