'American Horror Story: Hotel' S5E1: Checking In

★ ★ ★ ★ ½

American Horror Story has been a rough ride for the past two years: one that has left fans disappointed, and critics more than confused. But now that Jessica Lange is out of the picture, Hotel not only brings attention to the rest of its ensemble, it also doesn’t feel pressured to force any of them into the spotlight either. Even Lady Gaga (Lange’s stand-in and the "main character" of Hotel) is about as present as Lange was in Murder House. Hotel doesn’t just feel like a return to its realistic roots, but a reboot trying to repair itself from a major blow.

More than anything, Hotel is reminiscent of Asylum and the "realistic" tone it had throughout the season. Even with demonic possession, aliens, and mutant cannibals, Asylum at least felt like it all could have happened in real life, or at least in a wild urban legend. Even Asylum, with its spectacular depth and emotional complexity, had issues with storytelling and character development — and the same problems could present themselves here unless handled the right way.

Just like when introducing us to the Murder House and to Briarcliff Manor, Murphy’s direction allows the location to not only come alive, but hold a powerful presence. It has personality influenced by its morbid history, and its every aspect is sure to remind of us that. In the majority of ghost movies, there’s a "daytime" tour of the location to make it appear warm and welcome despite its more sinister qualities. Leading us through the Hotel Cortez via the perspectives of the first couple of victims, we essentially get a glance at the hotel’s "daytime" persona before we learn of Room 64, where all of the magic happens.

AHS S5

With eight absolutely brutal deaths in one episode (and two unlucky victims), "Checking In" is vastly more extreme than its predecessors. In the opener, we’re introduced to the different kinds of threats that all of the characters will face before they check out. First we have The Countess, her children, and Donovan, who drain the blood of their several victims once they lure them back to the hotel; then there's the Addiction Demon who killed Gabriel, and gave us a look at how absolutely messed up that disease can be; and finally, the Ten Commandments Killer, who has a very Seven-styled modus operandi.

That’s not even including the various other conflicts we have coming up between Ramona Royale (Murphy regular Angela Bassett) and James March (Evan Peters), or the Iris/Sally conflict. So, yeah, we’re looking at a very busy season. Not to mention that upcoming Halloween special in which Lily Rabe will be playing Aileen Wuornos. So, much like Murder House, the conflicts will more than likely be many, but also relatively short-lived, in order to reflect the sense that these people are simply guests just passing through.

Lowe’s storyline, for a main character of the series, just like the Harmons in season 1 and Lana in season 2, if a very emotionally gripping and relatable plot line. Whether or not you end up like Lowe, you’ll appreciate him for attempting to make it out alive. This is where I think Coven and Freakshow faltered. There wasn’t someone for whom to fight for like there was in Murder House and Coven. A man in a broken marriage who lost his child, Holden (now, unfortunately, a Countess bloodsucker) has been dealing with some very messed up murders. His daughter, Scarlett, and his wife, Alex, are the only two people left in his life that he has to protect from the Ten Commandments Killer (and probably more later on). He makes for an interesting main character, and while the first episode only served as a way to force him into the Hotel Cortez (in the most insane way possible), it was very effective. If AHS follows through on the rest of the hotel horror tropes, I’m sure we’ll eventually see someone (hopefully him) lose his mind while staying there.

While Lady Gaga can’t perfectly fill the empty space left by Jessica Lange, her onscreen presence is still powerful and fascinating to watch. Her introduction to the series (in an entirely silent murder sequence) was terrifically effective, demonstrating the allure of her and Donovan, who easily bring home victims for a late night snack. The relationship between the Countess and her "children" will be intriguing to watch play out.

So yes, Hotel has a lot on its plate, but it also has ample opportunity to play with it. Like Asylum, which blended a ton of deep, complex stories all into one insane (sorry, so sorry) story and with as many characters as Murder House, Hotel will have a tricky time juggling all of its moving parts. On the other hand, on this show, having several storylines isn’t something new — and anyway, a big reason the last two seasons lacked momentum was due to the lack of conflict. It’s a double-edged sword, but one that can be worth handling.

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