Somehow, American Horror Story still finds ways to impress with sheer unsubtlety.
In the premiere, rather than letting viewers figure out on their own that Nosferatu was a major influence on Hotel, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk had two characters go fishing for victims as the film played in the background at an outdoor screening. In last night’s episode, the long-awaited origin story of The Countess, it’s revealed that Nosferatu isn’t just a source of visual or thematic inspiration for the show; its director, F.W. Murnau, is the actual origin of the vampire virus that drives the plot, at least in America.
The Countess has already mentioned in passing that she used to act, but once Will Drake’s construction workers accidentally release some literal ghosts from her past, we get a sepia-toned flashback to her days as an extra on a silent movie set—specifically, the set of Rudolph Valentino’s final film, The Son of the Sheik.(For a series that’s so casual with its glaring plot hole, Hotel is proving oddly fixated on true-to-life historical tie-ins.) Valentino takes an interest in the Countess, who will probably remain forever nameless, and we finally get an explanation for why she’d go for dumb, dead Tristan over a guy who looks like Matt Bomer: Tristan’s a dead ringer for Rudy, because they’re both played by Finn Wittrock. Guess Murphy finally ran out of handsome white dudes to throw in his ensemble cast!
The mild twist here is that Valentino, despite his public divorce, is secretly still devoted to Natacha Rambova (Alexandra “…the president has seen my boobs” Daddario). Neither she nor the Countess is particularly pressed about it, though, so everyone happily proceeds as a throuple—until Valentino mysteriously dies in 1926. Of course, he’s simply been infected by the blood virus, Murnau’s totally reasonable alternative to riding out the transition to the talkies, and he and Rambova come back for the Countess eventually.
There’s just one problem: the Countess’ rebound is one James Patrick March. He’s rich and she doesn’t mind either assisting in his murders or choking him during sex, so their loveless arrangement worked out pretty well before the world’s premiere sex symbol had to go and make the Countess immortal. In a fit of jealousy, March imprisoned both Valentino and Rambova behind one of his patented bricked-off hallways, where they’ve remained ever since. The Countess has somehow not picked up on this despite owning the hotel for almost a century.
Rats don’t make for great vampire food, so the couple go on a bit of a rampage once they’re out (RIP, real estate agent, and presumably that trio of Australian male strippers). In true American Horror Story fashion, though, they dip straight out of the hotel once they’ve done their job: filling us in on the backstory of a more important character. I’d be mad, but if this cast got any bigger they’d have to recall Emma Roberts from Scream Queens, where she’s clearly having a blast.
That’s pretty much it for the hotel proper, except for one semi-important reveal: the Countess and her ex-husband do have something of a relationship. The monthly dinner, in which she informs March of her plan to black-widow Will Drake, isn’t a huge deal, but it at least reveals something of the inner workings of the Cortez, and joins together two sides of it that previously seemed to be working independently.
This leaves John, who’s finally taken the hint and gotten himself not just out of the hotel, but into a mental hospital. His fixation on the Ten Commandments Killer, however, remains, so he figures out the exact hospital where they’re keeping a suspect. He breaks in to find “Red,” a virus-infected preteen who’s apparently been helping her dad with the murders, and breaks her out—only for her to throw herself in front of a truck.
The mental breakdown of a normal like John continues to be the least interesting part of this show, where anyone else without some kind of quirk or virus/cursed hotel keeping them alive is killed off within minutes. Red’s now redirected him straight back to the Cortez, but it’s unclear what he’ll find there: everyone there is a killer of some form or another, so why should we care about this one, or John’s attempts to catch him? The Countess, on the other hand, is a genuine object of curiosity, and the story of how she came to be didn’t disappoint.