This review contains spoilers.
5.12 Be Our Guest
American Horror Story has been a spectacular showcase for female characters and the actors playing those roles. Jessica Lange was a revelation. Lily Rabe stole season two. Season three was an ensemble of female characters. Season four’s most affecting parts were concerning the women of the Freak Show. And this season, the female character that deserves the most attention and praise just happens to be played by a man. There’s glamour and grandeur, acid wit and tender compassion… Liz Taylor is possibly the best example of what American Horror Story can create for a female character, but it took an actor with the fearless skill of Denis O’Hare to pull it off, with a little help from the wonderful, underrated Kathy Bates.
Much like Liz Taylor is the beating heart of Hotel, she’s also the beating heart of the hotel. With the death of the Countess and Will Drake’s empire in a shambles with the death of its sole creative force, the hotel is in trouble. The fact is, a fresh coat of paint and some new carpet won’t really boost the reputation of your hotel when everyone who goes there dies in graphic, brutal ways at the hands of a murderous ghost. That interferes with Liz and Iris’s attempts to put a new spin on the old hotel, but don’t worry, the show’s most downtrodden women tend to be the ones most who are the most resourceful, and given just how good a friend Liz has been to the folks of the Cortez, it’s not surprising that she’s able to call a town meeting.
The ghost meeting is one of the better moments of the show, as all of the familiar spirits, from Marcy the erotica-reading realtor to the bearded gay lumberjack man, show up for the meeting, assuming they were able to adjust to their new life and aren’t wandering the hallway looking for kale. Surprisingly, the ghosts are all aboard with this not-killing plan once March reminds them that if the Cortez goes, they lose their home and thus might have to actually pay for their horrible crimes at the hands of their maker. The only hold-outs are the permanently unhappy Sally and a sullen Will Drake, who takes to killing like a duck to water.
Framing the episode as they do, opening with Liz getting her throat cut in the cold opening and working back to see just how that comes about and for what reason, works very well. It’s clearly the glove worn by the Countess doing the killing, but is she getting revenge for Liz and Iris arranging her murder at the hands of John? Does she not like the new furniture? As it turns out, it’s for a very good reason: the preservation of the hotel, and perhaps a make-good for the whole “killing Tristan” thing.
The way Liz and Iris manage to reach out to Will and Sally is also really well done, with Liz connecting to Will’s love of fashion and their shared past in sales and Iris and Sally bonding over their shared loneliness and a late-bloomer’s love of technology. It makes sense to keep the episode centered on the show’s stronger relationships (aside from Will Drake, who never had much of a relationship with Liz or Iris), and it’s only natural that Liz and Iris would become the central figures of the hotel. The forgotten women slowly rose in prominence as the season progressed, and the pair assumed a rightfully high place and significant screen time.
One of the big criticisms leveled against Murder House was the ending. People didn’t like the way things ended on a fairly pat note, with the family gathered around a Christmas tree with a ghost baby while Tate watched from the hallway and Constance scraped up what was left of the babysitter. However, the ending of Hotel feels much the same. A bunch of relatively terrible people get to have a happy ending, but it feels more earned, or at least better-presented. The difference is, for the most part, the changes in the characters feel earned. Sally had to make peace with the world by becoming a social media star. Will Drake was able to find satisfaction in his work once more, as well as becoming a hipster Howard Hughes, without the crazy. Liz reconnected with her family and Iris got closure with Donovan. Even Countess and Ramona appeared to make peace, at least slightly. Given the expanded run time of the episode, John J. Gray’s script helps put all the pieces back together of the season, by giving everyone a reason to pull together and help one another out, rather than working at cross purposes.
Sure, it’s a bit fluffy, and most of the characters don’t deserve happy endings, but at least in Bradley Buecker’s hands, no one can say it doesn’t look great. The shot of Liz looking down at her own dead body encapsulates everything I like about American Horror Story: it’s funny, gory, and oddly sweet all at once. A similar feat is pulled off later in the episode, when John loses his life trying to be a good provider for his vampire family after going on the lam from the police. He’s unsuccessful, and gunned down for his troubles, but it’s oddly sweet, and the way Lowe has lightened up after death makes the return of the serial killer dance party a little more fun and a lot less disturbing, though it still offers Buecker a chance to have fun with March’s room and the way the characters are staged around Billie Dean (Sarah Paulson manages to look completely different from Sally as this characters, somehow).
Call me a sucker, but I like a happy ending when it feels like it’s deserved. For whatever reason, March and the gang feel like they deserve a happy ending, if only for demonstrating a little emotional maturity and self-restraint by, er, no longer killing everyone who comes into the hotel, no matter how much of a strange person they might be. Not murdering is a good step in the right direction, and between Liz and March, they’ll keep everyone in line.