Sympathy is rarely doled out in the world of American Horror Story, especially since almost everyone is a monster, or on their way to the grave sooner of later. Halfway through this season, Hotel has only found pity for two of its most outwardly harsh characters— Liz Taylor and Iris—both of whom have received some comfort amongst The Countess, even if she does look down on them, and/or murder the ones they love. Hotel wants us to believe that Lady Gaga’s Countess is the core of this show, the connective tissue that not only keeps the Hotel Cortez standing, but also helps us forget that we aren’t going to see Jessica Lange anytime soon. Simply put, much of Hotel lives or dies by Lady Gaga’s story.
Occasionally, Hotel gives us hints at who Gaga’s Countess truly is and those tiny flickers have made her a somewhat worthwhile character. We know that she’s a creature willing to transform herself and others, as she’s had to do for almost a century, but she also loves the opportunity to help someone else find their better self. When she helps Taylor during her transformation, there’s a glimmer in her eyes, seeing the true person inside rather than the person Taylor wears externally. But this chameleon-like ability to transform has also seeped into her love life, as we found out last week that it isn’t the various relationships she wants, but the building up of the expectations, before tearing down the person in love with her. It’s a power play that she’s engaged in for decades, but we’ve never known exactly why she feeds off love, just as much as she does blood.
“Flicker” is one of the few episodes of American Horror Story with a surprising amount of focus. We learn the history of The Countess—how she became a vampire, married James Patrick March and actually became The Countess of the Hotel Cortez in one of Hotel’s most fascinating episodes so far.
The extended flashback, which also includes several flashbacks within flashbacks, gives us the history of The Countess—then Elizabeth—and her vampiric ways. Playing a harem concubine on a film set in 1925, she meets Rudolph Valentino (Finn Wittrock returning once again), who invites her over for dinner, where he and his wife Natacha Rambova (Alexandra Daddario) seduce her, as they begin a three-way romance.
Elizabeth falls hard for the husband and wife, and is devastated when she later finds out, at a party at the Hotel Cortez, that Valentino has died. As she gets ready to jump out of a window, she is stopped by James Patrick March, who claims he will never let Elizabeth go. After visiting Rudolph’s grave for months, Elizabeth is visited by both Rudolph and Natacha, who claim that they have faked Rudolph’s death. The three decide to get it on right then and there in the mausoleum, turning Elizabeth into a vampire as well, while her new husband March watches without her being aware. Elizabeth thinks she’s been stood up by Rudolph and Natacha when they plan to run off together, but March has taken the couple and trapped them behind steel walls at the Hotel Cortez, starving for blood and eating rats for sustenance over the decades.
These flashbacks give us so much information about Elizabeth/The Countess without ever beating us over the head with the themes—a problem American Horror Story usually suffers from. While never directly stated, it can be assumed that Elizabeth likes to take love away from others as a way to make them feel how she felt at the worst point of her life. It’s not just a power play, it’s a desire to share her pain.
What’s so excellent about Elizabeth’s transformation is that it doesn’t feel like she’s becoming a completely different person; she’s actually just becoming the person she was always meant to be. She’s always been headstrong—standing up for her beliefs when first meeting Valentino, or when she finds out that March has been killing hobos for fun, and she suggests he go for higher profile targets that they can steal from (and whom she can watch get murdered). It’s even less surprising that during sex, Elizabeth likes to choke March—a way to take control of the situation in a life-or-death way. She becomes more confident and more sure of what she wants, as pain and love loss come along.
Stylistically, “Flicker” is also one of the biggest standout episodes this season, starting with the knocking down of the steel wall, releasing Valentino and Rambova upon the world, thirsty for decades worth of blood. But it’s during Valentino’s flashback (during a flashback) that is absolutely perfect. We find out that he was stalked by F.W. Murnau—the director of Nosferatu—the one who told Valentino of the secrets he found when researching for the classic horror film. He foresees the coming of talking pictures and offers to turn Valentino, as a way to keep alive and one of the gods of the silent film industry. American Horror Story has never had a problem with straight up stealing from classic films, but the way director Michael Goi handles the story of Murnau feels like a wonderful ode to German Expressionism, rather than a cheap and direct rip off.
But whenever “Flicker” diverts from this main story that it ends up feeling disappointing. John Lowe has allowed himself to fake a breakdown at the West Los Angeles Health Center in order to get closer to one of the main suspects in the Ten Commandments murders. The girl he finds has been a witness to all of the murders, and despite the obvious references to her being a vampire, John never seems to think anything is truly off with this character, until she jumps in front of a car once John breaks them both free.
At this point John isn’t just blissfully ignorant, he’s idiotic. He’s had so many signs that something crazy is happening at the Cortez and in Los Angeles right now, but he ignores them all, only for the facts that he can clearly see. This is obviously going to be his downfall—and frankly it’s surprising that it hasn’t been yet—but right now John is just so stupidly frustrating.
“Flicker” is evidence of how strong American Horror Story can be when it has focus and relies on character development. By giving us a deeper look at The Countess, there is, inherently, a much stronger desire to see what happens next.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.