American Horror Story’s Halloween episodes tend to be events that blend past and present in effective ways that are often shocking, revolting, spooky and — occasionally — surprisingly sorrowful. The last couple of seasons have fallen into an unfortunate rhythm: energetic, totally wild premieres followed by mediocre, tedious episodes that feel more trash than trashy treasure. But the Halloween episodes have remained a high point, and Hotel’s own holiday special offers a fun feast with its smorgasbord of serial killers.

I said this before, but after four seasons with American Horror Story, the greatest fear it’s instilled is the concern that perhaps our familiarity with Ryan Murphy’s antics has produced a sort of general apathy — there’s so much going on in each episode, but nothing feels particularly shocking or exciting anymore, much less genuinely spooky.

“Devil’s Night” is the kind of episode that makes you forget all of that. The kind of episode that makes you (OK, me) stop searching for depth that doesn’t exist and merely embrace the horror-flavored absurdity. And that’s what AHS is: it’s not actually horror; it’s Murphy taking horror’s design elements and repurposing them the way someone picks over antiques or vintage fashion and deconstructs it to make something that references an original while functioning as an independent object. Essentially, Murphy is a pop culture magpie.

Tonight’s episode sees our good friend Mr. March throwing his annual Devil’s Night dinner party, inviting only the most elite serial killers to the table: Richard Ramirez (aka the Night Stalker), Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Aileen Wuornos and the Zodiac Killer join him at the table, along with good ol’ Detective Downer. Wes Bentley has truly committed himself to the role of Keanu Reeves Sleepwalking Through Generic Detective Role. And when the most boring character this season is played by Wes Bentley, of all people, that’s saying something.

In fact, every moment not spent with either Denis O’Hare’s effortlessly campy — but never cheap — Liz Taylor, or with Mr. March’s delightfully deranged dinner party, is pretty much Snoozeville. Alex’s reunion with her mini-vampire son and subsequent confrontation with the Countess is lacking, for lack of a better word, some real teeth. The biggest issue this season is with the divide between camp and playing it straight, which is why every time someone like O’Hare or Evan Peters’ Mr. March is on screen the entire series jolts alive as if its Frankenstein-esque patchwork corpse of horror references has been suddenly given a blast of creative lightning.

Peters isn’t the only MVP this week — that honor also goes to Lily Rabe, whose fierce portrayal of Aileen Wuornos elegantly walks the line between camp and realism but never falls into the void of the unhinged. Rabe clearly did her homework, nailing everything from Wuornos’ exaggerated, tough-as-dirt tics to her wild, monstrous cackle. John Carroll Lynch (Freak Show’s Twisty) returns as another demented clown, this time playing Gacy with aw shucks reserve and a twisted twinkle in his eye. Lynch is incredibly skilled at playing these specific sorts of characters: guys with gentle surfaces obscuring a menace too horrific to imagine. Seth Gabel (Fringe) does a serviceable Jeffrey Dahmer, whose nebbish behavior is cringe-worthy enough, while Anthony Ruivivar’s Ramirez is snakelike-cool. And then there’s Zodiac Killer, whose mere presence in full executioner’s garb is hilarious enough.

But it’s Peters I keep going back to, and between his zealous performance and Murphy’s continued strength in flashback sequences, I can’t help but wish for a couple of things: for a season of AHS entirely devoted to an older period, and one that has more of a central focus. Asylum had both of those things, and it’s no wonder that it remains the best season to date. Imagine an entire season of AHS set in the late 1800s /  early 1900s, inspired more directly by H.H. Holmes. Imagine one set in the ‘80s, where Murphy seems to live this year (between Hotel and Scream Queens, I’m pretty sure he just discovered the era).

“Devil’s Night” pulls off the neat Halloween trick (or is it a treat?) of actually entertaining its audience, but it’s those same positive attributes that come back to haunt the series when the episode ends and I reflect on what it did right — and how those right things show just how much is wrong with the rest of it.

Additional Thoughts

  • Sometimes AHS’ bonkers mash-up blender yields delightful results, like Richard Ramirez dancing to Cowboy Junkies’ cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.”
  • “We are the Mount Rushmore of murderers” genuinely made me laugh.
  • Another connection: John Carroll Lynch starred in David Fincher’s Zodiac, and I was half-hoping he would play the Zodiac Killer here. But Gacy is a pretty neat idea, too.
  • Maybe now that Alex is a vampire she’ll get a Chloe Sevigny-appropriate makeover in both style and substance.
  • Another flashback that’s quite great: Mare Winningham’s maid reflects on the abduction and murder of her own son, based on the true story of the Wineville chicken coop murders — which also served as inspiration for The Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie in a very similar role.
  • No matter how much times change, a sheet ghost is still the cutest Halloween costume in the world.