Alex Lowe (Chlöe Sevigny) (Ray Mickshaw/FX)

American Horror Story is a well-oiled shock machine, producing jolts and bombshells with predictable facility and facile predictability, but “Room 33” manages something genuinely surprising: It propels the story forward with nimble efficiency, ties together several of the season’s flopping loose ends, circles back into the show’s history, and creates some tension along the way even as it acknowledges the ceaseless tedium created by its no-stakes cycle of death and resurrection.

Advertisement

In the very first scene, “Room 33” begins to make good on Ryan Murphy’s promise to tie all its seasons together. In the Los Angeles of 1926, The Countess (then simply “Mrs. Johnson”) consults with Dr. Montgomery (Matt Ross), the ether-happy abortionist who built the Murder House of season one. The good doctor fits right into AHS: Hotel’s theme of addiction—and he (ahem) delivers the first genuine surprise the show has produced in some time, presenting “Mrs. Johnson” with her blood-smeared, terrifyingly agile newborn. “Congratulations. It’s a boy.”

The thought of an eternal infant is ingeniously repulsive, and it gives director Loni Peristere (who’s previously directed some of AHS’s more gruesome episodes as well as several episodes of Banshee) a chance to shoot from the tiny monster’s perspective, zipping around the floors of the hotel and the bushes outside the Lowe’s home, peering at the distorted faces looming above.

Advertisement

There’s a fresh perspective of a different sort in the love story of Liz Taylor and Tristan. Denis O’Hare and Finn Wittrock forge a genuinely affecting connection, an earnestness missing from the rest of the show, as they lie together talking about books and love and learning to be yourself. All Tristan’s swagger drops away when he asks, “Do you love me?” and tells her “I think I love you.” Liz drops her glamorous façade to reveal real affection—for Tristan, and for The Countess. They both trust that their love will touch her heart, though they both know she doesn’t have a heart—not a mortal one.

The sweet wholesomeness of their pillow talk, backed by a dark but romantic Depeche Mode song, contrasts starkly with The Countess’ and Will Drake’s more brazen sex scene, set to a throbbing beat and culminating in her command that the unwilling Tristan “fluff him up.” It’s an examination of sexual exploitation and the sometimes stifling effect of an unwanted power imbalance, but it’s also a meditation on how feelings make us human.

In her modest chamber, Liz Taylor ruminates on her own history, and how accepting herself made everything else sweeter: “I think you can’t shut down one part of yourself without shutting down the whole thing, and when I brought Liz out, I could see and feel and taste… love.”

Advertisement

When Liz breaks the news of her love for Tristan, The Countess coolly recites a bitter echo of those words. “When you are what I am,” she tells them both, “you don’t feel things the way normal humans do. An emotion is like a flavor in my mouth, I can taste it. Joy tastes like strawberry, hate is like ice chips in a martini, and love is like rosewater.” For Liz, love encompasses every sensation. For The Countess, it’s one more flavor, one more mouthful to slake her thirst.

And Tristan knows it. “It’s not that that you get bored and move on. Moving on is the point of the whole thing,” he confronts her. “You get off on the heartbreak, knowing that we’re out there, suffering for you.” For his effrontery, and to punish Liz Taylor for the betrayal of taking her consort from her, she gives Tristan to Liz—utterly, and mortally. Slashing his throat, letting his potential immortality gutter out onto the cheap floors of that shabby room, she tells Liz, “He’s yours. Bury him.”

“Eternity can be tedious.” Donovan tells Vendela and Agnetha the story of Cara, the elementary-school teacher with so much love to give, whose corpse rotted away in a bathtub full of her own blood. At first, it seems like yet another interminable retread of exhausted characters and yet another unnecessary sideline jammed into an overstuffed story—but instead, this is where the plot of AHS: Hotel gets into gear.

Advertisement

“Until you find a purpose,” Donovan tells the tourists dispatched in the first episode of the season, “you’ll be stuck in an unbreakable chain, repeating yourself over and over.” Donovan interrupts his own errand—ignores his own urgent purpose—to counsel the dead girls, and fittingly enough his instruction isn’t the catalyst that breaks them free from blankly wandering the halls. It’s Alex Lowe who prods them into finding their purpose—to drive guests mad, to break their minds—and their purpose secretly serves her purpose: to drive John Lowe from the Cortez and leave her in peace with her undead son.

Alex is The Countess’ sole remaining ally. Eternity is a long time, and it’s longer still for a creature who thrives on the heartache of her own kind and punishes the mortals who would be honest with her. The Countess has turned all her lovers and servants against her. She’s given them a purpose, and that purpose might unite them to destroy her.

“I know this doesn’t end well, and it shouldn’t,” Liz Taylor warns Tristan as they snuggles together in her bed for the last time. But now, for the first time, I’d put money on it not ending well for The Countess.

Advertisement

Stray observations

  • As repulsive as the thought of a never-aging bloodsucking baby is, the single most appalling thing in American Horror Story: Hotel so far is tonight’s glimpse of that smug would-be photographer wandering the halls, eternally demanding his serving of kale.
  • Liz Taylor firmly but kindly sets Tristan straight as he ponders his own sexuality: “You’re not gay for being with me. I’m a girl. I’m a hetero girl.”
  • When Scarlett’s dishevelled, distracted father caps off his long absence by emptying his service weapon just a few feet from where she sits eating popcorn and watching cartoons, she screams “Stay away from me!” at the top of her lungs, displaying the most sense of any AHS character ever. No matter how drunk and disoriented Det. Lowe is supposed to be, his surprise at her reaction is just one more sign of the thudding numbness and implausibility at the heart of his character.
  • American Horror Story has long been a showcase for great actresses to perform preposterous, beautifully crafted moments, but this season, the handful of bravura performances have gone to Liz Taylor, and to Denis O’Hare.

Advertisement