I won’t deny that American Horror Story: Hotel is a certain rebound in quality for Ryan Murphy’s, in my opinion, formerly flagging horror anthology series. Following the silly camp-fest of Coven and the dreadful oddities of Freak Show (which still netted a series high Emmy haul of 19 nominations), Hotel has a rebirth quality to it. It’s something that Murphy himself must have felt because nearly every other damned word of the season finale was “rebirth” or “reborn.” Suddenly, shockingly, American Horror Story seemed to stand for something. After two seasons of fan service and plotless costume drama, Murphy nearly got his groove back with Hotel. Too bad his penchant for misguided excess nearly derailed the entire series.
For me, the Ten Commandment Killer story line never worked. Hotel focused early on Lady Gaga and her umpteen costume changes. The remainder of the company and the story itself seemed to gasp for air. Weeks went by without significant movement, despite the injection of life with the Halloween-centered “Devil’s Night.” There, we were graced with a great performance by Lily Rabe as serial killer Aileen Wuornos and an effectively silent Zodiac Killer, among others. By the time the identity of the killer was revealed, though, it wasn’t as much an “OMG” moment as it was a “Oh yeah, that was a thing” moment. It felt underserved and unworthy of Papa Murphy’s love.
The vampiric storyline of Lady Gaga’s The Countess felt infinitely more daring and dangerous by comparison. Here, Murphy called out to 1983’s The Hunger (RIP David Bowie) thematically and stylistically so often that it bordered on remake material. But it was an effective choice and a smart role for Lady Gaga. And what of Lady Gaga’s acting ability. True, she didn’t deserve last weekend’s Golden Globe award, but that’s not her fault and it’s completely unfair to compare her win to Pia Zadora’s controversial win decades ago. The big difference here is that, through the season, Lady Gaga’s performance grew. She varied it as the script called for The Countess at different stages of life, in joy and in grief. Yes, she’s constantly dressed and posed like a Satanic American Girl doll, but she actually gave a good performance as the season progressed. No, she didn’t deserve the award. Blame the HFPA for that. Not her.
There are two stars of Hotel in the end. First, Ryan Murphy is frequently accused of considering style over substance. Hotel will do nothing to qualm that complaint. The art deco set design of the Cortez Hotel is nothing short of miraculous. It is a fantastic, breathtaking achievement that simultaneously felt both alluring and claustrophobic. Its wandering hallways. Its grimy bathrooms. Its hidden chambers. Its decadent sexual style. As an architecture nut, it was a joy to spend time within the Cortez, and, whenever we left its opulent walls, the season suffered for it.
The second star of Hotel has to be Denis O’Hare and his literally transformative performance as Liz Taylor. So much more than a drag show trick, O’Hare fully committed to the character, bringing out the inner woman so trapped in a middle-aged man’s physicality. Many tried through the season, but O’Hare brought us back to the humanity of each moment he served on-screen. At the end, his moments are the ones I remembered most from the embarrassment of his initial transition into womanhood to the improbable reconnection with his son. His ***SPOILER*** death at the hands of Gaga’s Countess was an oddly touching moment, a mercy killing that felt right amidst all the gruesome deaths of the season.
But all was not perfect in this Hotel. The season, while never boring to me, was exceedingly uneven. Aside from the Ten Commandments killer, Angela Bassett felt particularly wasted and underserved. Sarah Paulson’s constantly crying Sally never clicked for me, personally, and her season-ending Internet persona felt like a joke on SNL. And the season finale once again, as with “Murder House,” tacked on an ill-fitting happy ending for Mr. Murphy’s murdering ghosts. Some became fashion models. Some found life-long love. Others reconnected with their eternal families. And, as the season closed, it felt unsettlingly false for a season that had been so fantastically brutal. It’s as if Murphy lost the gumption to commit to a horror series by season end.
I’ve no doubt that the Emmys will embrace Hotel as they have in the past, particularly in the craft and technical races. But the nomination count, I suspect, for his company of actors will fall as even the Television Academy couldn’t ignore how underserved many of the best actors were this season. Only O’Hare and perhaps Mare Winningham merit the strongest consideration from the troupe, far beneath the usual five or six nominations the series has been averaging. Perhaps that is intentional with American Crime Story around the corner and undoubtedly competing against Hotel.
In the end, Hotel was a worthy diversion and currently ranks in the middle of the American Horror Story offerings for me. But you can’t watch the entire series and not imagine how much better it could have been with stronger, more thematically balanced, scripts. With a hotel like the Cortez, the audience should want to never check out, and mixed results like this only entrap the very faithful to the series.