American Horror Story: Hotel S05E02 “Chutes and Ladders” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on FOX, Tuesdays, 10pm
Writer: Tim Minear
Director: Bradley Buecker
Essential Plot Points:
- Will Drake decides to make the most of owning a building that looks like an art deco grenade went off inside it and hosts a fashion show with the help of Vogue editor Claudia Bankson (played by Naomi Campbell who is exactly as bad as you think she’ll be).
- John arrives at the hotel and runs into the show. He and Scarlett reluctantly sit and watch as Tristan Duffy, who is so hot right now, steals the show. Duffy is immensely, relentlessly high and barely in control. When Will confronts him backstage, Duffy slices his cheek open and quits modelling.
- Scarlett and Will’s son Lachlan sneak out. Lachlan shows Scarlett glass coffins at the bottom of the hotel’s empty swimming pool. Each one has a sleeping child inside. Scarlett, because she’s clever, recognises her brother.
- Elsewhere, Scarlett’s mother tears a strip off an anti-vaxxer mother (Madchen Amick! Wooooo!) about letting her child get measles.
- John is lured into spilling the story of the last time he got drunk to Sally. He tells her about what seemed to be an apparent murder suicide with a father killing his family then himself. But as Lowe walked through the crime scene he realised the truth; the man’s power had been cut off and he’d brought a generator inside to keep his kids warm. They’d been killed by carbon monoxide poisoning and he’d killed himself when he found out. The following day, John’s son Holden had disappeared.
- Completing the awful, awful day John is having, he’s sent a bloodsoaked Academy Award by the killer. We don’t think the note attached says, “Keep this for a future episode”. But we’re not entirely sure.
- Duffy, searching for drugs, finds his way to the Countess’s apartment. He fights with Donovan there and storms out. He encounters the ghosts of Miss Evers, the laundress and Mr March, the builder and owner of the hotel. They force him to watch a murder and he flees into the arms of the Countess. The Countess is drawn to the new man and his rage. They have sex and she explains the rules about the “virus”. It turns out they’re not immortal and they cut rather than bite but they rely on blood for sustenance.
- Donovan returns and finds them together. The Countess, with a genuinely unsettling combination of kindness and cruelty, throws Donovan out and upgrades to the new model.
- Elsewhere, Scarlett sneaks out and returns to the hotel. She finds the coffins open and her brother, who has never aged, in a nearby room. He refuses to come home, saying the hotel is his home now. She takes a photo of him to prove he’s alive and he lunges for her. Terrified, she sprints away, but not before a laughing Sally terrifies her still further.
- At the Lowe house, she’s been gone for five hours and her parents are frantic. Neither believe her when she returns but John looks at the photo. Someone is on there but it’s too blurry to see.
- John, who has had quite enough of this thanks, goes to the Cortez to arrest Iris. She’s remarkably nonplussed and offers to tell him everything over a drink.
- We flashback to 1925 and Mr James March, a newly minted millionaire. Sick of being ignored by East Coast bluebloods, March sets up shop on the West Coast and builds the hotel as a perfect torture chamber. Obsessed with violence and death he ensured the building had disposal chutes for bodies, secret passages and everything a discerning murderer could need. He was aided in this by his faithful laundress, Miss Evers. It, of course, didn’t last and March killed Evers and himself as the police stormed his office…
- …Which is room 64. Where John now lives.
- As the episode finishes, Duffy revels in his new-found vitality by bringing a hipster to the hotel and having sex with him. To death.
There’s a lot to enjoy this episode, especially with the Lowe family. John, Alex and Scarlett are all refreshingly clever people who clearly haven’t read the part of their contracts that reminds them this is a horror story. Alex is insightful, principled and invested. John is driven, guilt-ridden and dogged and Scarlett is clever, resourceful and really very sympathetic.
They’re clearly all doomed.
Not just yet though. Minear’s script is at its best when it focuses on the Lowe family and there’s a measured, but rapid, doling out of answers that’s both fun and refreshing to see. I can’t remember the last time I watched a horror show where the lead got told exactly what’s going on two episodes in and, by and large, listened. He didn’t believe most of it, that’s for sure but he’s got the information and that’s an important part of all this.
The highlight of the episode is its bookend cover versions of The Shining’s bar scene. John being tormented by Sally is the most disturbing, and nuanced, thing we’ve seen so far. Sally, it seems, is both gaining some kind of nourishment from his sadness and genuinely feeling bad for him. It’s like she’s getting a passive high (or perhaps low) from his emotions and Sarah Paulson continues to be the most impressive part of this cast.
The later scene swaps her out for Kathy Bates’s Iris and shifts the power dynamic. Or at least, what John thinks the power dynamic is. Iris is already settling down into something tragic and nuanced and Bates does great work here telling the monochrome nightmare of the hotel’s birth. Plus, it means Evan Peters is on deck! Hurray! The best movie Quicksilver and arguably American Horror Story MVP has tremendous fun. He’s playing someone about halfway between Frank Doyle and Howard Stark and doing so with polite gusto and barely contained rage.
The episode’s closing flashback is beautifully shot and caps off an hour and a bit of some amazing work from Buecker. He relishes shooting the hotel from odd angles and perspectives, creating and focusing the feeling of dislocation hotels always have. There’s something off about his shots that’s wonderfully unsettling and somehow laced through with a real sense of fun. The closing flashback embodies this, giving him a chance to cut loose and putting Peters and the magnificent Mare Winningham front and centre. It’s a huge, horrifying fun sequence that’s a perfect high note to end the episode on.
And if it had ended there, you’d be looking at a four star review instead of a three star one.
Tim Minear is one of the greatest genre scriptwriters of his generation. He’s done amazing work across countless shows including Angel, Wonderfalls, Dollhouse, Drive, The Chicago Code and of course Firefly.
Everyone’s allowed an off day. This is one of his.
It’s not that the script’s bad as such, because the Lowe family stuff is bloody great (if not quite literally, yet). It’s that the episode, at a bloated 70 minutes, tries to do too much and spends way too much time with two new, crushingly boring characters. Naomi Campbell is… oh come on, you know what she’s going to be like here. It’s a performance so dreadful, so flat and yet so arch that it kills every scene she’s in.
Campbell is very bad at what she does but Finn Wittrock might not be. It’s difficult to tell, though, as his character stumbles onto the screen carrying the weight of the plot and every pop culture reference the show’s missed up to now. He’s a bad boy model and drug addict who wants to kill Kendall Jenner! He’s in a Lars Von Trier movie next year! KIDS! KIDS COME BACK! WE’RE STILL YOUNG! WE CAN BE YOUNG FOREVER!
You get the idea.
Duffy is very, very awful and judging by this episode Duffy and Naomi Campbell as…well… Naomi Campbell will be around at least one more episode. That’s bad news, especially if the show hands in another instalment that feels this lumpy and badly paced. Still, at least the soundtrack’s still great.
- Wes Bentley, who somehow is playing an amazingly straight-arrow, close-minded guy who’s also immensely broken and sympathetic. AHS is a show that’s never been known for subtlety but that’s exactly what he’s bringing to it so far.
- Scarlett Lowe, Girl Detective! I love how this show writes her. I really hope Scarlett’s a major part of how all this gets resolved and lives to tell the tale.
- Kathy Bates and Sarah Paulson turning in truly incredible work throughout. Seriously, Paulson in particular is so good in this episode. Brittle, furious, tragic and completely unpredictable.
- Peters and Winningham as the chirpiest murderous double act in history.
- The pacing. There’s a great Lowe-centric episode here. It’s just surrounded with 20-plus minutes of crushingly dull Countess/Donovan/Duffy the new chestmeat non-drama.
- Every single thing about Naomi Campbell’s character.
- Every single thing Duffy says or does. He is so, SO dull. It’s entirely possible that’s the point. If so, congratulations? He’s hateful and kills the show’s momentum every time he’s on screen. Which is a lot.
- Random gratuitous gay hipster sex murder. Was there five minutes left in the day or something? Was the Sexy Death Quota not filled for the week?
- “Let’s stay in. We could binge watch House of Cards.” Donovan, rubbish vampire after our own hearts.
- “I take it you live here.” “I do.” “How long?” “Too long.” See the script’s actually really good when it’s not focusing on the cast of flipping Zoolander!
- “There’s a part of you that wants to get lost, am I right?” Sally is CHILLING this episode. She’s definitely a threat but to who? And when?
- “I had two kids at the time.” Such a beautiful piece of dialogue. So weighted and delivered with such sadness by Bentley.
- “Skinny jeans are out, fringes are in, ponchos are forever. MAKE A NOTE.” Never change, Liz Taylor. Stay fierce.
- “Can a bullet take me out? A silver bullet or a stake?” “Bitch please, of course it can.” The only moment with Zoolander-Lite that works. It also neatly balances the power the two vampires have. They, much like Lady Me in Doctor Who, are superb rather than invincible.
- Evan Peters is an American Horror Story alumni of long standing. He’s also notable for his superb turn as Quicksilver in X-Men: Days Of Future Past and being Todd Haynes, chum of Kick-Ass, in Kick-Ass.
- Mare Winningham showed up last week but this week she gets to really cut loose. She’s also this week’s winner of Cast Member Who Was In A Cult Movie You Really Should See. In this case, Miracle Mile, which she starred in with Anthony Edwards of ER and Top Gun. They play a pair of not-quite lovers struggling to escape LA as a nuclear attack hurtles in. It plays out largely in real time and is very weird, very sweet and very grim. Go check it out.
- Madchen Amick is best known as Shelly Johnson on Twin Peaks. She’s also appeared in basically every high profile TV drama of the last 15 years.
- Must we? Alright alright. Finn Wittrock is best known for his turn as Young Tubal-Cain in Noah, the epically odd Darren Aronofsky movie. He was also Dandy Mott in American Horror Story: Freakshow and has appeared in Criminal Minds, CSI: Miami and Torchwood: Miracle Day. As, oddly, did Mare Winningham.
- Naomi Campbell has appeared in Ali G Indahouse, Fat Slags and Harry Enfield And Chums, and at present has recurring roles on both American Horror Story: Hotel and Empire. Her first movie role was in Cool As Ice. Google it, it’s a modern classic.
- Anyway! The music was great this week and included: “Spellbound” by Siouxsie and the Banshees; “Don’t Stop The Dance” by Bryan Ferry; “In A Lonely Place” by New Order and “Flower Duet” by Lakme.
- And the radio of death plays “Body And Soul” by The Benny Goodman Trio which isn’t good news at all…
- Oh, shot of the week is this. Lady Gaga, on a horse, being led into disco Valhalla by a bunch of sailors. You can almost see her ticking that off her bucket list.
Review by Alasdair Stuart