American Horror Story: Hotel S05E05 “Room Service” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on FOX, Tuesdays, 10pm
Writer: Ned Martel
Director: Michael Goi
Essential Plot Points:
- Alex’s measles patient, Max, is taking a turn for the worse. As is Alex, desperate for blood and reduced to cramming blood bags into her face when no one’s around. Strung out and not thinking straight, she injects some of her own blood into Max’s IV.
- Donovan brings his mother to Ramona’s pad, informing her that she’s the perfect “inside man” and no one gets closer to the Countess. Ramona agrees to help.
- Donovan drops his mother back at the Cortez. Iris is in very, very bad shape and Liz attempts to help. Iris lies to Liz about what’s happened to her, and the world’s most relaxed bartender sees straight through it, feeding her blood from the Countess’s reserves. Iris is disgusted, but then asks for more.
- Meanwhile at Max’s home, Alex’s patient, the newly vampirised child, has murdered his parents. He then goes to school and turns his entire class who rampage across the school. When the police arrive, the vampire kids are the last people left standing and all of them describe the person responsible for the attack; a single, masked man. With no idea of the truth, the Police let them go.
- At the LAPD, to the surprise of no one but Detective John Lowe himself, John is fired.
- At the front desk, Iris is accosted by two astoundingly foul hipsters who check in and proceed to make her life hell. The previously unflappable manager is reduced to tears and Liz helps her out. As they talk, Liz reveals how she came to the Cortez.
- In the 1980s, Liz was a pharmaceutical rep in a loveless marriage. Trapped by society’s attitudes towards her transsexuality, Liz used long trips away to let herself be who she really was. On one of these trips, at the Cortez, the Countess visited her. With remarkable compassion, the Countess walked the traumatised Liz through accepting who she really was and, as a start, asked her to fetch ice from the far end of the corridor.
- On the way back, Liz was spotted and assaulted by her two colleagues. The two men panicked, one demanding to know if Liz had AIDS and refusing to listen to her when she said she wasn’t gay. The other threatened to ruin her life at the office. Both were butchered by the Countess. She hired Liz as a bartender, allowed her to remain human and 20 years later, Liz is still in the same job.
- Newly inspired by her colleague’s honesty, Iris takes the hipsters their ridiculously complex room service. And murders them. Liz helps her dispose of the bodies.
- John wakes up in bed with Sally and has no memory of getting there. She claims he knows what he did and will do it again. Which sounds very murderer-esque doesn’t it?
- Alex arrives at the hotel and takes up her position as governess to the children. She sleeps in the same coffin as Holden, her wish fulfilled at last.
This is not the episode you might be expecting to watch. And, honestly, it’s so much better for that.
There are parts of this episode that behave. The bookends with Alex are nicely creepy and also subtly undercut the doctor’s previously established compassion and intelligence. This is a woman who not three episodes ago was dressing down an anti-vaxxer. Now she’s huffing blood like a desperate junkie. Clearly, the virus has major side effects, especially when you’re not prepared for it. And, based on this episode, Alex really wasn’t prepared for it.
What’s really interesting about her plot here is how little of it there is. She’s the instigator for another, major incident but by and large this episode sees her done. She’s back with Holden, will be with him forever and that’s all she ever wanted.
And that’s the point.
Whether it’s the Countess herself or the virus, Alex has become the purest, simplest version of herself. She doesn’t care about her work or the rest of her family, she just cares about spending eternity with her son. That level of obsession is horrifying all by itself but, as this episode shows, it also has serious repercussions for everyone else.
Because Alex may have ended the world.
At the very least she’s murdered a lot of people thanks to her desperation play with Max. That whole plot has been criticised elsewhere for being dumb but for us it plays as one of the most realistic beats in the show. Humans are irrational and odd and make stupid mistakes with no idea of the consequences. Here, Alex did a bad thing for a good reason and it’s backfired spectacularly. Worse still, what she’s done because of the virus and the obsession it creates. It’s a perfect little circuit of horror that’s going to be making everyone’s lives very difficult very soon and is one of the most interesting beats in the show to date. The sequence itself is horrific and untidy and shot with real menace by Goi. Plus, it looks like the virus has combined with Max’s measles which is the exact sort of, ‘You got peanut butter in my deadly virus!’ ‘Yeah! Well you got chocolate in my vampirism bacteria!’ situation no one wants.
But the real meat of this episode is in the last place you’d expect; Liz Taylor’s backstory. The way it’s revealed is lovely, as Liz steps in to help a floundering and newly vampiric Iris deal with a pair of awful guests. It’s subtle, and naturalistic and the fact that it’s taken Iris becoming a vampire to notice a colleague she’s worked with for decades is just one of several desperately sad moments.
What’s fascinating about this, aside from the amazing performances of O’Hare and Gaga in the flashback, is how nuanced and classy it is. Liz’s transsexuality is held up for ridicule by her colleagues but never by the show and, crucially, she’s never treated as a charity case either. Instead, the Countess, like a fairy godmother with one wing dipped in blood, simply helps her be who she’s always wanted to be. Gaga has never been better than she is here, the Countess becoming this huge wellspring of compassion and good humour that simply holds out a hand and waits for Liz to grab it. It’s touching and sweet and never once undercuts the agency of the character.
And then the Countess murders two men in cold blood.
That’s where the horror comes in and Martel’s script does an extraordinary job of balancing the two. The Countess’s compassion for Liz is genuine, her willingness to kill for her (and to feed her, we presume), just the same. The Countess is a monster. But even monsters have good sides.
This episode is a deeply odd combination of intimate and epic and all of it works. As we head into the back-run of episodes there’s a sense of the show escalating and accelerating towards its conclusion. The fact it can do this through what amounts to a bottle episode is a hell of an accomplishment and one that bodes well for the rest of the season.
- Denis O’Hare. Liz has been one of the best parts of every single episode she’s been in and her turn in the spotlight here is exceptional. O’Hare’s mannerisms, posture, everything changes as we see Liz gradually get comfortable with herself. That makes the confrontation with her colleagues all the more horrifying as you feel the brittle confidence she’s only just built up shatter. Phenomenal acting from one of this show’s consistently most underrated performers.
- Lady Gaga. Gaga has never been less than good this season but her scenes with O’Hare this episode are exceptional. There’s such compassion and kindness to her that, for the first time, you can really see why the Countess is such a successful “vampire”. She cares desperately for the people around her, and Liz, based on this episode, may be her favourite.
- It’s a wonderful scene because unlike very nearly everything else in this show it’s immensely kind and takes huge pains to treat Liz’s transsexuality with the respect it deserves. Given Gaga’s long-held championing of the marginalised it’s no surprise that she brings her A-plus game to this but it doesn’t belittle the work she does, or make it unwelcome. Just a great performance from an actress who’s been given an impossible job with this series and is pretty much nailing it every time she’s on screen.
- The change in focus. The large scale Liz detour, not to mention the Iris plot, both move the über-plot along without really trying too hard. AHS: Hotel was criticised a lot at the outset for seeming scattered but it’s starting to cohere now in a really interesting way.
- I did not see the vampire school stuff coming and wow there is no way that’s going to end well. At all. For anyone.
- Much like the “Is Glenn alive or dead?” question on The Walking Dead, the “Is John the serial killer he’s pursuing?” thing needs to be answered pretty quickly now. Even Sarah Paulson can only throw out so many, “Or DID you?!”-style lines before the bloom comes off the rose.
And the Random:
- “Ramona Royale, is she in?” “Sir it is 4 am.” “I HEAR SHE’S A NIGHT PERSON.” Nice to see Donovan, perpetual victim, get his head in the game.
- “I don’t know if that’s oedipal or just mercenary.” Angela Bassett isn’t in this episode a lot but she certainly gets the best line.
- “DRINK! It’ll make you feel AWESOME!” King of the tweener vampires, ladies and gentlemen.
- “You see everything when the world doesn’t see you.” Although this is also a belter from Liz.
- “I’m not homophobic.” “I’m not gay.” And with that single line, this show does more to bring attention to the LGBT spectrum than very nearly everything else on air right now.
- “There’s nothing like whispering a secret aloud. If only to yourself.” Another beautiful line from Liz.
- “You dress like a man, walk like a man. But you smell like a woman.” “It’s Paco Rabanne.” “It’s not your skin. Your blood.” There’s such kindness here and it’s cut with that last moment reveal of just what the Countess is. Stunningly good writing.
- “Oh honey. Goddesses don’t speak in whispers, they scream.” There is a lot of great dialogue this episode. All of it in the Liz/Countess scenes.
- Darren Criss! Glee’s Blaine Anderson is tremendous fun in a brief turn here as a magnificently hideous hipster. As well as Glee, you may well have heard him do voice-over work on stunning anime movies The Wind Rises and The Tale Of Princess Kaguya. If not, go and watch them. They’re beautiful.
- Jessica Lu! Who is also gloriously dreadful here. When not being murdered by Kathy Bates, she’s been great in Red Band Society and Awkward.
- Robert Knepper! Best known for his magnificently hideous work as T-Bag in Prison Break, Knepper’s also been killed by Jason Statham in Transporter 3, voiced Kronos in Percy Jackson And The Sea Of Monsters and appears as Antonius in Mockingjay Part 2. He was also, like Affleck, the bomb in Phantoms, yo.
- “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes and “Just Can’t Get Enough” by Depeche Mode provide the soundtrack for Liz’s transformation and they’re perfect choices.
- Shot of the week is Alex and Holden in the coffin, an undead mother and son, forever together and forever the same.
Review by Alasdair Stuart