American Horror Backstory: The Use of Flashbacks in "AHS: Hotel"
Since it first hit airwaves back in 2011, American Horror Story has always been a complicated TV show. Generally speaking, in terms of quality, it’s been hit and miss. Character motivations, narrative continuity, and a true sense of closure at season’s end have consistently taken a backseat to maintaining a pastiche of horror tropes, horror movie homage, and comedy. Story arcs for individual episodes generally take precedent over a larger, season-spanning narrative, making the show feel at times slapdash and aimless.
For the most part, these ostensibly negative aspects of the series haven’t worked completely to AHS’s detriment, mostly because creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk were never so much interested in telling cohesive, taut narratives, but rather in creating an omnibus series as a long-running love letter to the horror genre. In a joint interview with NewNowNext writer Brian Juergens, the writers and producers talked about their motivations behind the show:
Ryan Murphy: ‘I just always like to do the opposite of what I've done before. I went from Nip/Tuck to Glee, so it made sense that I wanted to do something challenging and dark. And I always had loved, as Brad had, the horror genre…’
Brad Falchuk: ‘In the case of the horror genre, your main goal is to scare people. You want people to be a little bit off balance afterwards…And you want to deliver iconic images that stay with people. So you want to be able to deliver that hockey mask or that pediatrician or that…obstetrician or whatever it is that makes people remember…’
As you can see, Murphy and Falchuk are more concerned with individual moments of horror, and in this way, they and the other writers on the show always deliver, which makes American Horror Story thoroughly entertaining, even when other story or character elements are inconsistent.
However, one narrative tool the writers seem to be using more and more frequently is backstory or exposition. This has especially been the case with the latest installment, Hotel, which is currently airing. As of this writing, every episode aired (there have been seven so far), features a flashback revealing the backstory of just about every character featured in the season. In fact, the most recent episode, “Flicker”—written by Crystal Liu (with contributions, no doubt, from Murphy, Falchuk and the entire writing room) and directed by Michael Goi—primarily takes place in 1926 and focuses on the Countess’s (Lady Gaga) vampiric origins. We were given about as much character exposition in the previous season, Freak Show, but the difference here is that while with season four, the backstory more or less only served to further enhance the characters, while the overarching plot remained mostly underdeveloped; season five sees the writers expanding upon their characters—making them more complicated and thus more fascinating–while also deepening the mythos and mystery surrounding the titular establishment, which functions as the linchpin for the season’s overarching narrative. This has resulted in one of the tightest American Horror Story sagas aired so far.
But, we’re only about halfway through season five at this point, and there’s still a possibility Murphy, Falchuk and company could fall down the same backstory rabbit hole that has mired the series before. In fact, there have already been a couple of missteps that have worked against both the story and characters' development. Let’s zero in on these moments and determine why this is the case.
The Child Killer
As mentioned above, the central action of AHS: Hotel—as the title suggests—revolves around an aging Art Deco hotel, the Cortez, modeled after the real-life Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Elements from the hotel’s actual history are woven into the narrative, including an appearance by Richard Ramirez’s ghost (the serial killer was a resident at the Cecil while he was active) and a watery reference to Elisa Lam, whose decomposing body inside the Cecil’s water tanks made the hotel’s water supply taste odd. At the time Lam was staying there, the hotel had become a hostel and single room occupancy residence, where patrons—transients and junkies, mostly—stayed at weekly rates.
The producers and writers of AHS have borrowed extensively from the Cecil’s clientele, most notably with the character Sally (Sarah Paulson) a heroin addict who’s been haunting the Cortez since 1994. As the show has always been an ensemble, there are numerous other characters, both primary and secondary, roaming the orange and red-carpeted halls. One of the main characters is Detective John Lowe, who moves into the hotel as part of his investigation of the Ten Commandments Killer (an obvious nod to Se7en), an as-yet unmasked serial killer who may or may not be a resident at the Cortez. This TCK might also be copycatting the crimes of James Patrick March (Evan Peters), who, much like real-life sadist H.H. Holmes, built the Hotel Cortez as an elaborate torture playground to satiate his barbarous desires. Now one of the oldest ghosts haunting the establishment, he is still assisted in the afterlife by his partner-in-crime, Miss Evers (Mare Winningham), a housekeeper with a giddy love for stain-removal, particularly if said stain is blood.
It is this character that provides, in my view, the first backstory misstep of the season. The moment occurs in episode 4, “Devil’s Night,” written by Jennifer Salt and directed by Loni Peristere. We get a flashback to 1925, presumably before Evers paired up with March. We learn that for Halloween she dressed her son as a ghost by draping him in a white sheet equipped with eyeholes. As she busies herself on the street keeping up with the Joneses, a man snatches Evers's boy away. We eventually learn this man is a fictionalized version of Gordon Steward Northcott, infamous for sexually abusing and murdering several young boys at his Wineville chicken farm. The boy, sadly, falls victim to the Chicken Coop murderer before he is caught.
As Entertainment Weekly writer Darren Franich notes, Miss Evers's flashback adds to the overarching theme of kidnapping, seen first with John, whose son Holden was taken by the Countess and turned into the creepiest child in horror since Gage Creed. It also works to humanize this character, who we previously only knew as March's maniacal accessory, who helped dispose of bodies with impunity, not to mention keen joy. And, as Alex Stedman writes in Variety:
[Evers's] story answers a lot of questions about the character, namely why she's so obsessed with keeping the hotel's sheets white. The image of her son, last seen draped in a sheet, is heartbreaking. Though the real question is, if her son was murdered by serial killers, why is she so loyal to March?
For me, this bit of backstory is unnecessary, as it doesn't enhance or expand the character in any significant form. In the same way that her boss kills indiscriminately and for pure pleasure, Miss Evers dutifully assisted in the clean up with gleeful smiles and quips ("What a glorious stain!"). While March has some good one liners here and there, his acts are grotesque; Miss Evers provides comic relief to his brutality. As such, revealing her past in a way that somewhat explains how she came to be the way she is, and in such a heart-wrenching fashion, more or less destroys our ability to enjoy this character on a comedic level. I much preferred the black humor of a morally bankrupt housekeeper who prides her stain-removing abilities over the lives of the hobos and transients March slaughters. Knowing what makes Miss Evers tick robs all the fun out of her character.
Another "origin story" in the very next episode, "Room Service," written by Ned Martel and directed by Michael Goi, manages to spoil a character, but not quite in the same way. As Jessica Derschowitz writes in her Entertainment Weekly recap:
...we get the backstory of how a 'married man from Topeka' came to be our Liz Taylor of the Hotel Cortez. In 1984, Liz Taylor (known then as Nick") was a medical rep traveling for business who slipped on a slip, fur coat, and heels after closing the hotel room door—and is taken by surprise when the Countess appears in the room. 'You dress like a man, walk like a man, but you smell like a woman...not your skin, in your blood,' she says. 'Let me help you...become who you were born to be: a goddess'...
So that's how Liz Taylor became Liz Taylor (and the crude, homophobic business-trip buddies were easily dispatched with a flick of the Countess' glove). The Countess hired her—but didn't turn her [into a vampire]—and she's been at the Cortez ever since.
Overall, I'm fine with this backstory. Unlike Miss Evers, knowing her background does indeed enhance Liz as a character. But spending so much time on Liz's past works against her character development in the present. In the subsequent episode, "Room 33," written by John J. Gray and directed by Peristere, we learn that Liz is engaged in an affair with the Countess's current lover Tristan (Finn Wittrock); more than this, the pair are in love, Tristan having felt the Countess's boredom and scorn already, and Liz enamored with this young man who loves her unconditionally.
It's one of those "wait, what?" moments TV shows spring on us from time to time, not because it's implausible, but because it's a giant plot leap in a very short amount of time. Worst yet, as soon as the affair is revealed, the conflict is "resolved" when the Countess, in a fit of jealousy, slashes Tristan's throat and "gives" him to Liz. So long plot complication, we hardly knew you. O'Hare is a great actor, so he pulls off the horror, heartbreak and devastation of this moment quite well, but as an audience we would certainly have felt the emotional weight of this moment more thoroughly, more convincingly had, say, the producers and writers elected to show the relationship between Liz and Tristan develop in previous episodes before taking us to the climactic moment where Liz decides she must do right by her mentor and tell her about the affair. Perhaps Liz's backstory—which isn't problematic in and of itself—could have been tabled in favor of setting up these narrative pins before knocking them down.
As it stands, both examples of backstory, while missteps, have not hindered the quality of Hotel in the slightest. And while their executions left much to be desired, these stories do seem to be set-ups to broader narrative arcs—namely, that Miss Evers may ultimately assist John Lowe in his investigation, as she and the detective have kidnapped sons in common, and Liz may join the faction currently set on revenge against the Countess. We'll have to wait and see what's around the bend, but I feel confident in theorizing that the payoff will be worth it.
Have you been keeping up with the current season of American Horror Story? What are your thoughts on the use of backstory in Hotel? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.
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