‘American Horror Story: Hotel’ Recap: Is “Hotline Bling” the One Thing that Can Defeat the Countess?

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The appearance of “Hotline Bling” — presumably a pretty pricey track for a TV show to feature — late in Season 5 Episode 10 underscores the arbitrary frivolity of this series, but in the best way possible. When AHS isn’t caught up in rules and twists that are entirely incoherent and irrelevant, it allows its fun and wonderfully useless side to show.

Perhaps it’s this episode’s lack of reliance on flashback or expository storytelling tangents — tendencies this show has that stop its pulse until it’s resuscitated by a campy one-liner, anachronistic pop cultural reference or, simply, a disembowelment — that make it work. But writer James Wong and director Bradley Buecker have managed to make an episode of this often turgid season that feels as over the top as any — but that still manages to flow, and that never seems mired in the futile/unrewarding notion of an AHS “story.”

The episode begins with Liz Taylor (Dennis O’Hare) narrating. Though last week, in the episode “She Wants Revenge,” the “she” who wanted said revenge was clearly Ramona, this week, in “She Gets Revenge,” the title seems to very much be referring to Liz. And maybe a bit to Iris (Kathy Bates). And sure, indirectly, Ramona. But Liz is the centerpiece, as she begins by monologuing about aging, providing the voiceover for an elderly couple who check into the hotel and shoot each other in the head as a final act of devotion. Feeling inspired, Liz and Iris plot to benevolently assist one another in suicide. However, in order for them to avoid becoming ghosts and being damned to spend an eternity alongside the poor company of the (admittedly very absent) dildo demon, the serial killer hotel owner, the manipulative heroin addict, and the bloodstain beleaguered maid, they need to make sure to take care of all their unfinished business. For Iris, this means canceling her Readers’ Digest subscription. For Liz Taylor, this means making things right with the son she abandoned when he was a child.

Meanwhile, another duo — the Countess (Lady Gaga) and Donovan (Matt Bomer) — aren’t getting long quite so well, though the Countess isn’t aware of the extent of it. While the Countess goes to confront Natacha (her true love Valentino’s wife), Donovan pays Valentino a visit. The Countess kills Natacha; Donovan kills Valentino. As the very attractive Donovan stares into the bullet-hollowed and formerly very attractive head of his love-nemesis, he seethes, “I have better cheekbones. Cheekbones for days!” Obviously, the Countess will not be thrilled about this, regardless of who has better cheekbones.

As the episode continues, we begin to assume that her anger will only be exacerbated by the fact that she fails to reap the benefits of Will Drake’s death, as his ghost marches in and pretends he never died just as she’s sealing arrangements with his estate administrators. (March later critiques her for having killed Drake in a place where his spirit was certain to return. It doesn’t help that at the Cortez, ghosts are basically just people — they can murder, have sex, drink, cry, and look splendid in cheetah print).

And in the world of another equally — wait, actually more — twisted couple, John and Alex Lowe are comparing notes on what bad parents they are. They discuss the fact (and it’s refreshing that they’re noting it, as it formerly just seemed like a big hole in the plot) that neither of them has remembered to, well, remember their daughter, Scarlet, in a long time. In fact, they’ve basically entirely abandoned her. John has been too busy being the Ten Commandments Murderer and having sex with a sleazy ghost (though he doesn’t tell Alex this), and Alex has been too busy playing (near-fetishistic) favorites with her ageless blood-virus afflicted son. (And contracting the virus herself so she could be with him. And accidentally turning a group of middle schoolers into rabid bloodsuckers who’ve made a giant feeding trough of Los Angeles).

Because Alex made a vampiric boo-boo and inadvertently made the whole blood virus thing get completely out of hand, the Countess has threatened that if she doesn’t round up the murderous — and worse, conspicuous — preteens, she’ll kill her and her precious son, Holden. And so the now-coffin-dwelling Alex and her now-serial-killer husband set up to play chaperone to some beastly middle schoolers. John, despite his gruesome proclivities, still proves to be a family man (again, except to their neglected-for-being-too-normal daughter, Scarlet), determined to help save Alex and Holden. They finally round up the kids and bring them back to the hotel, where they’re locked away in the dungeon with Will Drake’s fetid corpse and a very hungry Ramona. She refers to them as “appetizers,” and it seems pretty clear what’s in store for them.

Through all of this, Miss Evers has summoned Liz Taylor’s son — who lives an exceedingly normal (in that he’s not a ghost, bloodsucker, or serial killer, but perhaps we should give him some time) life — to the hotel. There, he meets his father, Liz, for the first time since childhood, but doesn’t let on to the fact that he knows who she is. He has a few drinks at Liz’s bar and openly tells her everything about his life. On their second meeting at the bar, he reveals that he’s known its her all along, and that he bears no resentment about the fact that she abandoned him, and has no qualms with her being a woman. Liz, feeling like she suddenly has a reason to live, reneges on her promise to go collabo on suicide with Iris. Instead, she suggests that the two of them are in their prime, and shouldn’t succumb to defeat. And so, in a fashion entirely atypical of this season, this all leads up to something over the course of one episode:

The Countess returns from having seen the dead, dented body of her lover and confronts Donovan, interrupting a stunning solo dance he’s performing to “Hotline Bling.” Donovan claims he killed Valentino solely so that the Countess would finally kill him — as death was the only state where his love for the Countess could remain unblemished, or something similarly nonsensical-ish, but sure. Just as the Countess begins to swoon at this beautiful thought (before perchance killing him — who’s to say?), “Hotline Bling” blasts again, and Iris and Liz burst through their doors and shoot them both (presumably) dead. Which probably just means they’ll be back as completely unchanged ghosts in the next episode?

It seems best not to watch this show for story, for emotional gravity, or even for horror: watching it to satiate one’s simultaneous pop cultural fanaticism and cynicism, to see respected veteran actors murdering pop stars to Drake, and to see Finn Wittrock and Matt Bomer engage in battles-of-the-cheekbones is a far more realistic way to engage with what this show does best. It doesn’t, unfortunately, always devote all of its time to these fortes, but this episode very much delivers in camp, while remaining succinct and less indulgent than usual in its narrative.