“Mommy” explores motherhood: birth, love, and nurturing, but also creation… and especially control. When Donovan, 20 years a vampire but still harboring grievances from his childhood, recounts them to his mother, Iris has a killer answer ready, or so she thinks. “My list beats yours. Item one: I gave you life. Item two: I saved your life.”
Like sulky teenagers and whiny vampires everywhere, Donovan has a scathing riposte at the ready. He chose to die to escape his inescapable mother. He couldn’t escape her by running away or through drugs, so he escaped her by overdose… and she pulled him back even from death, binding him to eternity so she could bind herself to him. “I don’t know who I am if I’m not your mother,” she blubbers. She is defined by him.
Dr. Alex Lowe’s story is more sentimental, but under its sweetness, it’s uncomfortably similar. Neither her husband nor her first child suffused her with love as Holden did; neither filled up the holes within her. When Holden disappeared, she tried to follow him into oblivion. Flashbacks show her taking pills, weeping into Holden’s baby blanket, and finally bleeding out into a bath in a failed suicide attempt.
Alex’s narration and her flashbacks of grief and despair intercut with scenes of her treating Max (Anton Starkenman)—the measles patient from “Chutes And Ladders,” whose neglected pneumonia now needs to be treated “more aggressively”—and scolding Max’s mother (Madchën Amick) for not calling sooner. “I guess I just felt ashamed after our last conversation,” Mrs. Ellison offers feebly, as if it’s her pediatrician’s fault she’s twice withheld treatment from her son.
Alex tried to escape her own life when her son was taken from her, and now she struggles to carry on for her daughter, so it’s no surprise she’s unsympathetic to a mother putting her own son’s life in danger. It’s also not particularly compelling. Yet. Neither is her tale of intentional childlessness blooming into unexpected love, then sorrow. “By the way,” Chloe Sevigny narrates, “I’m not unaware of the obvious cliche here.” Acknowledging a character’s feelings as cliché doesn’t change the fact that they are cliché.
But it fits neatly into the guiding narrative of “Mommy,” that of creation as an act that makes the creator complete. Alex needs Holden to give her life meaning; if she can’t tuck her son into bed, she’ll tuck in her soon-to-be ex-husband instead. Iris needs “Donno” so much that she consigned herself for 20 years to the miseries of the Cortez and his contempt, and as soon as The Countess dumps him, Iris starts combing Craiglist rentals, hoping to shack up with her undead son in a Santa Monica two-bedroom “where they captured Whitey Bulger.”
The Countess is a wayward parent, creating a new spawn and lover every few decades, enjoying the pleasures of the hunt and the bed (often at the same time) with them until she wearies of them, then dropping them for a new creation. When Donovan goes out to stalk the streets, he meets one of her discarded descendants. He strides up to her on a dark street, and in a scene that’s literally electric, she turns the tables, knocking him out with a stun gun. He awakens bound in a restraint collar, dark viscous blood pumping out of him.
Ramona (Angela Bassett), a former blacksploitation star in the tradition of Pam Grier’s Coffy and Foxy Brown, remembers her creator and lover as “a rarefied, timeless creature” who knows “the world I wanted to live in, and she promised I could—forever.” She reflects, “There was nothing I couldn’t be… except hers, forever.” Ramona, smitten by a rapper who was “the great love of my life,” defies The Countess by creating her own companion, and she’s punished for it. Her lover is killed and she’s cast out. “What she couldn’t have was one of her creations creating something else. There could only be one queen.” Ramona seeks vengeance on her begetter by destroying the brood of blonde children hidden in the hotel—to kill “those babies she made”—and she wants Donovan’s help. But without access to the Cortez, he’s as useless to her as he is juiced full of junkies’ blood.
She’s by turns menacing, seductive, and persuasive, and never less than formidable. Scenes like Angela Bassett drinking the gift of eternal life from Lady Gaga’s breast—and the montage of the two riding that same elevator, decked out in ’70s, then ’80s, then ’90s fashions, in postures of ever-increasing aloofness—are what keep audiences tuning in season after season.
Not all parenthood in “Mommy” is controlling, corrupted, or doomed. The happiest family in this episode is one formed by common interests, not by blood. Since “Chutes And Ladders,” Tristan’s discovered both the pleasures of killing and the history of James Patrick March’s countless murders. “I know everything about you!” Tristan tells him, “I’m a fan.” How did he learn so much so quickly? “I Googled you.”
March recoils ever so slightly. “That sounds obscene,” he says, but not without a titillated smile. It’s the collision of history and modernity, of old and new. And it’s an inheritance. March details his hotel’s secrets—secret rooms, acid pits, asphyxiation chambers—and shows off his “black closet,” where he impales victims on a massive spike. The two are like father and son, March grandly passing on his estate and his enthusiasms. “Put them to good use, old boy.” When Will Drake’s plan to demolish their floor threatens the dark heart of the Cortez, Miss Evers and March quail, but Tristan soothes them. “Don’t worry, dude. I got this.” Like a dutiful son, he’ll save their home, and his.
“People aren’t supposed to live in hotels,” Lachlin Drake (Lyric Lennon) says to The Countess in American Horror Story: Hotel’s premiere. Lachlin’s unwittingly hit upon both AHS: Hotel’s great strength and its great weakness. Hotels are primarily transient spaces, all those rooms with people coming and going, spending a night or a week, then moving on—or using the rented privacy of an anonymous space to indulge in something they wouldn’t do at home.
When Donovan can’t find shelter on the streets, when he’s cast out even from his captor’s mansion, he heads back to the Cortez, and there he finds the closest thing he has to a home. It’s Iris. He scorned and reviled her, he urged her to commit suicide, but when Liz Taylor upbraids him—“In the next hundred years of living, you may find someone who loves you better, who treats you better, who makes you laugh, makes you cry. You’ll never find someone who loves you like she does”—he relents. Pushing into her room, where Sally’s given her the gift of a peaceful death, Donovan bleeds his undead vitality into her, coaxing her back from death, closing the circle on the cycle of creation, birth, nurture… and control. ““Come back. Come back, Mommy. Come back to me,” he pleads, and she does. Donovan brings Iris home.
Hotels aren’t home. That’s both their practical purpose and the source of their unease. But AHS: Hotel eschews the impermanence and uncertainty of a hotel, instead explicitly binding its characters to the Cortez in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons, always meaning they will return as surely as a jack-in-the-box pops out of its box. In every season, that certainty robs American Horror Story of weight, of meaning. In “Mommy,” Donovan is cast out. Iris dies. Claudia (Naomi Campbell) walks the halls covered in blood, asking “Is this Hell?” Max dies. (Again? How did he survive those drill wounds?) And it seems inevitable that they’ll all return in one form or another, interminably. Not because it’s home. Not even because, as Sally points out, unfinished business ties people to places. Just because it’s American Horror Story.
- Who is the real monster here? A not subtle theme in “Mommy”: Human cupidity, in the form of Bernie Madoff making the Countess beg to give him her money and a producer leveraging his power to bed Ramona, is more grotesque and rapacious than even the blood-lusting not-vampires of The Cortez.
- “There’s this room where they play Nintendo, and glass jars full of jelly beans.” To be fair, Scarlett’s entirely accurate description of Holden’s new home does sound like a child’s fantasy. No wonder all the adults in her life dismiss it.
- Kathy Bates’ matter-of-fact Iris breathes life into this stuffy old hotel, and into this high-drama script. I hope virus-infected not-vampire Iris is just as no-nonsense.
- In her entrance, Ramona is dressed perfectly for a woman with tastes cemented in the 1970s but whose body and style are still youthful in 2015: deep blue jumpsuit, waterfall necklace, and a short fur jacket in the style known as (ahem) a chubby.
- Tristan and March keep delivering great moments of disconnect, even as they commune. “High five!” “… good!”