American Horror Story: Hotel has as many dead ends and labyrinthian corridors as The Hotel Cortez, and it’s starting to look just as shabby. Sally’s background as a dealer and a grunge-band hanger-on is irrelevant to the action of “Battle Royale,” just an excuse to pad out the episode a few torturous minutes and cram in some seamy (ha!) images before the season wraps up.
Given room to expand and a reason to exist, there could be emotional resonance in a desire for connection so overwhelming that she’d literally stitch herself to the people she fears will abandon her. (She’s right: Sally describes her musician friends as being different from the false friends always hitting her up for her stash, but when they ask “Are you holding?,” Sally’s face freezes mid-smile.) But “Battle Royale” offers neither that room nor that reason. Instead it’s just another lurid excursion from the center story.
Sally’s backstory does more than eat up precious minutes and broadcast grotesqueries. It’s unforgivably repetitive. AHS rarely hints at subtext if it can instead state an idea outright, but to have Sally voice variations on “I won’t be left” and “Promise me you won’t leave me” five times in a few minutes is overkill, even for a show specializing in overkill, literal and figurative.
Speaking of overkill: Poor Queenie. There’s some satisfaction in seeing Angela Bassett and Gabourey Sidibe face off for a bout—and that was a vicious fight scene—but it’s a shame to bring in a Coven character only to kill her off with such brutal dispatch. There’s extra ignominy in the punchline that’s made of the killing blow. Having James Patrick March, not Ramona, kill Queenie dismisses the power of both these formidable women. Then March infantilizes Ramona as surely as the Countess babies her own brood, urging her to “Drink up, darling” like a doting nursemaid.
Just like Queenie, the Countess’ baby-vamps (I know, I know, they aren’t vampires, we covered this) were brought into the show not because they have any life or meaning in themselves; they were walking, talking emergency rations for the Countess to chug down after she’s near-fatally injured by Liz Taylor and Iris’ assault. Delving into the devastating necessity of sustaining herself on the blood of her chosen children could give this episode some much-needed depth, but instead, the situation is constructed to remove all choice and wipe away all complex morality. The Countess pleads with Sally not to feed her the blood of her “babies,” but Sally insists: If the Countess dies, the kids will be killed as soon as Liz and Iris get to them, so might as well suck ’em dry, she rationalizes. To remove any lingering compunctions, the children themselves speak for the first time in the series, reassuring The Countess, “It’s okay, Mommy, let us help you.” This season has paid a lot of lip service to the notion that the Countess is a loving, even zealous maternal figure, but few of her actions back it up.
When Liz Taylor and Iris retrieve Ramona from the closed-off wing of the hotel (hey, that impenetrable dungeon seems plenty penetrable after all, with people coming and going willy-nilly), she rattles off a list of mistreatments—“I have been scratched at, conked out, and locked up”—that too closely parallels the way this season has squandered Angela Bassett. She’s been sidelined, forgotten, and treated as an afterthought for too many episodes, then brought back with doubled-down backstory to pad out her character.
Now she comes roaring back, and her performance is less bravura than blaxsploitation. All of Ramona Royale’s imperious brusqueness becomes broad, brash, stereotypical. She stands hipshot and teeth bared, belting out commands and complaints in equal measure, droppin’ her gs every which-a-way, as if in her fury and hunger, Ramona Royale has reverted from a steely immortal to the streetwise persona she adopted in her films.
But after she feasts on the rarefied blood of a witch, Ramona emerges sleek and sophisticated once again, dressed improbably elegantly for battle, but ready to confront the Countess. (I’m downright annoyed I wasn’t able to snatch a full-length screenshot of Bassett in Liz Taylor’s gown, but there just wasn’t a clear frame to grab on the fly.) As the two women eye each other and gear up for the great clash they’ve purportedly been building to all season, they spout off like two Bond villains, rattling off all their motivations and misgivings.
“I liked staying here because it made me feel safe,” the Countess reflects aloud, “but I see now that it was just because I was so comfortable living in heartbreak,” adding unnecessarily, “I don’t want to be here anymore.” Ramona responds, “It’s harder to kill you when I’m sitting in the same room as you. Easier to carve your heart out of your chest and eat it when you just a monster in my mind.” It’s another chapter of subtext turned to text, then repeated and repeated, right down to the Countess’ last request: “I want to go, just me and my baby boy. Or kill me—but screw me first!”
This episode slops and slides all over the place, but it’s anchored by two quietly emotional performances. As Donovan shields the Countess from the barrage of bullets with his own body, Iris is appalled to realize she’s killed her son—the son she suffered so to save years ago. With Liz Taylor’s help, she drags him from the hotel so he can die free from its walls, and free from an eternity sparring with the Countess’ other lovers. It’s a touching, terrible irony that dropping Donovan’s body in the street is not the callousness it looks like, but a final act of parental love.
Miss Evers, whose earnest enthusiasm for her calling has provided so many laughs (and not infrequently made her the butt of her companions’ mockery), ends this episode with surprising dignity. She confesses her long-harbored love for James March, and that she left the damning clue for the police so they could die together. In this case, the repetition and baldness characteristic of AHS works, as Miss Evers struggles to make the man she’s served for a century understand the depth of her commitment. “Can you see me,” she asks, a catch in her voice, “now that I have laid myself bare?”
March banishes Miss Evers from his presence. She’s doomed to roam the hotel, but never to see the man to whom she devoted her life—and her afterlife. But she takes her sentence with more than calm; she’s almost regal as she leaves him. “I feel strangely free,” she says, as much to herself as to him.
Miss Evers’ parting line—“There are more stains in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy”—could be a distillation both of the show’s appeal and of its most repugnant diversions. At its best, American Horror Story is a zany, whip-fast pastiche of horror tropes and howlingly funny one-liners. But when the central structure falls apart, as it does in “Battle Royale,” the show feels more like a collection of stains, and only a Miss Evers could wholeheartedly delight in the various smears and blots it shows off.
- Scarlett knows more than the fruit is rotten. She isn’t afraid to get down to brass tacks: “You mean blood?” “How are you going to explain this to Grandma?” “How are you going to eat?” “Are you going to eat me, too?”
- “I’m nobody’s protein shake, bitch!”
- Liz Taylor sashaying out of the elevator with the baseball bat clasped behind her back is a perfect moment. I’ll be on the lookout for the gifs that several of you have no doubt already made.
- (Donovan caught in a barrage of bullets looks remarkably like he did dancing around the same suite to “Hotline Bling”.)
- I can’t decide whether it’s extraordinary discretion or a goddamned cheat on the part of AHS: Hotel to dwell on so many lascivious scenes all season, then cut away just as Lady Gaga begs Angela Bassett to bed her.
- The season finale approaches, and like Miss Evers banished from James Patrick March’s service, I begin to feel strangely free.