This review contains spoilers.
One of the many things American Horror Story is doing well this season is indulging in genre tropes. March’s back story was accompanied by silent movie era film graphics and black and white film stock, and this episode’s reveal of the history of Ramona Royale (Angela Bassett) is similarly fun. Rather than the silent era (or perhaps a very early talkie), Ramona is straight out of Quentin Tarantino’s daydreams, a honky-blasting, gorgeous blaxploitation movie star supreme, and I mean that literally. Ramona Royale was a big B-movie star in her time, slapping around jive turkeys and sporting a boss baby Afro. It’s a fun introduction to the character, who is very much a self-made woman, strong enough and beautiful enough to attract the attention of Countess (who dismisses a producer played by none other than David Naughton).
The story of the relationship between Ramona and Countess is told in a very subtle montage. The two in an elevator. As the elevator descends, blacking out and flashing light again, the years change at the bottom, throughout the 70s and 80s into the early 90s. As the years change, fashions change. Disco gives way to New Wave gives way to Madonna at her peak, with both actresses changing clothes, hair, makeup, and positions… making out, arm in arm, cuddling close, on opposite sides of the elevator… it’s clever and a great way to show the two slowly growing apart. When Prophet Moses appears, all early 90s hip-hop swagger and entourage, she’s ready to move on and he’s just the kind of man for her. Unfortunately, there can be only one queen bee, and Ramona won’t be it, as Countess makes perfectly clear after killing Prophet’s entourage and executing the rapper with a point-blank gunshot to the head (blowing the back of his skull off in graphic fashion).
That little move has earned Countess an enemy for life. Or, I guess, undeath. Another one of Countess’s enemies is, amusingly, Bernie Madoff, the con-artist who scammed hundreds of rich people and corporations out of billions of dollars in one of the most effective Ponzi schemes since Ponzi himself. That’s why Countess is no longer the owner of the Hotel Cortez, but she’s got a plan, and it involved Will Drake. She needs money, and Drake has a whole lot of money at his disposal, plus he owns the hotel that the whole gang lives in.
No doubt her plan to marry and kill Will is pretty similar to what I imagine her plan was for her first husband, James March. Of course, the police famously intervened and ended March’s terror trip, but not before he became one of the most notorious serial killers of all time, according to Tristan. Having tasted blood (literally and figuratively), he wants more, but without the perfect murder palace at his disposal, it’s going to be more difficult. That’s where Countess comes in (having interrupted Tristan’s make-out/murder plan).
The first two episodes of the season have been very long, clocking in at well over an hour of television time. Mommy is also a longer episode at 55 minutes, but it’s substantially shorter than the 73 minutes of Chutes And Ladders from last week. It also feels a lot shorter, a bit more focused and interconnected despite having multiple subplots happening at once (Sally and Iris/Donovan, Donovan and Ramona, Countess/Tristan and Drake, and Alex/John). Sally and Donovan end up being bridging characters, connecting everything together as they drift from pairing to pairing.
That’s a strength for James Wong’s script, which gives the characters a good amount of time together while focusing on the main Countess narrative and the Lowe family drama. Kathy Bates is compelling as Iris, and she’s great as the no-nonsense centre of the hotel. Denis O’Hare’s brilliant Liz Taylor sparkles, literally, whenever he appears on screen. He gets the least screen time of any of the major players, but the character feels the most lived-in. Iris and Sally’s scenes are always good, thanks to the way Sarah Paulson approaches Sally as equal parts pathetic and vindictive, and Wong has the most fun by pairing March and Tristan together in a brief scene. The two men share a lot of common interests, but Wong, Finn Wittrock, and Evan Peters get good comic mileage out of the vast disconnect between 1925 and 2015.
It’s a much-needed light moment in what is otherwise a heavy episode. Between March and Tristan on one hand and Ramona Royale on the other, a lot of heavy, tragic family drama stuff took place, usually due to Chloe Sevigny. Sevigny’s doctor is probably the most thankless character on the show, as she doesn’t get to do any of the really crazy stuff that she normally does on this particular show, but she’s also one of the better actresses in the cast, a fact that doesn’t get lost amidst all the bloodletting and 70s action. Her montage is brutally effective, couched as it is with a great explanation of events from Alex’s point. Alex and John still don’t quite fit in with the rest of the oddities, but the more Alex blanks out in therapy and the more John has sobbing meltdowns, the more it seems like they’re going to fit right in with the rest of the hotel’s damaged denizens.
It’s still very early to get a handle on American Horror Story: Hotel, but so far it seems like all the elements are in place for a slightly more logical Ryan Murphy crazy-fest. There’s still a lot of stuff that doesn’t make sense, there’s still a surplus of style, and there’s still some great actors doing some great acting, in spite of (and because of) the cheese grated over every script. Even the show’s shakiest element on paper, Lady Gaga, has been surprisingly good at her role. If Hotel can keep up this pace, it’ll find a happy place on the positive end of the AHS spectrum.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan was surprised by the episode’s 74-minute run-time, without commercials That’s two feature-length American Horror Story episodes in a row! Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.