Did that really just happen? Did an episode of American Horror Story actually — as Flavorwire’s own Shane Barnes suggested yesterday — end a season of the show cohesively? (Or as cohesively as a show with an ensemble cast comprising ghosts, serial killers, almost-vampires and, for a second, a human voodoo doll could hope to end?) Did you have an enjoyable viewing experience of Season 5, episode 12 (“Be Our Guest”), and does your world therefore suddenly, somehow, seem off? In the last very funny and decidedly un-scary and even relatively un-gross (sure, as is standard, there’s some minor throat slitting and some OD-ing regurgitation, but otherwise, this is mild) episode of American Horror Story: Hotel, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck gave fully into the ridiculousness the show begs for. They also imbued it with an unprecedented sweetness, and managed to prove that some themes that had wavered in importance weren’t just there incidentally.
Ryan Murphy had discussed how this season was meant to be about addiction (the hotel even contains a creature with a deadly dildo called the Addiction Demon — who thankfully hardly appeared after the first episode), and this episode shows that Hotel may have had something of a deliberate trajectory as such. For in this final episode, all of the characters are placed in figurative rehab.
Liz Taylor (Dennis O’Hare) and Iris (Kathy Bates) have taken over. They’ve renovated the hotel, a beautification effort that includes “Japanese self-cleaning wonder toilets” but unfortunately for customers, also still includes likes of Hypodermic Sally (Sarah Paulson) and other ghosts that may want to murder them. Try as they may to run a successful business, Liz and Iris hit an obstacle whenever someone’s petty complaint about bad service or water pressure or, y’know, being killed, threatens their online ratings. And this is a particular problem at the start of the episode, as Sally and the murder-convert ghost of Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson) decide to kill a duo of reviewers for a site called TripAdventure. In one of the season’s best overall moments, this leads Iris and Liz to have an intervention with all of the ghosts in the hotel, requiring them to stop murdering — at least until August 2026, when the Hotel Cortez becomes a historical landmark and is therefore safe from destruction.
Sally, who doesn’t have much of a project besides shooting up and longing for her soulmate to come along so she can kill him and share a ghostly eternity in the Cortez with him, takes especially poorly to the moratorium on murder. Iris, who if you’ll recall, killed Sally by pushing her out of a high floor of the hotel, has a heart-to-heart with her. (After so many subplots and backstories, swaying loyalties and rivalries, I was surprised that the writers even remembered who had murdered whom). In order to help Sally with her murder addiction, Iris introduces her to social media. Though she’s at first hesitant to become “the ghost in the machine,” she very quickly experiences Instagram fame — mostly through photographs of her favorite toys — needles.
Meanwhile, Liz Taylor decides to help Will Drake get control of his murder addiction by likewise showing him there’s more to life (well, death, but the two really aren’t that different here) than easy catharsis. His creative energy used to go to his design, and so Liz convinces him to reboot his fashion line from the beyond. The Hotel starts hosting fashion shows again; Sally and Ramona (Angela Bassett) — who’s happily enjoying a relative Countess-less life — model occasionally.
Though she may now have it all success-wise, not all is perfect in the world of Liz. The Countess murdered Liz’s lover Tristan (Finn Wittrock) in the hotel, which should mean that he would have appeared as a full-bodied ghost moments after, and yet Liz has never seen him. She and Iris hire a medium/TV personality to come and see if she can detect Tristan’s spirit. The psychic is, like Hypodermic Sally, played by Sarah Paulson — a move that sees the show fully acknowledging itself as an expensive game of dress-up, and acknowledging the fact that when it acknowledges that, it can be extremely enjoyable: rules don’t matter, stories can go anywhere, people can be any amount of characters. (Honestly, I wouldn’t have minded more roles for Paulson). Paulson’s self-serious TV psychic happens to be the real deal, and she senses Tristan in the walls. Liz assumes that he’s been here all along but hasn’t shown himself because he blames her for his death. (The Countess murdered him after she caught him having an affair with Liz). As a side note, the psychic informs Iris that her son Donovan is “someplace else – someplace beautiful.”
Indeed, Liz’s life is no less tumultuous now that it ever was — though she gets a granddaughter, she also finds out that she has prostate cancer. The episode briefly opened with an image of the Countess’ famous fingernail slitting Liz’s throat, and suddenly it becomes apparent where this is going: Liz asks the paranormal residents of the Hotel to murder her so that she’ll get to stay there with them for eternity. She provides them each with their favorite weapons, lays down on a hotel bed, and implores them to go to town. But just before they’re about to inject and stab and axe her, the Countess shows up for Liz since the first time she died.
Because of Liz and the Countess’ long, complicated history — and the fact that the Countess helped Liz transition to womanhood — everyone decides it’s best for the Countess to do the honors. And so Lady Gaga and her diamond-blade fingernails puncture Liz’s neck and she bleeds until she becomes a very fashionable ghost. As Sally states, it’s not murder, it’s a “rebirth.” And upon her rebirth, Tristan shows up, and reveals that he wasn’t angry with Liz, but that he hid from her so as not to distract her from what she needed to accomplish. “Darlin’, you had more living to do — I couldn’t get in the way of that,” he says.
The one part of the plot that you may still be wondering about is that of John and Alex Lowe (Wes Bentley and Chloë Sevigny). (Although no one would blame you for not wondering). The episode makes sure to tie up this plot line as well, and all the answers lie in Devil’s Night, which, if you recall, happens every year on October 30, and which is a convocation of dead American serial killers. For John Lowe, it turns out, returned to the hotel with his family back in the day. While he was still alive, he’d go on night-hunts to bring back blood for his wife and son; however, he was caught and then shot to death by the police — right outside of the hotel, and thus couldn’t benefit from its eternalizing properties. (The Devil’s Night’s very scientific rule, however, ensures that he can visit once a year).
And so, alas, once a year he schmoozes with Jeffrey Dahmer and Aileen Wuornos and John Wayne Gacy and then spends the night with his family — including his daughter, Scarlett — the only one who managed to survive their toxic family dynamic and is now a seemingly non-murderous adult.
Luckily, the season doesn’t end on Lowe. In the last scene, the Countess once again takes center stage, courting a new Matt Bomer/Finn Wittrock doppelgänger hotel visitor. When the man says he’ll be ending his stay soon, she contests that notion, restating her famous line from earlier this season as she caresses his chin. “You have a jawline for days,” she says. Obviously that jawline will soon rest atop a slit throat.
This season concludes with a major shock: a theme emerged as more-than-half-baked. The Hotel as a den of addiction, eventual rehabilitation, and rebirth defined the season. Despite the fact that many of us wouldn’t see dying as a particularly optimistic step towards personal growth, Murphy has made a season about characters who’ve been lost, traumatized and ostracized finding themselves. He may have tried to do the same with Freak Show and Coven, but there it seemed incidental, whereas here, in this final episode of Hotel, it seems crucial. The season was still sloppier than a slit throat — and from episode to episode and scene to scene it could oscillate between being unendurable and being pretty amusing. Regardless, the episodes — and scenes — of vastly varying qualities were contained within an intriguing setting, and a set of metaphors that ended up working far better than might have been expected.