Love him, hate him, or love to hate him, Ryan Murphy is one of the biggest players in television today. Nip/Tuck, Glee, The Normal Heart, American Horror Story, and Scream Queens — OK, maybe not that last one — showcase a mind obsessed with creating (or recreating) a complete world. Whether it be the odd underbelly of plastic surgeons, a purgatorial high school, a purgatorial asylum, or a purgatorial house, Murphy’s always been adept at conjuring full worlds inhabited by empty characters. But within the Hotel Cortez, Hotel‘s purgatorial namesake, Murphy has managed, for the first time, to create a world that feels lived in, even if it’s entirely absurd.
The key to understanding the unlikely narrative success of Hotel is knowing that, for the first time in the series’ run, Murphy has managed to imbue most of his characters with actual heart. The damage we all suffer through our inherently codependent parent/offspring relationships has always played a part in the family-centric AHS series, but, more than ever before, each of this season’s arcs has a through-line of troubled families, biological or otherwise.
This is most evident in one of the series’ finest moments, in the tenth episode of the season, “She Gets Revenge,” when Liz Taylor (Denis O’Hare) meets her son. Several decades earlier, Liz, a transgender woman, had abandoned her family when Lady Gaga’s Countess encouraged her to live as her true self. The encounter between Liz and her son is arguably emotionally fraught: everything in this show is so unrelentingly shitty, one must question the intention of anything bordering on heartfelt. But to see Liz’s son react so warmly to his biological father was, to this viewer, important and unexpectedly powerful. Sure, it would’ve been easier, and perhaps made more superficial sense, for the son to be a cretin that Liz murders out of spite. But that didn’t happen, and instead Liz’s conviction to obtain autonomy was strengthened, giving her the resolve to shoot down the Countess as “Hotline Bling” blares in the background.
Stepping back from the particularity of Liz and her son, it should be noted that all of the show’s characters are creations of one another. (The following breakdown, as mercifully incomplete as it is, gets complicated.) The Hotel Cortez was created by James Patrick March (Evan Peters), and for whatever reason — I’ve learned not to question these things — people who are killed in the Cortez are fated to live there, forever, as ghosts. And so March creates the ghost characters of Hazel Evers (Mare Winningham) and Valentino (Finn Wittrock) by murdering them. Valentino, prior to being a ghost, created the infected version (read: vampire) of the Countess, who later infects Dr. Alex Lowe (Chloë Sevigny); Alex’s son, Holden Lowe (Lennon Henry); Donovan (Matt Bomer); Tristan Duffy (Finn Wittrock, again); and Ramona Royale (Angela Bassett). Donovan, in turn, infects his mother, Iris (Kathy Bates). Iris kills Sally (Sarah Paulson), birthing her ghost version. Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley) is, up to the penultimate episode, not infected at all, but he has been mentored by March in the ways of serial killing, and so owes his insanity to him. This is all to say that the Cortez — and, after Alex sets off a chain reaction of infections, the entire city of Los Angeles — is a mass grave in which each wildly animated corpse operates out of obligation, either to the thing that created it, or the thing it created.
To track the finer points of all of the relationships would be thankless — there are too many, most of them nuanced into oblivion — but this obligation is a driving factor in the show, and, amazingly, it even seems that, for the first time in the history of the series, the writers did it intentionally. The story of Hotel is predicated on the Lowe family losing young Holden, which drives Detective Lowe (and the audience) to the Cortez and disrupts the family unit until Holden’s reappearance. The Countess, for most of the series, is lost without her creator, Valentino, and so runs amok. His brief reappearance reawakens her resolve to obtain some kind of normalcy, but then he dies (again) and she goes off the rails (again). Ramona Royale surrenders her life to one thing: murdering the Countess, who created her and cast her off. Donovan hates Iris for creating him (treating him too much like a human), and loves the Countess for infecting him (treating him as anything but human). These characters’ hearts, broken by betrayal or buoyed by love, have guided this show to something that is, for once, coherent.
So, is Ryan Murphy, happily married and father of two, making some important comment on the obligation of the father to the son, and vice versa? No, probably not. The only clear commentary being made in Hotel is the jokey correlation between anti-vaxxers and vampires, but it’s too absurd to be bothered by. (Though why an anti-vaxxer critique would be bothersome is lost on me.)
The takeaway of this is that the presence of true, feelings-based motivation and obligation has, for the first time in five years, managed to keep Murphy’s characters afloat and helped his show transcend its pretty set pieces and famous stars. Is it a perfect show? Nah, American Horror Story will never see Murphy striving for legendary TV, regardless of the Golden Globes it receives. This is not The Sopranos, or even Breaking Bad. But it’s nice to finally be able to enjoy the wild ride of blood and guts without feeling braindead from the constant knock of our rolling eyes.