A drag queen walks into an elevator with a cop and says, “You’ve lost something and now you’re frozen in time. Can’t go forward, can’t go back.” Not the set-up for an “amirite” joke but, apparently, an overly on-the-nose scene that hints at what’s going on in American Horror Story: Hotel, the follow-up to last year’s messy Freak Show and, possibly, a philosophical conundrum for the series itself.

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk created something beautiful the first few seasons of AHS, presenting ghost stories in a self-contained serialized format with big-scale archetypes that played to our greatest fears. Hauntings, the devil, and witches were explored in tandem with infidelity, institutional mistreatment, persecution, smartly pairing paranormal unknowns with real-life terrors for double the fun. Now, though, it seems they might be losing the thread. American Horror Story has always tended towards the gruesome—recall the horrors of the freak-doctor in the basement on Murder House—but where it compensated with tight plots seem to go awry on Freak Show, which had a terrific premise and ideology—we’re all “freaks” in our own way—got bogged down by too many ideas and convoluted plot structure. It could have used some editing.

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On last night’s premiere, bloody and so indebted to Kubrick it might want to consider refinancing, the gruesomeness was in-your-face, and the plot not so much. Surely it deserves some leeway, as it’s the first episode, and these tales are set up so they unfold with unexpected hairpin turns the whole way through—but throwing a terrifying rape scene in the season premiere doesn’t quite bode well for the rest of the season, if that’s what you feel you’ve got to rely on.

In the scene, an unknown, possibly supernatural serial killer, wrapped in what looks like fat-colored flubber and reminiscent of Murder House’s Rubber Man, breaks into a room where a male bleach-blonde junkie has just shot up. The killer is wearing a metal strap-on dildo that looks more like a drill bit: it’s sharp and pointed, designed to rip apart the junkie’s insides, which happens at length as he writhes in pain; it only stops after Sarah Paulson’s character, who we learn later is the ghost of a junkie who died by that same hotel herself in 1994, goes into the room and asks him to tell her he loves her. He does; he passes out; the killer is gone. (He may not have died, as he later ends up under a bed vomiting, though that could be his ghost, too—like the Murder House, the hotel is very clearly haunted by dead people.)

Throwing a rape scene in episode one, besides shock value, implies the creators do not trust themselves as storytellers, or maybe they’re getting lazy—or maybe they’re just letting us know early this is gonna be a brutal ride. And yet, though it’s clearly got The Shining in its DNA—down to twins in the long hallway, employing Kubrick’s tactic of letting the symmetry of walls and carpet dictate the viewer’s feeling of unease—it’s also eye-candy to watch. Paulson’s dressed in foxcore ‘90s perfection in a choker and leopard coat, a little Courtney Love, a little Nancy Spungeon, a little Lene Lovich. The drag queen, who is bald and doesn’t yet have a name, wafts down a hallway in a voluminous silk robe; the camera follows her from below, focusing in on the way its aquamarine folds float above the maroon carpet. The set design is gorgeous, too, with the art deco detailing of the old “Hotel Cortez” juxtaposing Petra Collins-style neon signs reading “I Love You to Death” and, in the penthouse, “Why Aren’t We Having Sex Right Now.”

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That last one is in the abode of Lady Gaga’s character, apparently some kind of crazy sex vampire and, early guess, a type of immortal who acts as a conduit for the spirits in the building. She’s got a razor-sharp metal fingernail on her finger who she uses to punch in the jugulars of her victims, seduced by her beauty and power. She’s the best part of it so far—soft and feline and a natural actor, though I do find her bleached eyebrows distracting—and the fact that she’s both a musician and a dark spirit is emphasized by the music choices, which include Interpol and Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” played as she puts on makeup, sniffs a line of coke, and apparently sets out to manipulate the hotel’s new owner, a famous New York designer looking to relocate somewhere more affordable and eclectic. (Is this show also about gentrification? Timely.)

The show ends on “Hotel California,” another crazily on-the-nose reference; the lyrics a direct incantation of the plot:

And she said “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device”

And in the master’s chambers,

They gathered for the feast

They stab it with their steely knives,

But they just can’t kill the beast

They can’t kill the beast. This first episode was an awkward start, but at the very least we can rely on its visual beauty. Hotel ghost stories are time immemorial, ever-ripe and fascinating as material; the test this season will be how Murphy and Falchuk use it, and whether they get tripped up on their own ideas once more.


Contact the author at julianne@jezebel.com.

Image via Suzanne Tenner/FX