Another fall has brought us another season of American Horror Story. Ever since I heard each season of AHS would have a different setting, I’ve been waiting for Hotel: what is more perfectly terrifying than a spooky hotel? And yet despite this, I found myself having some reservations about this season (get it? Reservations? Hotel?). Now, every year there is a neat mix of old and new faces in the repertory cast of AHS; that’s a huge part of its appeal. However, this year is dominated by less familiar faces. Of course there is brand-spanking new headliner Lady Gaga, but most we have at least seen at least briefly before. Some, like Chloe Sevigny and Finn Wittrock, had sizable roles in a previous season, while others, like Wes Bentley and Matt Bomer, had such small, almost cameo roles, so they feel pretty much brand new. Sure there’s a few good ol’ reliables like Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, and Denis O’Hare, but I’m definitely missing the underused Taissa Farmiga and Jamie Brewer and the inimitable Frances Conroy and Jessica Lange. I just didn’t feel the same warm, fuzzy “the gang’s all back!” feeling I usually do when a new season starts. On the other hand, this season has sort of felt like a fresh start for the show, and all the new blood is certainly a part of that. Let’s take a closer look at AHS: Hotel so far, seven episodes into the fifth season. Spoilers after the jump.
The less familiar faces are well balanced by an overall sense of familiarity that infuses this season—in many ways, it feels like both a counterpoint and a return to Murder House, the first (and, most people would say, best) season of AHS. Both feature dwelling places that have the uncanny habit of trapping the spirits of those who die within, leading to layers on layers of ghosties. It’s like a ghost parfait. And at the heart of both is the drama and pain of a family being torn apart by past tragedies. I think that was always at the core of what made the first season of American Horror Story so good, and it’s what we return to in Hotel: this idea that we are all haunted. The ghosts of our pasts, and in particular our families, never quite leave us. In less metaphorical ways, the two seasons are also intimately connected: both are set in present-day L.A., the same present-day L.A. That’s right, folks; it’s all connected.
In case you missed it, the brief cameo return of Season 2’s Sister Mary Eunice last season was the first evidence that the seemingly disconnected seasons are in fact part of one larger web. Hotel goes even further, not only showing the return of everyone’s love-to-hate real estate agent Marcy from Season 1, but also a return to the Murder House itself in a flashback! In all honesty, I’m not sure how I feel about this. I actually liked the idea of each season being a totally unrelated story with no connection to any others. I thought having a recurring troupe of actors portraying different characters in different stories was more than enough of a connecting thread; I pray the whole thing doesn’t end up getting too “meta” about how it’s all connected.
So despite the harkening back to the great Murder House, is Hotel living up to that glory year? Not really. I’d say my biggest problem is that there are too many goddamned characters. With each season, the cast grows exponentially as new people are added to returning actors, and it seems to be the cool new show everyone wants to be on, with guest spots this season from Naomi Campbell to Darren Criss. It’s so bad that for the first time in AHS history, we have an actor playing more than one character in the same season—Finn Wittrock recently pulled double duty with a second character the other week. The massive dramatis personae of this season makes it challenging to keep up with each and every one, since such a plethora of characters means jumping around week to week amongst one of fifty-two different storylines. I couldn’t (still can’t?) figure out who I should be getting most invested in as our “main” characters. Is it Detective Daddy? Lady Doctor? Matt Bomer? I clearly can’t even remember most of their actual character names, which is not a great sign. If you can’t sell me your characters, you’re not selling me your show.
That said, there are some stand out characters this season. The one I really want to spotlight is none other than Liz Taylor. Not that Liz Taylor, but a namesake, and also a landmark: American Horror Story‘s first trans main character, still one of precious few on television. Played by veteran actor Denis O’Hare, earlier casting reports used male pronouns, making it unclear if the character was simply a man who cross-dresses, also a group which gets no air time except as the two second butt of a joke from time to time. But the show has more than cleared that up: Liz Taylor is a woman. Living as a mild-mannered, milquetoast Midwestern man, it was only within the dark walls of the Hotel Cortez, under the wing of vampire Countess Lady Gaga (again, she has a name… Elisabeth? Maybe?), that Liz found the power and courage to be herself. The vampiress even acknowledged Liz’s inherent womanhood by telling Liz that she could tell her blood was that of a woman. I think the show is, thus far, handling Liz pretty well. They even gave her a surprise romance with—extra spoiler alert—Finn Wittrock’s bad boy character. Giving a trans character a sex life, how bout that! Finn’s protestations of “But I’m not gay” countered with Liz’s “I know, I’m a hetero girl” felt a little like The Message of a Very Special Episode, but I also understand it reflects a common thought process and dynamic. Did said trans romance get a happy ending? Hardly, but that’s life on American Horror Story.
I do want to bring up the fact that Liz is played by a cis male actor. Understandably, trans parts going to cis actors is not the ideal. However, there is something to be said about O’Hare’s portrayal of Liz: I think it can give us a glimpse at the politics of passing. Not all trans people are as va-va-voom glam as, say, Laverne Cox, and to defend the womanhood of a character who would easily be read as a middle-aged man is a great twist to a media who prioritizes and applauds “success stories” of stealth trans individuals, ignoring all those who, whether due to age at time of transition like Liz or innumerable other factors, don’t pass the same way. Obviously this didn’t magically make O’Hare’s casting non-problematic. The appropriate thing to do would have been hiring a trans actress who doesn’t meet society’s narrow standards for cis female beauty, if that was indeed the physicality required for the role. It’s not like trans actresses don’t exist—American Horror Story had one in the cast just last season, Erika Ervin, who portrayed Amazon Eve.
So yes, definitely some good things this season. These characters have proved to be some of the least accessible, yet most rewarding in the show’s history. The writing does leave some to be desired; yet one more symptom of #toomanycharacterprobs is frequent background info dumps, whether through dialogue or extended flashback sequences interrupting the flow of some other plotline in an episode. The season is moving along at a slow, smoldering pace, but at about halfway through, many of the storylines are finally advancing and we’re getting even more depth from the characters. If you’ve started watching, I’d say it’s definitely worth sticking it out. As always, the anthology format of the show lends itself to diving into a new season without having watched the others (although the little linkages now being seen may change that a bit), so even if you’ve never watched AHS before, I’d recommend giving Hotel a try if you like spooky, disturbing visuals, dense personal character drama, or looking at a cast of beautiful people doing horrible, awful things.
Let me know your thoughts down below!