American Horror Story: Hotel S05E11 “Battle Royale” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on FOX, Tuesdays, 10pm
Writer: Ned Martel
Director: Michael Uppendahl
Essential Plot Points:
- Okay, BIG week this week. Everyone ready? Deep breaths aaaaaaand go!
- Liz and Iris arm up, kick the door in and open fire. Donovan sacrifices himself to save the Countess. She’s badly injured anyway but escapes. Donovan, on the verge of death, begs his mother to take him outside. If he dies in the Cortez he’s there forever. She, reluctantly, agrees.
- Donovan dies outside on the street.
- The Countess is rescued by Sally who digs the bullets out of her and reveals her back story. She came to the Cortez in 1993. A friend of – and pusher for – two upcoming musicians, Sally came there to get high and sleep with them both. Way off the deep end, she suggested they get sewn together so they’ll always be close. The others agree, then OD, leaving Sally sewn to two dying humans.
- She remains there for 5 days, during which time Evers pops in to cheerfully point out how difficult it will be to wash the stains out of their sheets and how much she’s looking forward to it. Sally also sees the Addiction Demon for the first time and it tortures her for days until she finally tears herself free.
- Back in the present day she makes it clear that she’s only saved the Countess because she wants her to kill John, in the Cortez, so they can be together forever.
- Meanwhile back at the worst family EVER, John brings Alex, Scarlett and Scarlett’s terrifying vampire younger brother home and tries to be normal. Scarlett, who is having none of this nonsense asks how they’ll feed. John and Alex realise that their family puts the “undead” in “unconventional”.
- Back at the Cortez, Sally is worried. The Countess isn’t healing and she needs blood. She asks for Donovan and Sally takes just a little too much delight in pointing out that her lover’s dead. Instead, she brings some of the Countess’ “children” to her. The Countess resists but the children volunteer and, reluctantly, she feeds on them.
- Upstairs, Iris is given Donovan’s ashes by Liz and spreads them out. Evers arrives and Iris tells her to vacuum it all up. Iris then goes to the roof and faces the Sun, fully human and finally at peace with herself.
- With no good options left, Iris and Liz let Ramona out. They’re horrified to find the vampire children that the Worst Parents In History lured in there last episode. They’re even more terrified when they find Ramona loose and out for blood. They manage to persuade her that they’ll get her a new victim and head downstairs with no idea what to do.
- And they find Queenie from American Horror Story: Coven! She’s in town to appear on The Price Is Right. Liz recognises her and seems like a fan but that doesn’t stop them leading her upstairs to the room where Ramona is waiting.
- Ramona’s expecting an easy kill. What she gets is an asskicking the likes of which she’s not had before as Queenie uses her ability to transfer physical harm to herself onto her opponents to beat the vampire senseless. She’s finally killed by March who, as he’s already dead, is exempt from Queenie’s abilities. Ramona feeds on the young witch and March explains he needs someone to kill the Countess in the hotel. It can’t be him and Ramona is the most powerful person left so she gets the job. She, of course, accepts.
- John returns home with “dinner” – a man with clean blood. He finds his family missing, and a Hotel Cortez key left behind. He races to the hotel, where he finds Sally waiting for him. She explains that March needs one more kill and then he can have his family back.
- Upstairs, a still badly hurt Countess comes back to the ruins of the penthouse. Ramona confronts her there and the Countess compliments her on the power she’s gained. Ramona explains she’s fed from a witch and the two women argue, both clearly itching for a fight, an emotional connection or both. The Countess agrees to let Ramona kill her on the condition they sleep together one last time.
- The next thing we see is the Countess, dressed for travel, leaving the penthouse. Ramona’s fate is unclear. The Countess summons the lift, the doors open and…
- A smiling John guns her down. He has his last kill.
- John mounts her head as the final trophy and a jubilant March congratulates him. Sally tries to kill John and March stops her, clearly eager to have his protégé free to kill more people out in the world. John leaves to search for his family and March gets ready for dinner.
- We next see a clearly nervous March waiting for the Countess to arrive. She does so, newly reborn as a ghost but distant and cold. She complains about the passion being gone now she’s dead and Evers blows up. She points out the passion has always been there in March and the two women bicker.
- March forgives his wife for turning him in all those decades ago and she tells him she didn’t do it. A stunned March refuses to believe her until Evers confesses. She turned March in because she loves him and wanted the pair of them to be together forever.
- March banishes her. A newly free Evers takes her apron off and leaves.
- The Countess weeps as she realises she’s trapped with her monstrous husband for eternity.
WOW. The homestretch is upon us and Hotel spares no time, or expense, in putting on a show. Let’s check in with every major plot shall we?
The Countess is on top form this week and Gaga turns in even more top class work. Her numb, horrified response to feeding on her kids is one highlight. The other is the clear discomfort, and sincerity, in her final scene with Ramona. She wants to make amends for the hideous things she’s done. But it’s the one thing she isn’t good at and that annoys her. It’s a really smart combination of embarrassment, grief, anger and rage all mixed in the adolescent flush of a decades long adrenalin high. Brilliant work from her all the way through especially in the silent final moments of the episode.
The 10 Commandments Killer has finished his job. Which means another will be along just as soon as March thinks of it. I’ve gone back and forth on John and Alex this season but this episode feels like we needed more time with them. They’re such perfect, broken monsters. Like the Countess, a pair of arrested adolescents. Unlike her, they have a support system in Scarlett, the unluckiest, most normal kid in this show’s history. Maybe she and Lachlan can team up and fight crime. Or maybe they should just RUN. Either way, John, Alex and family have become much more interesting now they’re being honest with one another. Here’s hoping they get a chunk of time in the finale.
Liz and Iris continue to be magnificent. The scene with them in the elevator discussing how to get Ramona fed is flat-out hilarious and O’Hare and Bates have wonderful natural chemistry. I doubt we’ll get the Iris & Liz: Hoteliers To The Stars And Recently Deceased sitcom I desperately want but hopefully we’ll get more screen time with them in the finale. Their scenes with Ramona are especially great and Angela Bassett is on top form this episode, even as she’s getting her ass soundly kicked by Gabourey Sidibe’s hugely fun Queenie.
But the real stars this episode are two side characters. Sally’s been benched, by and large, for a little while now. Here, Sarah Paulson is centre stage and shows us just how good she is. There’s almost something good in Sally but it’s been hollowed out by her terrifying experiences in the hotel. The scene with her sewing herself to her lovers is possibly the nastiest moment we’ve had this year. It certainly made me wince the hardest.
But what’s fascinating about Sally is that she’s the closest the show gets to innocent. Whether the Addiction Demon did something to her is unclear and, worryingly, may not be made any clearer before we’re done. But her desperate, savage need to not be abandoned is heartbreaking and Paulson gives it all the sincerity and rage it needs. She’s a broken human in a building full of broken monsters and that makes her the weakest, and most terrifying, of them all.
But in the end, this is Mare Winningham’s episode. She’s as brittle and broken as Sally but when March rejects her, he helps her put herself together. Every line Evers has shines and Winningham gives her power and dignity that no other character shares. The final scene deserves to be Evers’ curtain call; finally honest, finally spurned, finally free. Except of course, once you die in the Cortez you can never leave…
There’s a vast amount going on this episode and as you can see, most of it’s brilliant. It’s not all good news, though. Lachlan has disappeared altogether, which is untidy rather than bad. However, the Addiction Demon has one episode to become something more than a cheap and often needlessly unpleasant visual gag. Even worse, everyone else is on such top form you actually resent the character the time it needs to register.
That aside, this is a hell of a piece of TV. Roll on the grand finale.
- Michael Uppendahl’s direction is claustrophobic and playful in a way that suits this show like a glove. Look at John clearing the corridors on his way back into the hotel, or the Liz/Iris/baseball bat scene in the lift. It’s always tense and closed-in but there’s the constant threat of a laugh just as much as a scream. Brilliant, witty direction throughout.
- A never-ending parade of gorgeous dialogue this week from Ned Martel’s script too. Including:
- “You’re not going to leave me, right?” Poor Sally, summed up in a single line.
- “Has there ever been a more aptly named style of music than grrrruuuunnggeee?” Denis O’Hare purrs dialogue like no one on Earth. Except, perhaps, Angela Bassett.
- “And for the record, Shout At The Devil was an underrated masterpiece.” This is such a lovely little moment with Liz that you almost miss it. She actually likes these kids, enjoys the fact they verbally spar with her. It’s a sweet character note that ties with her scenes with her son last episode. Liz is a fundamentally decent person, even after her time in the Cortez. She’s changed but that decency is still in there and it’s starting to surface again.
- “Post mortem excrement is the biggest challenger of them all!” Just the first of several brilliant moments we get with Evers this episode.
- “I want him back in the hotel. And I want him dead. Here with me FOREVER.” Sarah Paulson has done quietly brilliant work all season and this is her finest hour. Sally finally has power. She has it through the exact thing that’s crippled her, her dependency issues. And she doesn’t care because this time she gets to WIN. Except of course, she doesn’t.
- “As long as we take our medicine, we’ll be healthy.” “You mean drink blood?” I’m getting the increasing feeling Scarlett is going to get shortshrift in the finale. That’s a shame as she’s great. But seeing her take none of her mother’s naïve mega-nonsense is still a pleasure.
- “Big hotel. Big furnace.” Another note-perfect moment. Liz is just a little perky, still happy that things are actually happening. But she’s not unkind about it either. Complex, subtle interplay of emotions, in the same episode as three people being sewn together. This show really does cover a lot of ground.
- “How are you feeling?” “…LEAVE ME ALONE.” Gaga really has been the MVP this year and, given the stunning quality of this cast, that’s saying something. She does so much here with stillness and calm and it’s one of the most truly chilling scenes of the season.
- “So we’re desperate.” “Just out of options.” The Blackadder/Baldrick esque dynamic between Liz and Iris here is just wonderful.
- “But mama IS on a course correction.” Angela Bassett relishes every syllable of this dialogue and it pays off so damn well. Ramona has become what she used to play; a raging rampage of revenge in human form.
- “We can’t just go out on the street and bash someone in the head!” “If you’ve got another idea I AM ALL EARS.” It may be wrong but I would watch an entire season of Liz & Iris Start Some Trouble.
- “Bitch, when’s the last time you saw a dermatologist?!” Everyone else on the planet would scream. Queenie trashtalks. This is the most fun the series has been since Iris vs the Hipsters.
- “I ain’t nobody’s protein shake, bitch!” Oh Queenie, we’ll miss you most of all. Well, you and Liz.
- “I’m not letting some raggedy-ass red-dotted bloodwhore FREAK take up another second of my time.” This is how great Gabourey Sidibe is in the five minutes she’s onscreen. She shares scenes with Kathy Bates, Dennis O’Hare, Angela freaking Bassett and Evan Peters and OUT-ACTS ALL OF THEM! Queenie is amazing: a laconic, ruthless unflappable witch and she deserved so much better than being taken out by a cheap shot. But damn if it isn’t fun watching her effortlessly kick Ramona’s ass.
- “You swear you haven’t taken any drugs in the last 30 days? I’m a cop. I can test you. You want me to test you?” I love this scene. John is still the absolutely strait-laced Dudley Do-Right type. It’s just that he’s being like this with a man he’s brought home to feed to his vampiric family…
- “I’ve never known another woman whose blood smells like walnuts.” One of the many perfect pieces of dialogue in this episode. It tells us a lot about how the vampires perceive their surroundings without being the slightest bit expository.
- “I’m weak but I’m still THE CHAMP. You may beat me but you’re not getting out of here without at least a severe lifelong limp.” The Countess baring her teeth one final time. She even threatens politely.
- “I AM a curse. Nobody who gets within 10 feet of me survives.” This is an amazing script, arguably the best since Jennifer Salt’s brilliant “Devil’s Night”. This final confrontation between the Countess and Ramona is especially great. The tension, the barely contained lust and rage in the room, paints these two characters as something much more, and much less, than human. Amazing performances from Gaga and Bassett too.
- “I’m trying to apologise. I’m NOT USED TO THIS. Cut me some slack bitch.” Her final seconds of sort-of life include the Countess trying to grow as a person. No one gets off easily this year; no one’s entirely good or bad. But it’s still not enough to save her.
- “Can you see me now?!” I’m so pleased they found more to do with Evers, as Mare Winningham has been amazing all season. Her final scene here is especially great. Pleading with March to see her is just heartbreaking.
- “Get out.” All the dapper, charming gentlemanly trappings fall away and Evan Peters shows us the real March; a cold, flat, dead-eyed monster of a ghost. No wonder the Countess is weeping in the final shot.
- “There are more stains in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” This is the only show in history that could conceivably combine Hamlet with housekeeping and make it work. Hats off to Ned Martel’s wonderful writing and Winningham’s staggering performance.
- Queenie going out like that leaves a bad aftertaste. Especially as she’s so brilliant when she’s onscreen. Maybe we get some more of her as a Hotel Ghost?
- Evers’ love for March could, arguably, have been made more overt. That being said, she’s helped cover up his murders and washed the sheets in his Hotel Of Awfulness for decades after dying. If that’s not love I’m not sure what is.
- The Addiction Demon could really, really do with an origin. Soon. Like in the next 20 minutes of screen time.
And The Random:
- Gabourey Sidibe kicks all kinds of ass as Queenie and was one of the very best parts of American Horror Story: Coven and FreakShow. You’ve also, odds are, seen her in Empire. If you haven’t seen Precious, her debut, do so. It’s a tough watch at times but, given it was Sidibe’s first ever acting experience her performance is flat-out stunning.
- I’m really enjoying how the AHS seasons are gradually tying together. The Countess’ side trip to the Murder House was fun as was the way Freak Show tied to Asylum through the presence of Pepper last year. Ryan Murphy’s talked openly about how all the seasons connect and this being the first year that becomes apparent so it looks like the metafictional fun is only just beginning.
- This week’s Music To Watch The Increasingly Frantic Inhabitants Of The Worst Hotel In History Go By includes “Seconds” by The Human League over the opening scenes and “I Wanna Be Adored” by The Stone Roses over the final Countess/Ramona confrontation.
- Shot of the week: this is every aspect of John finally united. The stance and training of a police officer, the vengeance of a man long past due being messed with. The quiet smile of a killer finishing a design. Amazing work from all involved.
Review by Alasdair Stuart