If last week’s season premiere “Checking In” was about American Horror Story setting the style of the show, “Chutes and Ladders” finally delves into the plot, as if last week was all “horror” and this week brings the “story.” Much like “Checking In” threw plenty of art deco hotels and ‘80s inspired neon lights and hairstyles to get Hotel’s very specific vibe combining time periods, “Chutes and Ladders” throws plenty of exposition at us to help us understand what the hell was going on in the season’s first episode.
Now, did American Horror Story need two episodes to present all of this information? Not at all. Including commercials, Hotel has already aired for over three hours and we’re only now starting to grasp what this season might be about. American Horror Story has always been about opulence, but with Hotel, it feels like grandiosity on a whole new level. If Hotel had cut some of the fat from these first two episodes, we could’ve had a fully-formed pilot that combined style and substance, but AHS isn’t good at cutting back.
We can already see the insane amount of scope American Horror Story is going to go for this season, something that has never quite worked for the series. When she’s talking about heartbreak Lady Gaga The Countess says, she likes them “bigger and better.” That’s a problem American Horror Story has as well. By the end of “Chutes and Ladders,” we already see that we have a story that takes place over almost a century, filled with dozens of characters—most of whom will end up being superfluous, likely—and surely more to come, as the series decides it needs more deus ex machinas. As with every season of American Horror Story, the first few episodes are about throwing as many characters and ideas into the mix and seeing what sticks, while the last few episodes will surely have to tie up all these loose ends.
“Chutes and Ladders” does delve into what Hotel is truly about: addiction, whether it’s to heroin, alcohol, or blood, drinking and spilling it everywhere. Sally used to have a heroin problem and now seems addicted to people with strong emotions. John Lowe had an alcohol problem, which led to a two-day bender that, ended with him seeking forgiveness from his family and losing his son Holden. But “Chutes and Ladders” focuses on the addiction of blood, particularly with the owners of the Hotel Cortez.
As Iris gives her necessary exposition-filled story to Lowe about the history of the hotel, we learn about the hotel’s creator, James Patrick March, played excellently by Evan Peters. March is basically Charles Foster Kane, but with an unquenchable thirst for murder, so much so that his Xanadu—the Hotel Cortez—is a torture chamber to satisfy his peculiar appetites. Yet, once Isis describes the Cortez as a monument to excess and opulence, much like AHS is, it’s hard not to see March as this season’s Ryan Murphy surrogate. AHS is Murphy’s place where he can do anything his twisted heart desires, whether it’s having Sarah Paulson crush all her teeth in her mouth, or preach against Oscar bloggers and anti-vaxxers.
Much in the way that Dandy was in Freak Show, March is a perfect combination of horrific, insane, over-the-top and ridiculous fun. Even while he’s bashing people’s heads in, it’s hard not to revel in the craziness of it all; like him saying his goal is to kill god. Far too often, AHS doesn’t know how to nail the tone it needs, but with characters like Dandy, and Twisty the Clown and now March, it seems like it’s getting there.
When March was at his peak, he was murdering three people a week, then dumping the bodies in his hotel basement. Occasionally he would take his horror show to the public, mostly to set murders themed after The Ten Commandments, which according to Lowe is being picked up by a new killer. Yet in the hotel, March still lives, even after he slit his own throat as the cops were at his door, with his beloved maid and partner-in-crime Miss Evers dead by his side. At this point, Peters and Mare Winningham as Evers are clearly having the most fun. The moment they take their own lives is brutally dark and slightly funny. Of all the creepy things Hotel has tried to present so far, there’s nothing creepier than the quick smile on Evers’ face before she’s shot by March, happy with the thought that she’ll be his last victim. As Iris mentions, March’s office—Room 64, the same room Lowe is staying in—is the black heart of the hotel. For five seasons, Peters has also been the black heart of American Horror Story, and with Hotel it looks like he’s going to get his meatiest and craziest role so far and he’s immediately the most interesting character this season.
Far less interesting however is March’s wife, who likely turned him in for his actions to get his money, and is pretty obviously Lady Gaga’s Countess. In “Chutes and Ladders,” she throws away her old boy toy, Matt Bomer’s Donovan, in exchange for the rage-filled bad boy of the modeling world Tristan Duffy, played by Finn Wittrock. Out of last season’s newest additions to the AHS world, Wittrock, was the greatest standout, but here is rage isn’t quite as fun as it was last season. The Countess quickly turns Tristan into something that is not a vampire per se, but rather someone with “the virus.” Those with the virus cut instead of the bite never age and are able to stay immortal if they’re smart. Considering how little tact Tristan has with, well, anything, it’s probably a bad idea bringing him into this world. However as Iris points out, it doesn’t exactly seem like the secrets of the Hotel Cortez are especially secret after all.
“Chutes and Ladders” has what “Checking In” didn’t have: a story. We now have a stronger grasp of who these many characters are, and we now know addiction will be the focus of the series. While there are still some problems, thanks to the introduction of the reliable Evan Peters hamming up the hotel, as well as Finn Wittrock possibly shaking things up a bit, maybe Hotel will stop these seasons of American Horror Story set in the present day from being so awful.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.