American Horror Story - Hotel: Season 5, Episode 2 - "Chutes and Ladders"
Diving into the backstory of the Hotel Cortez itself gives the present storyline credibility, and allows its key themes to take center stage.
American Horror Story: HotelAirtime: Wednesdays, 10pm
Cast: Lady Gaga, Wes Bentley, Kathy Bates, Matt Bomer
Subtitle: Season 5, Episode 2 - "Chutes and Ladders"
Air date: 2015-10-14
Most of the American Horror Story seasons have started off with a slow burn that sparks and ignites in the second half of the season. The pattern seems to be on the mark with American Horror Story: Hotel; however, it was a pleasant surprise to have a good bulk of the hotel's backstory spelled out for us so early on.
The Hotel Cortez was a love letter from one man to himself. James Patrick March, played by Evan Peters and his drawling John Waters delivery (two parts charm, one part irascible sleaze), made it big in 1923. When high society turned their noses up at his new money, March moved to Los Angeles, where trash never recognizes trash, and decided to build himself the grandest, flashiest hotel he could more than afford. A huge art deco fan, he designed the building himself and added some special secrets to sate his perversions. Chutes in rooms to dispose of dead bodies, hidden passageways, dead-end hallways, and of course, the trusty Mrs. Evans, his personal laundress.
This story is revealed only after Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley) has enough of the hotel and its oddities, and demands concerned-mother-turned concierge Iris (Kathy Bates) tell him what's going on. These revelations come in the latter part of the episode and slowly start to connect to the present. The laundress frequently appears, as those bloodstains are never in short supply; we also get a peak of March himself in all his H. H. Holmes glory. Neither have aged and both appear perfectly alive, despite their very messy double suicides when the police finally cornered them back in the 1920s. As Lowe finds a connection between the religious slant of March's murders and the current case he's working on, it begs the question, "Is everyone a damn vampire?"
Consider the evidence. Countess Bathory or, rather, Elizabeth (Lady Gaga) is definitely a vampire. She saved Donovan the junkie (Matt Bomer) from an overdose and kept him as her little boy toy. In similar Madonna fashion, she replaced him with a younger, prettier version in the shape of Tristan (Finn Wittrock), a vapid yet pretentious model whose first idea as a vampire is to kill Kendall Jenner for resisting his charms at Coachella. Secondly, there are the children of the corn: Lowe's long-kidnapped son Holden (Lennon Henry) and three other Von Trapp-ish blonde children. We see them feeding early in the episode, and catch a glimpse of their mini-coffins. It would be too adorable if Lowe's older daughter Scarlett (Shree Crooks) hadn't come face-to-face with the brother she thought was dead, and who hasn't aged in five years. Meanwhile, there's also a fashion show where Cleopatra (Denis O'Hare) teaches "These people from Vogue how to Vogue", which has nothing to do with anything, but that line was too good not to mention.
The story is slowly coming together, as the bits and pieces we're given show exactly where they connect, but more important than the events of this second episode are their underlying motives. More than anything, this episode introduces the audience to the underlying theme of love lost. This isn’t just bittersweet romance; it’s deep, searing, pulpy, sloppy, gasping love lost, the kind that's doomed from the start. In essence, it’s the grown-up version of the kind of love that made the teenage you write terrible poetry in high school. The choice of moody post-punk and gothic songs on the soundtrack of both episodes are fitting because this is beyond heartache: this is life or death. From Lowe's reluctance to give up the ghost of his son, to Elizabeth's warning words and elusive hints of a long-lost love, everyone is trapped in their own worlds of dark love. They can't get off, and they can't stop, and as Bryan Ferry sings "Don't Stop the Dance", they keep spinning in place.
It is not all darkness and despair, though; they’re not French existentialists after all. "Chutes and Ladders" presents some of the best one-liners, most of which are delivered by Tristan (Finn Whitrock). "Sorry man, bondage really bores me" and, "I'm coming out in a Lars Von Trier movie next year" are not only funny, but ironic in that this is exactly how the worlds of American Horror Story try to separate themselves from other television plebe shows; at least American Horror Story: Hotelis self-aware enough to realize that. Tristan is introduced into the story when the fancy man buying the hotel invites Elizabeth and her vampire retinue to a fashion show held on the premises. Sally (Sarah Paulson), the junkie/vampire that got Donovan into this whole mess and fellow resident of the hotel, demands to be let in to watch. She’s turned away but not before we see exactly how pathetic and lost she is, with her tear and makeup-smeared face and shrill screams.
The choice of New Order's "In a Lonely Place" and Siouxsie Sioux's "Spellbound" perfectly capture the atmosphere of the hotel and its inhabitants. Every single one of them is in the hotel, and yet all inhabit separate worlds that none are quite brave enough to break through. While Sally may be the loud, abrasive, embarrassing-to-look-at mess they try to avoid making eye-contact with, it’s only the fear of realizing she’s one of them that makes the rest block her out. She's also the underlying reason we keep watching, because her hopelessness has a way of making us feel grateful and distant. We can't really sympathize with her, but we'll stay for the ride to see all the ways we'd never end up like her, or anyone else at Hotel Cortez. Right?