“I don’t know if that’s Oedipal or just mercenary,” Ramona Royale tells Donovan when she realizes he made his mother immortal in search of vengeance. Ramona should trust her instincts: It’s both.
American Horror Story has always explored parental—especially maternal—roles, and AHS: Hotel is packed with them. But where AHS: Murder House centered around a mysterious pregnancy and growing children preparing for life (or afterlife), and AHS: Freak Show lingered on the often painful legacies actual or symbolic parents can leave to their children, this season is both a cautionary tale and a resentful reflection that youth is, after all, wasted on the young.
Iris laments the irony of being “damned to eternity in this body, with this life.” Her eternal life has been bestowed “right when it’s never been worse,” and she fears everlasting invisibility, servitude, and humiliation. Even as a creature of the night, she’s intimidated by the pretentious hipster wanna-bes who strut into The Hotel Cortez demanding a reduced rate “for influencers,” an artisanal cheese plate, and grilled romaine. “Those fancy kids’ll know we’re messing with ’em,” she tells the newly chummy Liz Taylor, dripping with anxiety and a touch of wonder. “They eat their salad cooked.”
“Those fancy kids,” with their Instagram and their restaurant renaissance and their high thread-count expectations, are a shamelessly reductive stereotype ripe for ridicule. They’re marked for death as soon as they enter, and it’s panderingly justified by their obnoxious insults (“Are you Alzheimer’s?”) and rapidly escalating threats. Iris’ triumph as she slaughters them is a naked reclaiming of the spotlight from these self-aggrandizing, self-important twerps. “You think the world didn’t exist before you were born?” she cries as she slashes their throats, howling, “I matter!” just before slaking her thirst with their blood.
After Lacey Rose’s recent profile of Ryan Murphy, Todd VanDerWerff (formerly of The A.V. Club, and author of those season one reviews linked above) observed that Murphy’s perspective has shifted “from identifying with the kids to identifying with the parents,” a change that transforms his shows from gleeful shockfests to didactic scoldings. That’s never been more true than in “Room Service,” which is one long diatribe against these kids today, even as the adults around them set them up for disastrous failure.
“It’s ironic,” Iris tells Liz Taylor as they dump the young corpses and toast with the full-bodied Grenache the kids never got to try, “but I never knew how to live until I died.” Liz Taylor understands—in part because she only learned how to live her true life by shucking off the old one, in part because “you see everything when the world doesn’t see you.” These two women are invisible in two wildly different ways: People don’t notice Iris until they need something from her, but they don’t want to see Liz Taylor in all her ostentatious swagger.
The flashback to 1984 is a buoyant diversion from the philippic. Like the Depeche Mode song that introduces it, it’s bouncy and fun, if a little bit facile. For once, AHS: Hotel manages to make its endless exposition and backstory feel fresh, thanks to Denis O’Hare’s animated narration as The Countess coaxes meek Nick Breyer into his rebirth as the magnificent Liz Taylor. O’Hare shows Liz blossoming from tightly contained terror to excitement to sashaying confidence—and finally to passion as she rages at her traveling companions, commanding them to “Look at me, piece of shit bastards! See me and go to hell!” It’s a playful riff on the episode’s (and the season’s) theme of transformation, it’s a suitable origin story for Liz Taylor, and it’s a refreshing break from the predictable, even inevitable plot unwinding in the present-day Cortez.
It’s not a great sign when the most engaging part of an episode is an aside, or when returning to the basics of the plot feels tedious. John Lowe is still pursuing the mysteries of The Cortez, having apparently forgotten momentarily that his missing son resides there, pale and quiet and ageless. Disheveled and brooding, he brushes off the chief’s (Prison Break’s Robert Knepper) scoffing at his reports of a gathering of dead serial killers—what Lowe now suggests is “some kind of copycat blood cult”—and demands they get warrants to search the Cortez, even if that means ripping it to its studs, for the Ten Commandments Killer. He’s there, John’s sure; he’ll stake his reputation on it.
“Your reputation’s shit,” the boss breaks it to him. “Has been for a while.” AHS’s reputation isn’t great, either, but somehow I suspect both John Lowe and the show are going to keep trundling along for too long.
As Iris sheds her life of invisible servitude, Dr. Alex Lowe takes up the mantle. She agrees to work for The Countess as the new governess—“care for the children, bathe them, keep them out of harm’s way”—never noticing that, despite the promise of eternity with her son, she’s being replaced as his mother and she’s vulnerable to dismissal at The Countess’ whim. (Notice that Alex and Holden reunite right under The Countess’ neon sign reading “Why are we not having sex right now?” shortly before they climb into their eternal bower together, so… yick.)
Dr. Lowe also infects her unvaccinated patient with her own blood to save him from deadly complications of the measles. Max, untutored but intuitively grasping his new nature better than Alex (who at least knew what choice she was making suckling The Countess’ blood), immediately kills his parents and teachers and shares the virus with his friends. Presumably Alex didn’t intend to unleash a plague of child bloodsuckers on L.A., but what did she intend, beyond the hasty desire to prolong his life? For all the shaming of the young in “Room Service,” it’s the adults who should know better.
- Even Ramona’s movie posters center on women’s roles within a family—Bride Of Blackenstein, Slaughter Sister—and Donovan appeals to her in the language of a dysfunctional family. Their infernal mother made them both eternal blood-drinkers, never asking whether they wanted to be created, then pushed them out of the nest. In case the metaphor isn’t clear, Ramona draws a direct line from The Countess’ transformation of Donovan to Donovan’s transformation of Iris: “Did you give her a choice?”
“I’m drinking blood?” “With triple sec.” Liz Taylor and Iris’ blossoming friendship is my new favorite thing on AHS: Hotel.
- Lady Gaga’s game grin as she urges Liz Taylor to take her new look out for a stroll is the first hint that there’s anything but cold thrall to The Countess’ allure. Moments like these show them as characters, not archetypes or plot devices, adding a welcome glimmer of depth to a show that’s largely slick and vacant.