This episode’s title, “Chutes and Ladders,” happens to refer to the element that could make American Horror Story: Hotel remarkably interesting, if Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have planned well enough and actually adhere to those plans for more than one episode. (I am aware that that’s a hypothetical that’s asking a lot). As “Chutes and Ladders” indicates, the Hotel Cortez is beginning to be built up as its own evil organism, a new mythical beast to add to the creature-horror canon. For it is designed by its owner — an architectural Dr. Frankenstein, of sorts — with enough malignant aplomb to fulfill his insatiable thirst for murder. And now that he no longer exists, it appears the place has something of a murderous mind of its own — the ghosts and vampiric blondes who kill and consume its visitors seeming like parts of the digestive tract of this larger, art deco evil. It’s a terrifying villain in its immensity, and its emotional illegibility — being that it is, after all, a building.
The episode opens on Hypodermic Sally, lingering in her chamber for long enough to reveal that she keeps a boy toy sealed into her mattress. (The whole person-in-mattress thing, it must be said, is far less scary than bedbugs — just another way in which LA, if we’re to believe this is a trend, simply can’t compete with New York.) Then, it cuts back to the remaining Swedish tourist for long enough to show her — as predicted — dying at the hands of the bloodthirsty aryan children. They, from within a room that’s every child’s dream (endless candy and video games!) and every parent’s nightmare (endless candy and video games! and parasitism!) they give their high-protein blood to Gaga’s character, Countess Elizabeth.
Insomuch as she is called the Countess and Elizabeth and is a woman and likes blood and immortality, she is, as has been speculated, based on Countess Elizabeth Bathory — but the comparison seems to end there, unless the Renaissance-era Hungarian countess likewise enjoyed House of Cards. Even though it seems Gaga’s Countess does indeed appreciate a healthy dose of Kevin Spacey along with her bloody nightcap, she decides to go for a night on the town — to LACMA — where she wanders through Chris Burden’s sculpture, “Urban Light.” In ensuing moments in this episode, we see Murphy entrusting Gaga with more challenging acting work than simply, as in the previous episode, wielding long cuticles and sipping from the necks of naked dead people.
Meanwhile, back the world of the living (embodied by the now-separated couple played by Wes Bentley and Chloë Sevigny), Sevigny’s Alex is being a good doctor by reprimanding an anti-vaccer. (Foreshadowing for the fact that a virus will soon become key to the Hotel’s secrets.) Bentley’s John is having trouble sleeping in his new room at the Hotel Cortez post-separation, because, just as my dreams were after this episode, his are haunted by the dildo of doom (which is attached to a faceless, leathery entity called The Addiction Demon).
The vision gives way to the sight of his kidnapped child, Holden, who he chases through the hotel before losing him by the hotel bar, where he’s officially introduced to Hypodermic Sally and the cross-dressing bartender, Cleopatra. Sally opens up to the handsome stranger about her tragic life story, how she was once a great writer. “Patti Smith said my poems were like glass shattering,” she says, before discussing how she was consumed by addiction, which she illustrates as the constant search for a brighter light atop an “endless ladder where all you do is get further and further away.” Though, as Murphy suggests, it’s also like a long, sharp, twisty metallic dildo… that kills you. Clearly, the metaphors seem somewhat mixed. But there’s no time to contemplate that, for we soon cut to John at work during a mail-bomb scare, which turns out to contain no explosives, but rather just a bloody Oscar statuette. Given Murphy’s penchant for celebrity-obsessed camp, this can only lead one to hope next season he’ll just fully give in and make American Horror Story: Awards Ceremony.
Fittingly, just after the delivery of the statuette, the Hotel Cortez — under the new ownership of Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson) — hosts a fashion show featuring none other than master depicter of evil twinks, Finn Wittrock (he formerly appeared as Dandy Mott in Freak Show). Now, he appears as model Tristan Duffy, who’s noticed by an agog Gaga for “being full of rage…like copper.” He snorts a ton of coke before slitting his cheek and declaring “I’m done with modeling,” then attempts to quit the scene but gets lost in the hotel’s labyrinth of horrors (somewhere between eating a maggot sandwich and being introduced to Evan Peters’ mysterious character who shoots a woman right in front go him, Duffy manages to inform audiences that he’s going to be in a Lars Von Trier movie next Fall).
Finally, Duffy’s maze ends with the Countess, who quickly transforms him into whatever vampire-adjacent thing she is. (Perhaps he’s also Elizabeth Bathory, now.) They have sex in a bathtub, then exchange informative pillow (or faucet) talk, with the Countess revealing she was born in 1904 but that she loved the disco era the most, and Tristan revealing that he’d like to get back at Kendall Jenner for blowing him off at Coachella. This is all bad news for Donovan (Matt Bomer), who was introduced as Gaga’s paramour in the first episode. She makes it clear that he’s being replaced, and that heartbreak is what’s going to make him a good sort-of-vampire.
Woven through all this is a plot about John Lowe’s daughter, Scarlett, who takes a bus to visit her dad at the hotel and instead sees her thought-to-be-dead little brother. She follows him into the special FAO Schwarz-eque chamber of childlike delights and blood donations, where it’s noted that she’s grown up and he’s stayed the same age. She asks if he’ll come home, and he tells her he likes it there — he does, after all, have video games, candy, a pop star formerly covered by Kidz Bop, dying Swedish women, a hip coffin, and blood-enabled Peter Pan syndrome all working in his favor. His sister strategizes and asks if she can take a selfie with him, which she plans to bring to her father as evidence of his whereabouts. She returns home (but not without first being stopped by Hypodermic Sally, who chews her own teeth off and, mouth bloodied and full of shards of rotten fangs, declares, “Kids are the best”). When Scarlett presents the photo to John and Alex — who were worried she was missing — John becomes furious in the episode’s token moment of highly misdirected drama, telling her Holden is dead. (Though we know he’s likewise subconsciously looking for him).
John, realizing he wants to get to the bottom of the hotel’s oddities, confronts Kathy Bates’ concierge character, Iris, who candidly recounts the Cortez’s history over drinks, her narration taking us back to a B & W 1925. “If you want to know what this place is about, you have to know about the man who built it,” she says. “He put every ounce of evil in his being into it.” The montage surrounding the narrative reveals that Evan Peters’ character is, in fact, James March, the man who had the hotel erected — for the sole purpose of torturing people.
“The average of three people died a week — more if he went on a bender,” Iris explains, as we see Peters bashing men’s skulls with hammers, raping and slicing women, burying others alive, shoving people down the hotel’s chutes, and eventually, on meeting a man who challenges him with religious optimism, saying, “I guess I’m just going to have to kill God.” He’d dumped all of the dead bodies he collected alongside heaps of Bibles.
Iris explains that room 64 — where John currently resides — used to be March’s office. “If this building has a heart, it’s black as the ace of spades. And you’re sleeping in it.” And though this line seems like it would have been the perfect place to end the 70-minute episode, the promise that he’s sleeping in the deepest pit of evil wasn’t enough of a note of unsettlement to leave Lowe — or us — on. Rather, the final scene takes him back to his office, where, after this story, he’s beginning to see a pattern in all of the murders that have been committed around LA recently: the 10 Commandments. And he realizes that the killer who’s on the loose seems to be following March’s (now long-dead) lead.
And so through this episode, we’ve been given a thorough rundown of the machinations of the black-hearted hotel, designed to be a sort of organism that chews up and digests its visitors. Perhaps this season was meant to draw in a formerly lacking audience of insecure architects: it flatteringly suggests the act of construction is evilly akin to the act of Creation. For the Hotel, here, is becoming by far the most interesting being on the show, and “Chutes and Ladders” is an informative — and surprisingly focused — lesson in its anatomy.