American Horror Story: Hotel's sophomore episode ran 100-minutes long, 10 minutes longer than the premiere. While this is somewhat absurd — considering the episodes are only supposed to run a full hour — showrunner, executive producer and head writer Ryan Murphy used the time to properly introduce two characters who will be integral to the show moving forward while ignoring the backstory of almost everyone he introduced last week.
Violence and "as close to explicit as they could get" sex scenes dominated the episode, with more blood spurting out of bodies and covering the various paintings adorning the walls in the Hotel Cortez than in most classic slasher movies.
And while gratuitous, the episode wasn't obscene, as Murphy finally put in the effort to give two of his most intriguing characters to date — The Countess (Lady Gaga) and Mr. James March (Evan Peters) — interesting and complex backgrounds, as well as to introduce the arrogant, annoying asshole every series needs, model Tristan Duffy (Finn Wittrock).
We were introduced to The Countess last week through a four-minute orgy that co-starred Matt Bomer's Donovan and another nameless couple they picked up at a screening of Nosferatu in a Los Angeles cemetery. Like most orgies that begin in the resting place of the dead, the escapade resulted in the gory death of the random couple, their necks punctured with gloves worn by The Countess and Donovan, as they descended on the torn appendage and lapped at the outpouring river of blood.
The scene left a few questions unanswered. Like, were the murderous duo actually vampires (signs point to yes) or just deranged, cannibalistic psychopaths? But more importantly, it set up precedent for Gaga's powerful, femme fatale inspired fiend who casts a spell on everyone she meets
The strength of that sexual aura was showcased once again in this week's episode, when The Countess and Donovan emerge in the Cortez's lobby for a fashion show being thrown by the new hotel owner. During the show, The Countess locks eyes with a stumbling, extremely high Duffy, who quite literally is frozen in place as she gazes down upon him.
Captivated by her presence, she eventually corners him in an elevator and invites him back to her room, where she offers to turn him into a vampire, confirming she is indeed a member of the stunning undead community. He agrees, sacrificing his mortality for beauty in a cliched bit of storytelling, and winds up as her new bedmate.
This is where Gaga's Countess really begins to shine, though. After deciding to turn Duffy into her new plaything, she breaks up with Donovan, ordering him to pack his bags as soon as he can and promptly evicts him for her bedroom, and subsequently, the hotel.
She's the most powerful being in the entire show, and her sexual side is secondary to the control she enforces with everyone she deals with.
Murphy uses Gaga's need to feed as a way to showcase what I imagine he thinks are boundary pushing sex scenes, but he doesn't use sex as a tool to exploit her. Instead, Murphy focuses the majority of the camera's gaze on the men and their bodies, covering up Gaga as much as he can during every sex scene. He explores her lust, not her body, and considering the state of nudity on television right now, it's a nice change of pace to see a woman in charge and not entirely exposed.
Her leadership role only grows when she turns Duffy into his new vampiric being. She's the dominant of the pair, and unlike Donovan, who's become comfortable in her presence, he doesn't question her orders, wants or needs.
Needs are what the characters thrive on and is one of the most basic themes of the new anthology
Mr. James March, the second very important character introduced this week, is as disgustingly vile as he is ridiculous. Evan Peters should be used to Murphy's madhouse of characters by this point in his five-year work relationship with the showrunner, but Hotel's ode to Vincent Price may be the whackiest yet.
Still, from the moment we meet him, we're made aware of just how depraved his character is.
Ripped out of 1925, the anachronistic Peters was the original founder of the Hotel Cortez, and according to Kathy Bates' character — who's telling the story of his savage life to Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley) — he built the hotel out of a necessity to kill and dispose of his victim's bodies in peace without having to worry about people hearing what he was up to.
In essence, he needed to build the perfect torture chamber and decided to be hospitable about it at the same time. Kill two birds, or rather guests, with one stone.
The flashback to his tenure at the hotel (which is filmed in black and white to emphasize the aged memory) sees March slice, drill, hammer, shoot, cut and stab his way through multiple victims. It's extremely violent, and yet, it doesn't feel like the scenes were shot for shock value, as Murphy's exaggerated dramatics usually do.
His disregard for human life and his psychopathic core are portrayed vividly through each dismembering and each careless shove of a body into different chutes lining the hotel.
Now, March is a ghost taking up residence in the basement of the Cortez, his room located through a maze of interweaving hallways and intricate doorways. But his desire to kill rages on, as Duffy finds out when he's captured by March and forced to watch as the businessman shoots a random woman brought to him by one of the hotel's staff.
March's inconceivably despicable nature only makes him that much more crucial to the show, which focuses on a group of villains and a lack of moral empathy for anyone outside of the lobby's main doors. It's his extreme use of violence and Gaga's calculated use of sexuality that propel the show forward and keep it interesting, as the rest of the characters have already begun to fade into the background.
Whether or not Murphy can continue to add on to their backstories and current quarrels with other hotel guests is questionable, but if this is the route Hotel is going down, it may prove to be an interesting installment in a franchise Murphy has all but worn out.
Still, there are 10 more weeks of the show, so who knows for certain?