With Jessica Lange having left the repertory cast of American Horror Story, the show has taken a more ensemble-driven approach this season than ever before, with varying degrees of success. Not that the cast itself have suffered—the show has never lacked for strong actors, and judging by the loyalty Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have inspired in the many performers who’ve appeared in multiple seasons, I imagine it must be a blast to work on. But without Lange, American Horror Story: Hotel has struggled to stick with an emotional centre for its many plotlines to orbit around. The two best episodes so far, “Mommy” and “Room Service,” both introduced and suggested promising through lines for the season, only to mostly ignore them by the following week. While “Room 33” is an entertaining episode on its own, the season desperately needs to find its focus.
The best part of “Room Service” and “Room 33” is seeing Denis O’Hare get a chance to really break out in the cast. O’Hare has always been a talented actor, but in more emotionally restrained roles—he’s the kind of actor who can show up in one scene as a Christian conservative activist in Milk and we immediately buy it. Liz Taylor is a role that allows O’Hare to go bigger, but instead of playing it for camp, he’s proven disarmingly sincere and affecting. When Liz and Tristan (Finn Wittrock) confess that they’re falling in love with each other, and Liz she realised to deny any part of oneself is to deny oneself love, it’s genuinely moving—not to mention a surprisingly thoughtful depiction of a transgender character from a show that had the potential to make Dressed to Kill look like a candidate for the GLAAD Awards.
But while the scene works because of the actors and episode writer John J. Gray, it’s also a jarring way to return from the first commercial break, as we’re thrown into an already-in-progress affair between two characters who’ve only even been in a handful scenes together thus far. I can roll with the show’s sudden narrative left turns, but the complete lack of foreshadowing (please correct me if I’m wrong in our comments section) makes it feel, whether this is true or not, that the writers’ room decided Tristan and Liz had to fall in love this week to move the plot on. Near the episode’s end, Liz comes clean to the Countess (Lady Gaga) and pleads with her to let him have Tristan; she grants his request, right after slicing Tristan’s throat. It’s a sad moment thanks to all three actors, especially O’Hare, but it was hard to connect with what should have been a tragic moment when I was busy trying to remember if Liz and Tristan had ever actually exchanged dialogue before.
The Countess has been another potential centre for the show since the beginning, and, to her credit, Lady Gaga has proven to be a credible enough screen presence for the role to register as more than stunt casting. While she sometimes struggles with her mannered dialogue, she’s no Madonna, and the ways the character blurs the line with her pop star persona are fascinating. “Room 33” begins with the Countess paying a visit to season one’s Dr. Charles Montgomery (Matt Ross), whose attempt to perform an abortion on the very pregnant Elizabeth ends with a still-alive, murderous infant who is still an infant 90-years later. It’s an enjoyably ghoulish scene—I love the murder baby’s POV shots, and it’s about time that American Horror Story added It’s Alive to its list of influences. But as it’s such a big piece to add to the show at this point, it’s hard to know how to feel about the closing scene where Alex (Chloë Sevigny) returns the injured child to the Countess. Both actresses try their best to make it work, but I need at least a little more context to care.
Alex, meanwhile, continues giving off uncomfortably Oedipal vibes in young Holden’s direction, and Holden’s dad John (Wes Bentley) spends the episode falling all the way off the wagon, scaring his poor daughter back to her grandma’s house, and having a threeway with the ghosts of the young female tourists from the start of the season. He also barges into a the latest of the Ten Commandments killer’s gory crime scenes before being kicked out. Just so we’re all clear—John is definitely the killer he’s chasing, right? As for the ghostly tourists, they’re told by Donovan (Matt Bomer) that they’re doomed to stay stuck in an endless cycle until they find their purpose in the hotel. That almost seems like a promising central idea for the show, until it becomes clear that finding the purpose basically means doing a lot of freaky stuff to the living, which we kind of already knew. There’s no Sally this week, and James March (Evan Peters) only appears long enough to say something like “Good show, old man! Now you’re getting into the spirt—the murder spirit, see?” No word on last week’s classroom of mass-murdering non-vampire kids either. I assume they’re fine.
I still enjoyed this week for the performances and individual highlights, even as my hope that it’ll cohere into a satisfying whole is dimming. It helped that this is perhaps the most hyper-sexual episode ever—there are steamy couplings, threeways, bloody threeways, references to coming (and fluffing), and as much nudity as FX would ever imaginably allow, all scored to Depeche Mode and Nick Cave. I’m a pretty puerile person, and I appreciated the episode’s rampant horniness, which episode director Lori Peristere shoots, in the best possible way, like a particularly classy porno. Actually, it’d be pretty great if Ryan Murphy made porn—he wouldn’t even have to worry about plot!