In retrospect, an undead, bloodsucking Rudolph Valentino is just what American Horror Story: Hotel needed. This week’s episode, “Flicker,” is mostly comprised of flashbacks to 1920s Hollywood, where the Countess (Lady Gaga)—here, a smalltime actress named Elizabeth—is seduced and eventually transformed by Valentino (Finn Wittrock) and his wife, Natacha Rambova (Alexandra Daddario). If “Devil’s Night” represented the absolute worst of American Horror Story’s appropriation of real-life figures, “Flicker” is the show at its cleverest. The show’s decadent and, ultimately, supernatural version of 1920s Hollywood makes for a strong continuation of the theme of transformation that’s emerged over the past few episodes. After a rocky start, might this season actually be coming into focus?
The episode opens in the present, with Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson)—who, in a typical AHS chapter-skip narrative move, is now engaged to the Countess—ordering his construction crew to tear down a layer of steel hidden behind the walls on one floor. When they do, they release Valentino and Natacha, who’ve been trapped for a long time and look like it. As death is rarely permanent on AHS, we all suspected that Wittrock would be back after Tristan’s departure last wee; but on a show that is built entirely on cast members recurring in different roles, it feels like a bold, perfect move to kill a character off one week and reintroduce the actor as a completely different character the next. If the show lasts long enough, I hope we’ll see, say, Sarah Paulson (absent again this week) play four or five characters over the course of a season.
The flashback sequences give Lady Gaga a chance to stretch beyond the icy posturing that the show’s mostly asked of her so far. She’s endearing as a wide-eyed ingenue with dreams of stardom, though Elizabeth proves to be less than innocent even before she was the Countess, as it takes little persuading from Valentino for her to join him and Natacha for a threesome. As Elizabeth begins her own process of transforming herself, Gaga proves to be a versatile, capable actress; she’s become one of the most interesting aspects of this season that go way beyond stunt casting. Of course, the Elizabeth’s own journey of self-actualisation is a dark one; after Valentino’s death, she marries James March (Even Peters) and, after walking him on him carving up one of his victims bodies (I loved his hilarious, rushed defence “it’s only a hobo!”), she tells him to let her watch next time. Being turned into a monster would prove to be a literal last step in the Countess’ murderous journey of self-awakening.
In a classic example of American Horror Story’s ‘LOL, whatevs’ logic, Valentino and Natacha walk right up to the Countess one day while she’s mourning at his tomb. Valentino explains that he was transformed by none other than Nosferatu director F.W. Murnau (Heinrik Rutgersson), in a nice nod to Shadow of the Vampire. The flashback-within-a-flashback-within-a-flashback structure allows for the kind of stylistic excess that American Horror Story lives for, and episode director (and series cinematographer) Michael Goi makes fun use of silent film style during Murnau’s seduction of Valentino. Elizabeth jumps at the opportunity to be immortal, not realising that March overhears the encounter; back in the present day, when she informs him that she intends to marry, he confesses that he imprisoned them in the walls of the hotel decades earlier. Gaga has her best moment so far as the Countess shows her shock through her icy facade, and March replies (in my head), “stars and garters, Lizzie, don’t you look a fright! Come now, don’t be a wet blanket, it’s just a bit of revenge torture, see?”
Back in the present day, Rudolph and Natasha regain their vitality after feasting on a few victims—including Marcy (Christine Estabrook), the bigoted real estate agent who first appeared in season one—and they’re ready to hit the town. Valentino and his wife are poised to become this season’s Spike and Drusilla, and like I said, it just feels right. Most of the other plotlines are on the sidelines this episode, other than John Lowe (Wes Bentley) having checked into a mental hospital where his suspect is located in order to get closer to him. Instead, he meets one of the Countess’s children, who offers to take him to the killer before she’s abruptly hit by a truck while they make their escape. The non-vampire kid, who was present at the Ten Commandments killer’s crimes, alludes pretty heavily that Lowe shares a connection with the killer. This is because Lowe is the killer. They haven’t said as much yet… but come one, Lowe is the killer. Okay, there’s a small chance that it’s Will Drake, but I’d still bet on Lowe.
I’d complain that most of the other characters are mostly absent, but this was the tightest, most focused episode of the season by far. As it’s become less of a star-driven show than it was during the Jessica Lange years, I wouldn’t mind seeing it take up a more serialised format, jumping from one plot to another, if it results in episodes as strong as this one. As the show moves into its home stretch for this season, the Countess has multiple characters conspiring against her, Valentino and Natasha are at large in L.A. (as are the non-vampire kids we haven’t seen in a while), and Lowe is closing in on his killer (who is himself). Will the show keep the momentum of the last few episodes up? I have hope.