“Chutes and Ladders” unfurls deep background on the cursed Hotel Cortez, via a flashback that pays sly homage to a real-life serial killer. But American Horror Story: Hotel knows we’re all here for Lady Gaga, whose preening Countess ably demonstrates that vampires can break hearts, too.
Spoilers, ye creatures of the night ...
The episode has three major storylines. One is a nifty black-and-white 1920s sequence to acquaint us with the hotel’s original owner and architect, James Patrick Marsh (Evan Peters). He’s a newly minted tycoon—complete with pencil-thin mustache—despite being a complete psychopath, or perhaps because of it. He designs the Cortez to serve as his private torture chamber, a la Chicago’s own H.H. Holmes, and with the input of his wife ... who we only glimpse for a second. (She’s platinum blonde. She’s obviously the Countess.) Marsh’s office, where he and his champion chambermaid Miss Evers (Mare Winningham) killed themselves as the cops banged on the door, is now Room 64. So that explains a few things about that room, though not why John Lowe has survived staying there for so long.
Speaking of Lowe, we get to know his family a little bit more. His wife, a pediatrician, has an awesome moment where she dresses down an anti-vaxxer mom (Madchen Amick) whose kid has come down with measles. Lowe’s daughter, Scarlett, may only be ten years old or so, but she’s quite the budding detective, sneaking out to prowl the halls of the Cortez in search of her long-missing little brother. By some miracle, she finds him and lives to tell the tale, though she doesn’t quite understand he’s now a baby Dracula. But of course mom and dad don’t believe a word.
Though, really, Daddy John should start expanding his mind a little bit (which is exactly what front desk clerk Iris advises him to do), and stop living in denial about the spirit world. He does start to catch on that the serial killer he’s pursuing in 2015—who’s “tech savvy” enough to spoof cell phone numbers, and saucy enough to use an Oscar statue as a murder weapon—is taking cues from the past (as in, the James Patrick Marsh era), as well as the Bible’s Ten Commandments.
But the juiciest segment of the episode—as well as the best-dressed, and boasting the best background music, duhhh—is Lady Gaga’s. After Donovan suggests they “stay in and binge-watch House of Cards” instead of hitting up an art opening, the Countess begins to curl her lip in his general direction. When the hotel’s new owner hosts a fashion show in the lobby (complete with Naomi Campbell cameo), the Countess spots BAAAAD BOY model Tristan Duffy (Finn Wittrock), and boots Donovan in favor of this new plaything. Donovan is upset by this intrusive, rooster-coiffed enfant terrible, who also gets the best line of the episode: “Call the cops, man, I don’t give a shit! I’m coming out in a Lars von Trier movie next year!”
Tristan’s initiation sequence after being “turned” enables us to learn that yes, they are vampires, but they don’t have fangs and a little bit of sunlight is OK, actually. Also, the Countess was born in 1904 but her favorite time period to date has been “the late 1970s ... I was the disco queen” (cut to Studio 54-type flashback, in which she enters the club riding a giant horse ... basically we all got a glimpse into Lady Gaga’s fantasy world just then). And with a new man by her side—one who “hunts” via online hook-up apps, and dreams of draining Kendall Jenner after “bitch blew me off at Coachella”—there’s no room for Donovan, who sadly packs his things and slinks away. At least for now, because Tristan ain’t the smartest cookie, and “you’re only immortal if you’re smart,” per the Countess. Duly noted. And what will Iris say once she realizes her heartbroken son’s been coldly replaced?
- This show has, apparently, an unlimited music budget. Aging goth bands rejoice!
- The backstory behind John Lowe’s son going missing—he’d just investigated the suicide of a man who accidentally killed his entire family, then gone on one last booze bender, before that fateful beach trip—was unexpectedly poignant. And there’s no way he’s gonna keep up his sobriety living every day surrounded by his own demons, much less all the demons lurking in the Hotel Cortez.
- Sally has mostly given off a Courtney-Love-in-the-1990s shrillness that makes her scenes hard to watch, in an icky way. But this week she got a moment that made her hard to watch in the absolute BEST way: menacing a shrieking Scarlett with her horrifyingly bloody mouth as her teeth crumbled from her gums, waiting a beat, and then adding for our benefit “Kids are the best!” No, Sally ... you are.