Even in its finale, American Horror Story: Hotel can’t decide what it’s about. Is it Sally’s ordeal of overcoming addiction and loneliness, Liz Taylor’s heartwarming story about chosen family, or John Lowe’s cynical manipulation as he brings a pestering celebrity psychic to Devil’s Night? The tonal whiplash of “Be Our Guest” feels less like the witty swerving from sweet to grim that often characterizes AHS and more like a slapdash effort to pack everything in.

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And I mean everything. The last episode of AHS: Hotel jumps from present day to 2022, and the grand re-opening of the Hotel Cortez under Liz Taylor and Iris’ guiding hands. Liquidating the Countess’ art collection, they’ve funded an ambitious renovation and an even more ambitious attempt to exorcise the hotel’s evils, though not its spirits. Together, they have a vision of making it not just a destination, but something greater, “a family to the friendless, a comfort to those in the cold, a beehive of acceptance.” That acceptance extends to the dead and undead who call it home… if they can stop killing the guests and let the hotel earn its stars.

Liz and Iris have an unlikely ally in James Patrick March, who looks even further ahead: to 2026, when the Hotel Cortez will be eligible for historic landmark status. “This is a practical decision, not an emotional one,” March tells his fellow denizens, with the ominous reminder that none of them knows what will become of them if the hotel is destroyed. “Perhaps without these walls, we would be forced to move on and face the judgment of our maker.”

That means no more killing, and no more notoriety. Stories of the Cortez’s hauntings are no longer just underground or urban legend. Iris’s invitation to Billie Dean Howard (Sarah Paulson, reprising her role from AHS: Murder House), the Lifetime-network psychic, failed to reconnect Liz Taylor and Tristan, but it did give the Cortez more publicity than its new management can stomach. Billie returns every Devil’s Night, hoping to land an interview with the late John Lowe, who was gunned down in the street outside while bringing blood back to his waiting wife and son.

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So John Lowe gives her exactly what she asks for. He meets with her, then lures her away from the safety of her cameras with the irresistible offer to show her the secrets of the Cortez’s, leading her into the absinthe-fueled horrors of James Patrick March’s coterie of serial killers. The scene boasts the same gruesome, seamy humor as the “Devil’s Night,” and the scheme is a smart one—blackmailing Billie to stop her blabbing about her favorite spiritual hot spot—“no more specials or interviews or books or tweets or casual conversations at cocktail parties with Shirley MacLaine about this hotel”—or they’ll treat her to the nastiest death the nation’s most reviled serial killers can think up, then an eternity wandering the hotel’s hallways.

But lurching from Liz Taylor’s long, emotionally rich story to the grimy, grim Devil’s Night debauchery feels both disjointed and a little cheap. That cheapness is reinforced by the way the bottom drops out of their threat. With their spirits confined, March’s cronies can’t make good on their promise, and Ramona is brought in to back them up. Even in the finale, even as she comes to the rescue once again, she’s written as an afterthought.

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Ramona Royale deserves better, and so does Angela Bassett. A Blaxploitation star turned bloodthirsty creature of the night now striding through Los Angeles in highly recognizable near-immortality is a part Bassett could really (ahem) sink her teeth into, if it had been written with any coherence. Instead, her desires, motivations, and loyalties have been muddled from the beginning, and periodically tacked onto other characters’ arcs as they are tonight.

American Horror Story has a reputation as both a funhouse of surprises and a showcase for its outstanding stable of actresses, but AHS: Hotel’s biggest surprise is how it’s squandered its leading ladies. Kathy Bates gives her all to Iris, the sad-sack mother living through her dead son and only beginning to embrace life once she leaves it, but she’s been given too few chances to shine. Sarah Paulson finally gets a star turn in the finale, but until tonight Hypodermic Sally, that grunge-age Spungen clone, has been as much a hanger-on in this series as she was in her life before the Cortez.

Despite her Golden Globe, Lady Gaga’s not only not delivering the best performance in her category; she’s not even the best performance on her own show. That sounds like a slight, but it’s not, not really: Despite her experience in elaborate character-driven video and stage productions, she’s a novice actor playing a character who’s largely surface, and playing her with understandably superficial style illuminated by occasional flickers of depth.

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But there are standout performances here. Allison Shoemaker describes Denis O’Hare’s Liz Taylor as “a character and a performance that refuse to be ignored,” and I agree with her that this one of the best—maybe the best performance—of the year. O’Hare invests Liz Taylor’s every word, gesture, and glance with acidic wit and perception, but it’s the interior glimpses of compassion and vulnerability woven through her tartness that elevate this portrayal. It’s fitting that so much of the finale revolves around Liz, and gracious of the series to give her a happy ending, surrounded by love, acceptance, and chosen family. It seems almost poetic that she chooses her death, too, and especially that the Countess, her former friend and enemy, returns to ease her into mortality and eternity in the Cortez.

Liz Taylor’s story is entirely about reinvention, and “Be Our Guest” is, too. She urges Will on to a new peak of creativity, and in its wake she transforms herself yet again, into a titan of industry. The Cortez is remade into a glamorous destination hotel, with luxury sheets and legendary toilets. Its wraiths are transformed into a family. Sally, who suffered agonies of isolation, is introduced to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and she trades her twinned addictions of heroin and misery for the companionship she finds in her fans and followers.

Sally’s new connection, and her new addiction (FX)

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Even John Lowe is transformed in the last episode, and Wes Bentley with him. In the Devil’s Night scenes, Bentley’s usual wooden affect and unforgivingly dry dialogue loosens up, and it does wonders for his performance. Seeing John Lowe accept a hug, smile at a flirtation, tease an unwelcome guest—it gives what had been a ridiculously stiff portrayal some much-needed humanity. If only it had come sooner.

I’ve never been especially taken with Evan Peters’ acting in previous seasons, but AHS: Hotel makes me think either I’ve underestimated him or the show’s underused him. As James Patrick March and Miss Hazel Evers, Peters and Mare Winningham are performing in tandem, delivering pitch-perfect early-20th-century inflections and expressions that make them the brightest spots in this season. It’s a vintage foxtrot of irony and earnest delight worthy of William Powell and Myrna Loy, and the giddying staginess of it is the single element of AHS: Hotel I’ll miss the most.

Buried somewhere in American Horror Story: Hotel might be a brutal allegory about addiction and desire, or an epic horror story of a vampiric mother figure and the wan children she nurtures between her erotic outings, or a lawman driven to enforce a righteousness he himself cannot claim to possess. But it’s lost somewhere in the sprawling corridors of the Cortez, or locked away behind a numbered door. Like a good hotel, good storytelling needs order and structure, and American Horror Story: Hotel never quite manages those.

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Stray observations

  • Sally: “You telling people to stop killing is like Col. Sanders telling us to stop eating chicken.” James Patrick March: “I’m not familiar with your military friend and his fondness for poultry.”
  • Will Drake’s son may still think he’s alive but unwilling to see him. John and Alex Lowe let their growing daughter continue to visit them in their ghastly home. Even in death, they can’t let go. Unexpectedly, it’s Tristan who has the sensitivity and discipline to let his loved one go one with her life; only after Liz Taylor’s death does he return to her. His explanation is simple: “Darlin’, you had more living to do.”
  • “‘Mr. Woo doesn’t pay for what’?”
  • That’s the end of American Horror Story: Hotel. Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you all back here for the next incarnation of American Horror Story.

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