In American Horror Story, almost every character that appears serves little purpose beyond playing to the whims of Ryan Murphy, and the staff of writers ready to do his bidding. It’s like a chess game with too many pawns. There’s far too little substance with the characters, probably to make it easier to inevitably get rid of everyone.
But this tendency to throw away characters is American Horror Story’s worst asset. Take for example Coven, which introduced so many characters that by the end, the show just cut down most of its cast unceremoniously. On the other hand, there’s a season like Freak Show, in which the overabundance of characters is still prevalent, but the ability and strength in dispersing them had more weight, due to how much we’d grown to like these characters, who were more than just tools in a larger game.
With “Room Service,” the gap between how these characters are handled is made incredibly clear, as two of the biggest pawns in this show become two of the most interesting characters, which really highlights just how much substance has been missing from the rest of the cast.
In Coven and Freak Show, American Horror Story has lamented the young coming to rise up against the old, making them irrelevant. This theme is even worse in Hotel, where the old are still there—the world just doesn’t see them anymore.
Now that Iris has turned with “the virus,” she’s still living with the lack of confidence that she had when she was alive. She’s been beaten down for far too long, mostly by her son Donovan, but also from decades of terrible customers at the Hotel Cortez. When a couple of “influencers” stop by the hotel as Iris is discovering what her new transformation entails, demanding grilled romaine and towels that aren’t made of sand paper, Iris finally lets the animal inside loose, murdering them both with a corkscrew and raging about how she still matters. She’s finally found herself, as she matter of factly states: “I never knew how to live until I died.”
But the true heart in “Room Service” comes from the unexpected flashback of Denis O’Hare’s Liz Taylor, as we see the transformation from a medical rep in Kansas to the goddess she is today. O’Hare does a fantastic job presenting this evolution—changing from the person that the world needs him to be, into the person that lives in the shadow. This is all made even more fascinating by the involvement of The Countess, who helps Taylor in the physical and emotional makeover process. As she tells Taylor, “you don’t lack beauty, you lack commitment.” The Countess for once isn’t manipulating with love, deception or desire, she’s simply trying to help a person in need. It’s a selfless act, the likes of which we’ve never seen before.
For Iris, Taylor and—probably most importantly—The Countess, “Room Service” gives a level of humanity to the characters they hadn’t seen yet The other characters are still lacking in this department. Donovan and Ramona Royale are trying to work together, and John and Sally are now apparently sleeping together, with John also getting fired from the police force. But with most of this cast, there’s nothing deeper than what’s on the surface.
For the most part, AHS seasons stick close to the locations in the title. Murder House rarely left the subdivision and the largest scale seems to have been the exploration of New Orleans in Coven. But Hotel seems likely to go even further, thanks to the stupidity of Dr. Alex Lowe.
When her patient Max takes a turn for the worst, Alex simply decides to pass on her virus—along with her newfound love of drinking blood—to make him better. He immediately recovers, and is set free into the unsuspecting world, where he kills his parents, drinks their blood, then causes his entire class at school to murder the teachers. They revel in this new “awesome” and are reinvigorated by their taste for blood. In 48 hours, the virus has escalated from being confined within the Cortez, and now has the possibility of infecting all of Los Angeles and beyond. Hotel was already ambitious with claims of tying in other seasons to its story, but now it’ll be interesting to see how Hotel handles breaking free of its constraints.
“Room Service” shows AHS trying to expand the heart of this season just slightly. But these characters with depth are few and far between, and shows just how far this season needs to go. “Room Service” presents a level of scope and growth that they might not be able to sustain, but there’s great promise there.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.