Ryan Murphy really wants you to stay up past your bedtime. When my DVR told me that this episode was going to be one hour and 42 minutes long, 12 minutes longer than even the season premiere, I thought it had to be a lie. Surely this was one of those things where FX was making us tape an episode of Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll that aired afterward so that someone would watch that abomination. But it was not a trick. This episode was really that long. And we got tons of answers. God, I really hope AHS didn’t blow its load before episode three.
The biggest exposition dump happened when Iris sat Detective John Lowe down at the bar (oh that gorgeous, gorgeous bar where I want to have every one of my birthdays from now until Lady Gaga’s eyebrows grow back) and told him the entire story of James Patrick March, the billionaire freak who wears some of the most authentic steampunk gear I’ve ever seen and who built the Hotel Cortez back in 1925. It was meant to be the perfect torture chamber so he could dispose of the bodies easily, do unspeakable things to the victims he lured into his lair, and then have Mrs. Evers lovingly clean up the mess.
Of course we met March earlier when Tristan Duffy, the male model with the taste-defying Yu-Gi-Oh! plumage on his head, stumbled out of the elevator onto the seventh floor, which is apparently the set of Sleep No More. It’s all there: creepy empty hotel, old-timey record skipping in the background, someone roaming around enacting a story we’re not quite sure how to follow. Someone give Tristan Duffy a mask already! Yes, Mr. March and Mrs. Evers are both still alive. Does that mean that they’re ghosts or that they have that crazy blood virus that makes everyone live forever? Mr. March still has his big gross neck wound (hidden under an ascot because he is classy), so it seems unlikely that he has the blood virus. Doesn’t that heal all the wounds?
What is this virus, you ask? Well, it’s the one that Lady Gaga, Donovan, and now Tristan Duffy all have that keeps them looking young and living forever. But wait, don’t get it twisted. This is a blood virus. This is not the monsters that were in Twilight and Dracula. No, this is something else entirely because Ryan Murphy promised us that he would “never do vampires or werewolves” on the series. I repeat, these creatures are humans living with an ancient blood virus that makes them avoid the sun, never age, heal quickly, and crave human blood. Oh, and when they have their picture taken their faces look all weird and blurry like they just watched the VHS tape from The Ring. Since I don’t know what to call these people, I’ve decided on Virus-Affected Men Pointedly Invested in Relishing Eternity, or V.A.M.P.I.R.E. for short.
After the Countess turns Tristan she answers all his questions and, more important, sets up the rules for these vampires. They shouldn’t drink the dead, the diseased taste bad, they never age due to a super-charged immune system, they can be killed but only if they’re stupid. Sunlight won’t kill them, but it does zap them of their vitality. They don’t have fangs, they prefer to slice their victim’s throats. And they can turn into bats. JK. That last one I made up. But they do like to have explicit sex in the bathtub.
It seems that the Countess not only likes the blood of her victims, but also of the creepy children who sleep in glass coffins in the drained pool in the basement. (Again, do not call them vampires.) She has them drink the blood of Swedish virgins, but then drains their blood and drinks that. Does that give her superpowers? Is that her version of a juice cleanse? Is the blood of innocents just that much more delicious? Is that how they distill the potion from Death Becomes Her? We don’t get all the answers quite yet.
While we’re talking about answers, we finally know who is sending John Lowe those creepy texts and killing people. It’s Mr. March! And, of course, he is killing people who break the Ten Commandments because groan. Like I jokingly guessed last week, those two people with their guts spilled out did not honor their mother and father, so now March (or someone else) killed them. Maybe it is March’s wife. She is either the Countess (who was born in 1904) or possibly Sally? She’s blonde and we didn’t see her face, but again, some answers have to be reserved.
Seriously, I am a little worried that this is all moving a little bit too fast, as AHS is wont to do. Might it not have been smarter to stretch these two gigantic sets of solutions out into two episodes so that there wouldn’t be so much time for the story to run completely ragged by the end of 13 episodes?
Maybe not, because it seems like this episode was also setting the stage nicely. What wasn’t building the world for us seemed to be setting up the conflicts for later. (Either that or it’s completely self-indulgent like the amazing Bianca Jagger white horse in Studio 54 fantasia.) The Countess anoints Tristan her new lover (though she claims never to fall in love) and that means that Donovan is out on the street and of course angry at them both. Will Drake, the owner of the hotel, is pissed at Tristan for being a junkie mess, and John’s daughter, Scarlett, figured out that her brother is living in the Countess’s secret arcade prison. She also taught herself how to take the bus.
Right now the stage has been set nicely for this to go in some very interesting directions. Maybe this is finally going to be the cohesive season of AHS that we’ve always hoped for. The theme uniting everything, of course, is addiction. We have junkie Sally keeping frosted-tipped Max Greenfield sewed up in the mattress. John admits that he’s a former alcoholic who stopped drinking after his son was kidnapped. Mr. March is addicted to murder just as Mrs. Evers is addicted both to him and to cleaning up. The Countess doesn’t seem addicted to blood, which would be the easy answer, but addicted to love. Or is she addicted to thrills, kicking Donovan to the curb the first time he suggested Netflix and chill? Tristan is addicted to pills, but also to attention and acting out. I don’t know what Naomi Campbell is addicted to, but I can’t wait to find out! Everyone has the thing that keeps them going, the compulsions that drive them.
Gaga continues to surprise me in her first major role, settling into her performance and delivering her lines with an understated elegance that is less Madonna in Four Rooms and more Eartha Kitt in just about everything. Her kiss-off to Donovan was all sorts of major, and her shrug when she finally got rid of him was just enough to say everything about the character and was barely a gesture at all.
This season is also very reminiscent of music videos, and I mean that as a compliment. We have songs played to their full length, because if you’re going to license something like Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Spellbound,” you might as well get your money’s worth. That sequence with Tristan at the end with his Grindr trick was absolutely, well, spellbinding. (P.S. — if you answer someone’s ad on Grindr and you show up and he looks like Finn Wittrock who apparently has been doing ten to the 123rd power crunches every day, and then Lady Gaga stumbles into bed, you would not be all like, “Nah, man,” you’d be all like, “You better work, bitch!”)
There seems to be a cohesive style visually that is both derivative and inventive. Most of it — the murky lighting, the saturated maroons, the tactile quality, the collision of vintage and modern — is right out of the David Lynch playbook. This episode even included Twin Peaks vet Mädchen Amick as the anti-vaxxer whose son gets the measles. But still, the dream within a dream that John has at the beginning of the episode had shots and perspectives like I’ve never seen before. It’s still early to tell, but this season is shaping up to be something quite remarkable. However, there is still plenty of time for it to go off the rails. Actually, it will assuredly go off the rails, but then again, that is why we watch this show. The question is, will it be a train wreck we can’t turn away from or will it end up just being a disaster?