If last week’s episode was an origin story everyone was anticipating and longing for, this week’s was one we never knew we wanted (and, ultimately, still may not want). For it’s that of Wes Bentley’s not-particuarly-intriguing character John Lowe, whose name’s curious resemblance to John Doe should have been a clue to the absurd twist buried through the season of Hotel and exhumed — or perhaps just fabricated on the spot — in “The Ten Commandments Killer” (Season 5, Episode 8). The title should say it all: this is John Lowe’s origin story as the killer he, himself, has been tracking down. This seems to be the case, because, well, AHS is proving itself dedicated, more and more, to disregarding any logical structure that could keep a person interested in a serialized drama: the hotel now possesses so many magical properties that anything (but mostly lazy writing) is possible — and there are few things more boring than such maximalist potential.
Not only is the Hotel Cortez a host of ghost serial killer parties, an immortalizing blood virus, and a dildo demon, we find out here that it’s also an amnesia-inducing vortex that’s made both our protagonist and ourselves blind to the fact that he’s really a serial killer. Oh, and it’s also a time machine. For this episode presents yet another hour-in-flashback, another divergence from any notion of a forward-moving plot. And so, backwards we go:
Wren, the aryan vampire-ish who got John out of the psychiatric ward, is indeed, dead. (Getting hit by a truck will do that). In a flurry of fury, John goes back to the Cortez and demands answers about the Ten Commandments Killer. Hypodermic Sally (Sarah Paulson) takes him on an ominous interior design tour to show him the truth: “Behind the armoire you’ll find what you’re looking for,” she says, through tears we come to understand as catharsis. For everyone in the hotel has been desperately waiting for this moment, bored out of their phantasmal skulls by having to consistently pretend they had no idea he was the killer, in order to preserve his own illusion of innocence. Indeed, behind the armoire is a door, and through that door are presumably pickled trophies from the bodies of the Ten Commandments Killer’s victims. At first John assumes the implication is that James March — who unquestionably began the murders in the 20s — is also responsible for the recent strain of murders. But then he realizes, via a quick montage to really make us realize, that the new killer is him. And in case seeing him standing over/brutalizing victims we’ve seen in past episodes doesn’t get the point across, Sally declares, “It’s you John, it’s always been you!”
The rest of the episode unfolds as he confesses his guilt to his partner — who, for the sheer sake of giving him a reason to continue his story, is completely incredulous, and convinced, despite his insistence, that he’s innocent. Standing next to Wren’s body at the morgue, he begins the long story, all of which hilariously came about due to the dearth of good late night drinking spots in Los Angeles. (Perhaps the most perceptive observation AHS has provided thus far). Yes, none of this wouldn’t have happened if John — getting off a particularly gruesome day of work, in which he dealt with the murder of a family — has been able to find a bar that wasn’t tucked away in the innards of a monster hotel. But alas, as the episode suggests, that was 2010, and pre-Peak Downtown Los Angeles gentrification, and so all one could have hoped for was a drink in a seedy, and deadly, hotel.
When he visited the hotel bar for the first time back in the day, he was invited — by none other than Matt Bomer’s Donovan — to a “party,” which turns out to have been The Countess’ monthly dinner with March. (In a moment that’s, dare I say, cute, we see March acting goofily jealous of the fact that The Countess — aka Lady Gaga — completely prefers Donovan). March becomes highly attracted to John’s serial killer potential when John introduces himself as a homicide investigator, and says that “death is the only thing in life that has any meaning.” He also digs John’s pitch black aura.
From here, March begins luring John back to the hotel (once outside of it, he’d forget that he was ever in it) to ready him to be an able predecessor. Realizing he still needs a “nudge into the darkest places of his heart,” March and the Countess collude to kidnap his son, Holden.
And so, John screams an anguished “HOLDEN!!” as he kills his first victim. Appalled by how good he claims the murder felt, John tries to hang himself, and Hypodermic Sally looks on without stopping him, likely hoping he’ll be stuck as an eternal Cortez-dwelling ghost with her. But March comes to the (evil) rescue, saving John so he can continue his trite biblical conceptual art murder project. March instructs John to make himself head detective on the case so that he’ll never get caught — and likely take quite a while to solve it himself. (Let’s not forget that John forgets everything upon leaving the hotel). At this point, we’re jolted back to the present. John’s clueless partner refuses to believe any of it, saying of Sally, “She’s been dead for more than 20 years. Can’t you see what’s going on? Man, you’re confused.”
Through all of this murdery initiation, John had become an increasingly distant husband (as, of course, he was juggling his career as a homicide detective with moonlighting as the murderer in the case he himself was devoting all his energy to). His wife, Alex (Chloë Sevigny), therefore looked to his partner for guidance, and had been meeting up with him in secret. This, John saw as in clear violation of a particular commandment about coveting thy [partner’s] wife. He had — in his murderous, Cortez-induced state — at one point planned on murdering both of them, but Sally (with whom he’d been having an affair, if such a thing counts with a ghost) warned him against committing a murder that’d be so traceable. However, as he’s nearing the end of his Commandments in the present, and as he declares the whole story to his partner, he now sees it as the perfect moment to kill him. (It is implied, thereafter, that he pickles his penis — “the instrument of adultery” — as a trophy).
And so the one character who seemed, sure, tormented, but comparatively normal has actually become, thanks to the frenetic and indecisive writing, another murderer. But while this makes for viewing that often seems like a troubled child’s mercurial, rule-changing pretend game produced by adults and an adult budget, there’s one aspect of it that’s actually somewhat…coherent. John was, up to this point, an outsider at the hotel. It was nonsensical that, as a guest who didn’t commit acts of immense cruelty, he himself hadn’t been killed. And now we have an answer: the Hotel, it seems, has no room whatsoever for innocents. Here, the only two choices are to be the victim or the villain.