This review contains spoilers.
1.11 Battle Royale
It took Ryan Murphy five seasons and a return to a familiar stomping ground to bring American Horror Story full circle. The recycling of Pepper last season was a nice touch, and the freak show or the asylum was a common destination for unfortunate microcephalics back in the dark days, so to have the character move from one to the other makes sense. However, there wasn’t a lot of modern crossing-over, aside from using the same actors. That’s changed with Hotel. Whether it’s the LA location or the modern setting, old familiar faces have been popping up (and usually dying horribly) within the confines of the Hotel Cortez.
Christine Estabrook’s Marcie and Matt Ross’s Dr. Charles Montgomery were surprise visitors, but welcome ones. However, the other modern era tale of American Horror Story, Coven, has been strangely absent. Until this episode, of course. Liz and Iris left off with a hail of gunfire, storming into Countess’s penthouse like Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction. They kill an unintended target, poor Donovan, and severely injure the one they need to take care of, Countess. The episode will divide into two basic scenarios: the ghostly occupants of the Cortez are scheming for their own ends, a lot of which involve Countess, and Liz and Iris have to kill Countess before Countess can kill them.
Of course, even with the miracle that is Hypodermic Sally with a needle and thread, Countess needs strong blood to heal such big injuries, and without Donovan, she’s left with a terrible solution at Sally’s urging. Meanwhile, Liz and Iris have an ace up their sleeve in the form of none other than Ramona Royale, who is trapped in the basement and wants to kill Countess even more than she wants to kill Iris for imprisoning her and ruining their initial scheme. But Ramona is sick with measles, having only had vampire children to feed off of. She’ll need strong blood too. Countess has her babies, and Ramona has, well… a new guest checking in.
Like most viewers, I think I was skeptical about the whole shared universe aspect of American Horror Story. After all, the first three seasons didn’t have that in mind, taking place in self-contained worlds, but Murphy’s efforts to bring them all together this season seem to be paying off a little more than last year’s cross-over between Asylum and Freak Show. The presence of Charles Montgomery makes sense, considering his profession and his affinity for monster babies. The presence of Marcie makes a little less sense, but she’s such a fun character that it doesn’t really matter why she travels into town from the suburbs to stay in a run-down hotel, and she seems like the kind of person who doesn’t turn down a free anything from a client.
As for Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) popping up, well… that’s just fun, and it sets up one of the show’s most inventive fight scenes. Queenie, as you might remember, is a human voodoo doll, and Iris and Liz only recognize her as a witch, and thus, someone with very powerful blood. Little do they know that she’s probably the hardest witch to kill, but fortunately, as said earlier, there are a lot of ghosts in the Hotel Cortez who have their own mission and their own desires, and they need the help of those that can walk out of the hotel to get those accomplished. The brawl is one of the best of the season, with Queenie making the most use of her human voodoo doll powers to keep Ramona at bay until she runs into an opponent who won’t have damage reflected back onto him in the form of James March. It’s a brilliant scene, if only because Evan Peters is so great and the way Queenie’s magic confounds Ramona’s blood lust. It’s interesting to see a predator kept at bay by her own skill at killing, and it’s also a lot of fun to hear Evan Peters purr out, “But I’m a ghost,” in front of a dying witch.
That was one of my favorite moments of the week courtesy of Ned Martel’s script. However, it was full of great little character interaction moments, like Miss Evers finally standing up for herself as far as James March and the Countess are concerned. Any time Ramona, Iris, and Liz share a scene it really works, and the fun twists and turns the episode takes are enjoyable. Sally’s back story is appropriately horrific, as you’d expect, and the return of the Lowe family to the story is going to make for an interesting finale, as it’s a bit more like Murder House in that we have a flawed hero looking to save his family from an evil place full of people who are also more or less evil. All the dramatic dialogue lands well this week, and the episode itself leaves just enough loose ends to frame things for a potentially satisfying finale episode.
A lot of the credit for the fight goes to director Michael Uppendahl, who has filled the void left by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon as far as the one who uses the most interesting camera tricks. The whole scene with the murder of Donovan by Iris and Liz is beautifully shot, almost like John Woo without the doves, and the whole trip from the penthouse to the gutter is shot beautifully, both unsettling as we see the scene bob and fade like from Donovan’s point of view, and then ending with a gorgeous crane shot as we essentially follow Donovan’s spirit as it leaves his body.
As usual, American Horror Story is a good blend of style and substance. At this point in the season, it also feels like it’s going to find a satisfying conclusion, which might be the first time in five seasons that the show manages to end on a high note, rather than, at best, a side-step. With only one episode to go, it feels like everything’s getting wrapped up in a shockingly neat package. Of course, there are a lot of ghosts hanging around, and the issue of the hotel to deal with, but perhaps Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are going to stick the landing this time.