I feel the need to make the disclaimer that I’m going to be unleashing a fair amount of new asshole ripping on something that is extremely popular and means a lot to a lot of people. But, I want to make it clear that I’m not doing so because it’s extremely popular and I get off on shitting in people’s sandboxes. I like a lot of things that are popular, including but not limited to pumpkin spice whatever the fuck, the Victoria’s Secret fashion show, and all them Snapchat hoe filters. That being said, I think AHS is too frequently regarded as a perfect show when it oftentimes falls short, and, looking more generally, horror is too frequently regarded as “good” when it’s more like “good enough.”
I really tried to love the series as much as everyone else seemed to. I even set up the cable in my college dorm back in 2012 just so that I could watch Asylum after Murder House was so hyped, but I was immediately derailed when it began with the dude from Maroon 5 taking some chick to pound town, and I was never able to get myself back on track no matter where I tried to take myself mentally. I tried to give Coven a shot, but was again immediately turned off by the fact that it started with another edgelord boning scene and seemed to rely on lazy appeals to the story of Marie Laveau and New Orleans to deliver the spoop factor. But witches! And curses! And female protagonists! I should like this, right? What’s going wrong here? To answer precisely that, I took to season five, Hotel, sat my ass in a chair, and made myself properly identify where it dun goofs in an attempt to try to untangle my frustration.
I had originally intended to title this article “American Horror Story Sucks” after viewing the first couple episodes, but as the season progressed, I realized that that was no longer a fair assessment. As it attempts to mold its mess of characters and subplots into something more meaningful I came to realize that there were a few clear hits, such as the delight that is Liz Taylor, but still plenty of misses, like the mass-confusion that stems from trying to keep track of all of the countess’ lovers. I also found some episodes to be much more engaging and purposeful than others, which I think stems from the fact that there seems to be a different writer for every episode. But uneven consistency aside, I would say the overarching problem with AHS is that it’s too self-important to be campy dark comedy, but it’s too shallowly thirsting for the edge-factor to be truly profound. Perhaps it’s time to either embrace horror’s susceptibility to go B-level or start holding it to higher standards, because it seems pretty damn hard to do both well.
So, for science, let’s unpack this thesis through an episode-by-episode breakdown. While there are some spoilers, I certainly couldn’t include every facet of the show’s many plots or else we’d be here until the end of time. Buckle up – it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Episode 1 – Checking In
So this shit starts and as per my past history with this series, I’m already pissed off. There are these two hot young Swedish chicks that check into the Hotel Cortez and they use the well-placed metal silverware that’s provided in their room to cut open their mattress to find a jump scare. Shortly thereafter there’s a little boy standing ominously at the end of a hallway. You know, all the classics. Little did I know at the time, I was finding myself at the start of a lot of confusion as to whether or not the writers were consciously trying to pay homage to old horror tactics or if they were blindly recycling clichés. If you have to ask, I think you’re doing it wrong.
Other characters include a cop that looks like Adam from Workaholics, an arcade full of weird kids, and a vampire countess named Elizabeth, even though all you can hear the whole time while looking at her is “THIS IS LADY GAGA, THIS IS LADY GAGA, HEY LOOK WE GOT LADY GAGA.” It’s not that Gaga’s a bad actress, but her look is so distinct and her involvement in the show was so hyped that it’s hard to see her as anyone else. I would go on to name everyone else in the series, but we’d be here all day. There’s a clear issue of introducing new characters and subplots without developing the ones that are already there. Instead, AHS chooses to present now and explain later. When done well, this method is nothing short of brilliant, but when it flounders, it turns into nothing short of a clusterfuck.
Another initial observation is that there seems to be a lot of cheap attempts at 1) shocking the average middle American viewer, and 2) cultural relevancy. The heroin epidemic, anti-vaxers, and quinoa are all sloppily thrown around to catch the attention of the masses (and to set it all to an atmospheric tune, let’s just forget to pay the electric bill). Again, what’s popular isn’t inherently bad, but if it’s just being used as a scare tactic devoid of any social commentary it just comes across as just that – a tactic. Not to mention it also borderlines on inappropriate with some of the more sensitive topics, like when rape is used to make one scene super spoopy scary skeletons. It’s just unsettling for the sake of being unsettling, like watching someone throw up or something. Additionally, any references made for timeliness are counteracted by old fashioned details employed for convenience sake (ex. the fact that the cop’s wife/Holden’s mom is a doctor that still makes house calls).
My final initial observation is that the dialogue is shaky as hell. It suffices in some scenes, but in others, particularly those involving the cop and/or his family, it gets plain stupid. When copper goes and investigates the first commandment killing he very seriously explains that the victims “were married, but not to each other…they were cheating.” Thanks for assuming your audience is made up of dumbasses. We appreciate it.
*Cues up Hotel California*
*Gives middle finger to us all*
Episode 2 – Chutes & Ladders
Things started off on a little bit better footing than before, but that wouldn’t really take much. I’m happy to see that the chapter with the Swedes was closed and not just thrown away for convenience. I also payed more attention to the opening sequence this go around, and I have to say that it’s pretty aesthetically great. It almost makes me wonder if this whole concept was better suited for a Gaga video than a whole series, but I suppose there’s no going back now. Copper is painted as some idyllic family man, there’s a random fashion show b/c Lady Gaga, and then the whole vampirism element is further explained. Turns out it’s some sort of “ancient blood virus,” which I guess is supposed to parallel the diseases that come with all of the IV drug use that goes on. All tackiness aside, I feel like the vampirism-addiction metaphor has been played out (Nymphetamine came out in ’04, y’all, get it together). For aesthetics’ sake, the vampires aren’t sickened by whiskey and cigarettes the way the traditional creatures are. I appreciate that they’re trying to put a new spin on and old classic, but, again, it’s done in a cheap edgelord sex sells kind of way through endless orgies and titty slicing. I’m no prude; I just want something more. A one-two punch of a Kendall Jenner-Coachella reference is worked in before Kathy Bates explains how the hotel was built by some serial killer with a moustache and it’s unclear if the HH Holmes allusion is intentional or not. Again, if you have to ask. The ten commandments killing is discussed, although the religious element seems out of place in the context of the rest of the show. I liked the Siouxsie Sioux song at the end, though.
Episode 3 – Mommy
So the mom explains why she became a doctor. She wanted to help people. Groundbreaking. She also goes on to explain why she’s had issues since her son, Holden, went missing. A parent being sad over their child’s disappearance doesn’t seem like something that needs to be justified, yet here we are. L e t ’ s k e e p d r a g g i n g s h i t o u t. Another commandment killing for bearing false witness is investigated and a nail is hammered through a lady’s tongue, which looks like a sculpted wad of Double Bubble. I guess most of the budget went to paying Gaga. Model Tristan is almost killed but it’s kind of hard to tell if it’s him or not because all the leading dudes are impossible to tell apart in the dark, so I had to resort to one of my first of many Wiki fact checks. Some hot dramas go down between Kathy Bates and her son, Donovan, in which he rips her apart about what a piece of shit mom she was. The conversation produces the following line, delivered dead seriously: “you put so much fiber in my diet I would shit my pants at school.” After pausing Netflix and regaining my composure, it becomes evident that Kathy couldn’t live with the guilt because she kills herself with heroin and also a plastic bag over her head for good measure. Overall, my favorite part of this episode was that it was shorter than the first two.
Episode 4 – Devil’s Night
In an instance of self-awareness, the ghost of Richard Ramirez comes and unleashes some terror in the opening scene. Unfortunately, the episode seems to regress back to taking itself too serious by trying to make shallow metaphors surrounding the disappearance of the clean freak maid’s son seem really deep. She can’t get the blood out of the sheets because you can’t forget the pain of the past!!! And the boy was dressed as a sheet ghost on the Halloween he vanished!!!!! Hey, they’re trying I guess. The discussion is accompanied with a flashback that reminds me of the story that that Angelina Jolie movie, The Changeling, is based off of. Again, I have no clue if that allusion is intentional. Meanwhile, it turns out that Lady Gaga stole Holden from the carousel because for some reason she feels compelled to save neglected children. Apparently the working definition of “neglected” here is having your dad look down at his phone for a second. Copper goes to a dinner hosted by the ghost of Holmes and finds himself seated among the ghosts of notorious serial killers, and oh my god, this scene is such a let down. It had so much motherfucking potential to be provocative and enchanting but they just tell a bunch of stupid jokes and throw the word “absinthe” around a lot for the edge factor. Lady Gaga turns Holden’s mom into a vampire but slightly lez out first because fuck you that’s why.
Episode 5 – Room Service
So installment fucking five: Kathy Bates tweaks in a chair at Ramona Royale’s house and she’s accompanied by one of the generic white dudes. Wiki tells me it’s Donovan. He changed her into a vampire to bring her back to life after her suicide even though he’s the one who more or yes yelled “do it, pussy” in her face. After that mess comes the first part of the series that I can say I really enjoyed. After the mom changes her measles patient into a vampire to save him, he goes and unleashes havoc on his school by turning his friends and feeding off his classmates. It’s campy and funny and creepy and such a fantastic homage to old school American horror. Visually, the lighting inside the school is such a nice break from the endless darkness inside the hotel. Equally delightful is the telling of transgender bartender Liz Taylor’s story. She used to be a married pharmaceutical rep who used traveling for his job as a way of living as a woman away from prying eyes of family. But of course, it gets stupid as hell when Gaga showing up out of Jesus’s asshole is attributed to her willingness to embrace her womanhood. So when you’re changed into a vampire you’re also given the gift of omnipotence? You can smell vulnerable children and gender dysphoria with your spidey senses? None of this makes sense. Finally, two young people check into to the hotel, and even though they’re dressed like basic bitches they’re deemed the “hipster couple” because they like kale and hate babies. Kathy Bates kills them, but not before the woman asks her the gem, “are you Alzheimer’s?” Jokes aside, this was the first episode I actually somewhat enjoyed.
Episode 6 – Room 33
There’s a flashback to the time Lady Gaga went in for an abortion and came out with a baby instead. Don’t you hate it when that happens? Except the baby’s real fucked up and ugly and shit but she loves it anyway. I was left with some fragile optimism that we might be on the road to making her stealing Holden any less stupid and random. Holden wakes up his dad and takes him to the coffin room where he and the mom sleep now. Where’s his sister Scarlett, again? There’s a scene that’s too dark to understand. Turns out it was Liz Taylor banging some dude. Lady Gaga is seen banging some other dude. After Wiking, I found out Liz was banging Tristan and Gaga was banging the designer Drake dude. Kathy Bates and Ramona conspire to kill some of the creepy arcade kids – Iris’s motivation being to put them out of their misery BECAUSE DON’T FORGET SHE’S MOTHERLY and Ramona’s being that she wants to fuck with Gaga as her scorned lover. Ramona decides to kill Lady Gaga’s permanent ugly baby baby but that little thing dips the fuck out. The mom later finds it in a bush. I, again, had to pause Netflix and give myself a minute. Donovan explains that ghosts are trapped in the hotel until they find their purpose. For the ghost of the Swedes, that means fucking everyone and a lot of boring murder porn ensues. Liz tells Gaga that she loves Tristan so she kills him just to show what a bitch she is. Overall, this seemed to be more of a filler episode than one that actually moves the plot along. More than anything, I left it with some kind of hope that this baby would actually serve a purpose or symbolize something and not just exist to be weird. Spoiler: it doesn’t.
Episode 7 – Flicker
Things start off with a jump scare, Gaga and Kathy Bates discuss anal bleaching, and then Gaga kills a sales rep staying at the hotel. Does no one report these people missing? There’s another flashback and it’s revealed that Gaga actually loved this Italian actor dude Valentino and his hot wife, and he’s the one who had originally turned her into a vampire, which I guess is kind of neat to know. Valentino was turned by the director of Nosferatu and there’s more talk of this “ancient blood virus,” but it leaves me wanting to know about how it actually works. Visually, these scenes are pretty damn stunning since they incorporate a lot of old Hollywood glamour, in addition to serving as a nice visual reprieve from the hotel (although they ultimately prove to not serve much of purpose to the plot). Good cop McGee stumbles into some psych ward and finds a little girl who tells him that she can lead him to the commandment killer. Seriously though, fuck these commandment killings. Just when I forget about them they pop back up again. 0% investment on my part. The girl also tells him that her daddy went out for a pack of smokes and never came back so, of course, Gaga came to the rescue by turning her into a vampire. The pair leave the ward but then she gets hit by a truck Mean Girls-style, leading us smoothly into pause number three.
Episode 8 – The Ten Commandments Killer
So the cop was the origami killer the whole time. How, you might ask? Well, if you’re capable of following a convoluted Saw-style clusterfuck, then you might be able to find you an answer. It turns out Holden was actually taken so that the dad could find himself in a futile fight for justice that would make him more susceptible to becoming Holmes’ protégée…I think. I didn’t even care enough to consult Wiki at this point and became fearful that this was going to be the episode to make me throw in the towel.
Episode 9 – She Wants Revenge
Gaga is still conspiring to marry Drake just to kill him off and inherit his fortune. I guess vampires have ID’s, social security numbers, and bank accounts. She low key continues to play Donovan and Valentino at the same time, and fuck, it’s episode nine and I still can’t tell any of these motherfuckers apart. The wedding happens but then Drake calls Gaga’s baby ugly so she banishes him to the basement where Ramona is being held. Ramona eats him while Gaga watches on hidden camera. It’s really confusing as to who is working with whom anymore, but at least I think this time it’s intentional. I was happy to see a follow-up on the hoard of vampire children, which the mom is now trying to bring back to the hotel because she realizes she goofed. All and all, this episode provided some much-needed redemption from the commandment BS.
Episode 10 – She Gets Revenge
An elderly couple checks into the hotel, and because they’re content with the lives they’ve lived, they decide to kill themselves. The two carry out the act by shooting each other in the head simultaneously. I suppose it was for dramatic effect, but I didn’t really understand why they didn’t just drug the champagne they were enjoying. Still, as a big proponent of euthanasia (or as my sister and I call it, the Millennial retirement plan), I appreciated it nonetheless. After considering the scene, Kathy and Liz decide to end it, too, but not until they finish all of their earthly business because they don’t want to have their ghosts trapped inside the hotel. Liz makes peace with her estranged son in a captivating scene where they catch up at the hotel bar without formerly introducing themselves. The son later reveals that he knew who Liz was all along, accepts her for who she is, and even wants her in his life. It’s a moment that made sitting through a whole lot of bullshit worth it.
But back in stupid town, Donovan kills Valentino. Oh yeah, because Holmes is petty he had Valentino trapped in the walls of the hotel for decades. How did he not starve? I don’t know; I guess I missed that part. The ghost of Drake foils Gaga’s attempts at stealing his fortune and the cop/mom work together to trap the vampire kids in the walls that Valentino had been in. I guess they get off on the screams of children because they start to rekindle their romance. The ghost of that junky Sally, who I realized I haven’t bothered mentioning up until now because she’s really annoying, gets jelly because she has the postmortem hots for Officer Friendly. They get into one of those kind of starting to fuck but start shoving each other instead fights that I’m getting really tired of watching. I guess it doesn’t really affect him because mom, dad, and Holden all casually dip out of the hotel. ~no 1 luvs sally, feel bad 4 her~ Anyways, Kathy and Liz bail on their suicide plan and decide to shoot up Gaga instead while Hotline Bling plays for relevancy. More than anything, I appreciated that this episode introduced a human component in addition to the fact that it actually seemed to be moving the plot along.
Episode 11 – Battle Royale
Things pick up where they left off and Gaga is shot up pretty good, but Sally patches her up because apparently all junkies know how to perform surgery, duh. Donovan is accidentally shot in the crossfire and Kathy Bates gets sad so she drags him outside the hotel to die so that his ghost doesn’t get trapped. While he’s dying he expresses genuine love towards her, and the weak ass bitch in me felt a type of way. They finally bother to tell Sally’s story and it actually melted some of the ice around her character, as it’s revealed that she’s the product of a lot of good flannel, bad dope, and heartbreak. Kathy Bates spills Donovan’s ashes everywhere and the maid hurries to clean them up while marveling over the newfangled bagless vacuum cleaner. Her character’s shtick was funny and endearing the first ten times but it starts to grow old by now. Ramona and one of the witches from Coven duke it out. Holmes conveniently appears to kill the witch so that he can use Ramona to kill Gaga so that they can have hot ghost sex. Ramona pussies out and agrees to let Gaga and her baby escape the hotel, but the cop (who I can now tell apart since the rest of the generic white dude squad is dead) shoots her while she is exiting her room. I was pretty shook, but then it just gets stupid again when her ghost goes to dinner with Holmes and the maid admits she was in love with Holmes the whole time. Gaga’s fucking dead. Let it end already.
Episode 12 – Be Our Guest
Okay, I want to start by saying that the first half of this episode is fucking fantastic and it proves how could the show could have been as a ghost story with human commentary sans vampire erotica. They renovate the hotel with Gaga’s art money and you can finally see shit. It made me appreciate the camera angles a lot more, as they seemed reminiscent of old school horror shows like Tales from the Darkside. A ghost meeting is held and it’s decided that they’re going to stop killing guests so that they can maintain actual business. Otherwise, the hotel might be torn down, which would leave them without a haven away from final judgment. They’re all on board except Sally, but Kathy Bates gives her an iphone so she can seek attention through Instagram instead of guests. It sounds dumb, but it actually proves itself to be a pretty cute and clever solution that works within the theme of moving on without “moving on.” Drake gets bummed out that no one is around to run his fashion house, so Liz steps in for the job. They even hold a fashion show in the Cortez where Drake can watch on from above. It’s, again, another extremely endearing moment that you can especially appreciate after 12 episodes of investment. Finally, Liz reveals she is terminally ill, and elects to be killed in the hotel so she can stay in the hotel forever now that she realizes that all the spirits that reside there are her family. Gaga ghost steps in to do the honors AND IT FUCKING SHOULD END THERE BUT IT DOESN’T.
This shit prattles on and on and it’s fucking stupid. The cop comes back and fucks around with this psychic lady who’s been exploiting the Cortez for her TV show. On Devil’s Night, he leads her back to another serial killer dinner where they mess with her some more. There are more pointless family scenes and the cop explains that he moved them back to the Cortez because that’s where they belonged all along. Except Scarlett. She got sent away to boarding school because fuck that hoe. He tries to justify it by saying that he wanted to give her a shot at a normal life, but I don’t know how normal it is to go home on summer break to your vampire family. So clench your assholes, this thing ends with Lady Gaga seducing another generic white man at a bar. It’s like they didn’t know how to stop it so they just regressed to the same old comfort zone of Gaga shenanigans. I guess they had to get their money’s worth.