American Horror Story: Hotel S05E07 “Flicker” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on FOX, Tuesdays, 10pm
Writer: Crystal Liu
Director: Michael Goi
Essential Plot Points:
- Will Drake (remember him?) and his son Lachlan (seriously, it’ll come to you), are overseeing the renovations to the Cortez. Will is alerted to a large plate of steel built into the walls and orders it to be removed. The two workmen who cut through it find a corridor beyond, that, “smells like death”.
- They go in.
- They are almost instantly killed.
- Meanwhile, John is checking into a psychiatric hospital and a fairly cruddy one at that. Alex tries to dissuade him but he’s adamant. He’s also clearly even more unwell than before. In the first of numerous flashbacks this week, we see why. John burst into the case room, got into a fight with his former partner and found they had a lead; the hospital he’s just got himself admitted to.
- At the Cortez, the Countess and Iris find the dead workmen and the opened wall. Iris is in awe as she realises, for the first time since she’s known her, the Countess is frightened….
- AAAAAAAAND FLASHBACK! 1925 Hollywood and the Countess is a young showgirl who attracts Rudolf Valentino’s eye on the set of Son Of The Sheik. The two fall for each other and the Countess becomes part of a mostly polyamorous relationship with Valentino and his wife.
- Shortly after this Valentino is apparently killed. The Countess hears this at the opening party for the Cortez. Numb and grief-stricken she tries to kill herself but is saved by March. She later marries him, discovers his murderous tendencies and enables them, fleeing from any hope she may have had in the arms of the Valentinos.
- Months later, Elizabeth visits Valentino’s tomb to lay a single rose on it. Valentino and Natacha meet her, and explain that they were turned into vampires by FW Murnau. Murnau, the director of original vampire movie Nosferatu, discovered the true vampires while filming. They turned him and in turn he offered to turn Valentino and his wife so they could escape the onset of the talkies and stay young and beautiful forever.
- Valentino and Natacha turn the Countess as, unobserved nearby, March sees everything. Later, he kidnaps Valentino and Natacha and walls them up in the Cortez hallway uncovered at the start of the episode.
- In the present day, John tricks his way into the secure ward at the hospital. He finds the room his partner visited and is amazed to see it inhabited by a young girl. He talks to her and she admits to participating in every 10 Commandments killing. In flashback we see her turned by the Countess after her father left her in a car outside the Cortez in 1986.
- John breaks out with the little girl, who introduces herself as Wren. He assures her he can stop, or kill, the 10 Commandments Killer.
- At the Cortez, the Countess has dinner with her dead original husband. March is in a jovial mood and responds to her news about marrying Drake with a cheery confession about Valentino and Natacha. Horrified and increasingly murderous, the Countess realises her first loves have lived in horrific squalor right under her nose for centuries.
- Nearby, the Valentinos murder a group of strippers and, newly refreshed, check out to go out on the town…
- Near the hospital, Wren asks for more assurance from John. He gives it and tells him she likes him one more time than sprints out into traffic and is killed.
This episode had the potential to be very annoying. AHS: Hotel’s pacing has been a consistent problem throughout the season, the show often going fascinating side roads but always doing so at the expense of the main plot. This episode – the secret origin of the Countess – looked set to do the same thing.
Except by and large it doesn’t.
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way up front this week. The 10 Commandments Killer plotline has some major developments, all of which feel either two weeks late or two weeks early. Wes Bentley’s still turning in great work and this week John gets to do actual, if very unbalanced, detection – which is fun. But the sneaking suspicion that the 10 Commandments Killer and John are the same man really needs to stop sneaking and start being very, very overt. When what was the main plot of the season four weeks ago becomes a mild annoyance that gets in the way of the flashbacks, you know something’s gone a touch wrong.
That – aside from the horribly annoying Central Casting Australian strippers who get murdered off screen – is about it for the bad this week. The good is legion, and starts and ends with Gaga. For the last few weeks we’ve seen the awful side of the Countess; throwing Donovan out, murdering Tristan, abandoning Ramona, seducing Alex, naming her own son Bartholomew, the whole bit.
This week, we get the other side of the story. The Countess, we discover, was a chorus girl in Hollywood during the meteoric career of Rudolf Valentino. Seduced by Valentino and his wife, she falls madly in love with them both. Just in time for him to apparently die.
OR DID HE?
Because in the present day we get Will Drake renovating the hotel and discovering a large walled off section where Valentino and his wife, both turned into vampires by FW Murnau have been imprisoned for decades. The two faded undead starlets go on a rampage through the hotel that is, this being the Cortez, largely unnoticed until the closing scenes. Where two things happen.
The first is that the Countess discovers the man she loved and lost is still, kind of, alive and has been in her home for decades. The second is the Valentinos go out on the town, where, I like to think, they’ll fall in with the vampire children from a couple of weeks ago and fight crime. Or do crime. Probably both.
The Countess’s discovery of Valentino being alive is where the episode really flies, though. Not only is it the most effective since the heart-breaking Evers one, but it gives her the one thing she’s desperately needed; context. We see the Countess, young, innocent and mortal. We see the impact that losing Valentino had on her and the dark path it sends her careening down with March, who is on top moustache-twirling form this week by the way.
Most importantly though, we see what Iris sees. The Countess scared. The Countess off balance. For the first time this entire season, something has happened that is not in her control. And, worst of all, she’s FURIOUS about it. The end game for this season looks to be all out war between her and March, and everyone else and her. I doubt any of them will be standing by the time it’s done. But it’s going to be a hell of a fight.
- The direction. Oh my God, the direction. Goi’s done good work on this series before but this episode is joyously, raucously inventive. The tango between Valentino, Natacha and the future Countess is a perfect example; sexy, playful, wildly over the top and just a little sinister as Goi switches between black and white and colour. The later sequence with FW Murnau stalking
Valentino in the exact manner of an FW Murnau movie is even better. Just amazing, playful direction that always serves the script, never the director’s ego.
- Finn Wittrock! Owner of the second best name in showbusiness after Jack Noseworthy and as we see here, actually a very good actor. It’s been difficult to sit through most of his scenes as Zoolander 2.0 but, with Tristan very, very killed last week it’s nice to see him jump across to a new character. Especially as he’s so bloody good as Valentino. Suave, focused and playing noticeably older than he is.
- Gaga. Yet again, she steals the show. Derided as a piece of stunt casting when this season was announced she’s continually been the most impressive thing about the show. This episode is no exception, as we see the Countess as mortal, young and naïve, then old, embittered and furious in the present day. The show’s greatest strength remains her character and this episode in particular shows us that no one here is ever fully monstrous, even the Countess.
- Evan Peters. I would, at this stage, watch a period drama series about Evan Peters having fabulous parties and murdering or investigating the murders of the great and good. It could be like Dexter with more Charlestons. It’d be GREAT.
- Alexandra Daddario. Not just because she’s fun as the spiteful, venomous Natacha but because she’s in the middle of the oddest and most fun career trajectory I’ve seen in ages. She first got noticed as Annabeth in the Percy Jackson movies then rose to more prominence earlier this year in Dwayne Johnson disasterfest San Andreas where she played the smartest and most practical member of the cast. She’s done a ton of really fun, interesting TV work, including this and has the movie version of Baywatch up next. That’s going to re-team her with Johnson and in turn send her careening back onto the high-impact, high-cheese blockbuster side of things. It’s a rare treat to see any level of screen talent so comfortable in so many genres but she absolutely is.
- FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, JUST GET ON WITH THE DAMN 10 COMMANDMENTS KILLER STORYLINE ALREADY.
- On a less block capital-y note, we do get a lot of interesting progress on that here. But the pacing on it is massively off. It either feels like the start of the endgame for that plot (which should land in an episode or two surely?) or like a mid-season big twist/reveal.
- The Australian strippers are, shall we say, somewhat on-the-nose in terms of characterisation. And by characterisation I mean they draw pretty clearly from the Big Book Of Australian Character Stereotypes. The fact no mention was made of Vegemite sandwiches and there was nary a “cobber” to be heard amazes me.
And the Random:
- “I couldn’t pick my butthole out of a lineup.” Liz is obviously still grieving this episode but Iris is there to pick up the sass slack.
- “I’ve just never seen you scared before.” There are a couple of really simple lines this week that are chilling. This is one of them.
- “I don’t understand. Why am I here?” “Because Gods have appetites.” This is another, especially given that Natacha and Valentino are mortal at this point.
- “Who is he?” “Just a hobo.” “You disapprove.” “I do. Why waste your time killing a destitute beggar?” The Countess embracing the different dark path to the one she was heading for is nuanced, tragic and again, told so elegantly here.
- “Nobody forced me to do anything.” Another perfect, tiny line that hits harder than us seeing Wren at the crime scenes.
- “You sound like my daughter, Scarlett. She’s around your age but she’s the oldest little girl I know.” Such a beautiful line that captures Scarlett perfectly. I hope we see her again before the end of the season.
- “But it’s him, not you. And it’s me, not her.” A lovely, ambiguous moment from John. Is he Wren’s dad? Probably not. Is he the killer? No clue. But this moment of clarity from Detective 1000 Yard Stare is both welcome and oddly touching.
- “Might I suggest when you murder him you do it off the property? It’d be damned awkward to keep running into him for all eternity.” “What makes you think I mean to do him harm?” “I’m dead dear, not stupid.” Never change, terrifying Ghost Quicksilver.
- Jessica Belkin does great, haunting work here as Wren. She’s also set to appear in the Scream Queens finale – proving that Ryan Murphy knows talent when he sees it – and, intriguingly, is listed as appearing in at least one more episode of American Horror Story…
- Rudolph Valentino, whose full name was the magnificent Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla was a star of the silent movie era. Best known for The Sheik, The Four Horseman Of The Apocalypse and his final movie, Son Of The Sheik, Valentino was an immensely popular figure. And yes, various Ladies In Black still visit the grave almost daily. One claimed to be the daughter of his unrequited love; another, more recent one is simply a fan. Regardless, Valentino still exerts a huge pull, even in death.
- FW Murnau was one of the pioneers of modern cinema. His Nosferatu remains one of the definitive versions of Dracula and vastly influenced every single vampire movie and story that’s followed it. The 2000 movie Shadow Of The Vampire takes a similar road to this episode, with Murnau (John Malkovich) enlisting an actual vampire (a scene-stealingly horrific Willem Dafoe) to play Nosferatu. It’s a slow burn, wildly eccentric movie but it’s worth tracking down.
- This week’s music choices are the best in the show’s considerable run of good calls. The ending is set to “Circles” by The Soft Moon but it’s the use of “Lullaby” by The Cure as the music for the Countess’ wedding that’s perfect. By the way, when you go look that up on YouTube? Be warned. The video is essentially four minutes of an arachnapobe’s worst nightmare. Have “Love Cats” on standby for straight after. It’ll help.
Review by Alasdair Stuart