TV Review: American Horror Story: Hotel – Episode 3: ‘Mommy’

Angela Bassett brings some much needed life to an otherwise gloomy episode of American Horror Story, says

★★★☆☆

Image: Suzanne Tenner/FX

Image: Suzanne Tenner/FX

This review contains spoilers

It’s all doom and gloom this week on AHS. Those scares I was hoping for last week are yet to make an appearance, and what we have instead is a curiously restrained episode that’s more glum than frightening.

‘Mommy’, as the title suggests, is an episode concerned with mothers and children. First of all, we have Alex Lowe (Chloë Sevigny), whose composed exterior masks the grief she’s felt ever since her son, Holden, went missing. Having never wanted children, Alex’s voiceover tells us that everything changed when her son was born, and that the love she felt for him eclipsed everything else in her life. When Holden disappeared, Alex tried to go on as normal, but ended up trying to commit suicide. Although it makes for an incredibly downbeat way to begin the episode, I’m glad that we were given an opportunity to learn more about Alex, who was always in danger of being portrayed as the “cold, unsympathetic wife” stereotype.

The second mother we encounter this episode is Iris (Kathy Bates), whose son, Donavon, still wants nothing to do with her. He’s angry about her failings as a parent, which apparently don’t consist of anything more grievous than “you made me a vegan when I was a kid, so one time I crapped my pants in school!” Refusing to listen to what his mother has to say for herself, Donovan flounces out of the hotel, but not before coldly recommending that she kill herself. Iris proceeds to do exactly that, followed by Donovan inexplicably undergoing a change of heart and using his vampiric powers to bring her back from the dead.

While I’m excited to see Kathy Bates playing a vampire, I couldn’t help but feel that this thread of the episode lacked the emotional impact it should have had. That’s primarily because on this series of AHS, death is never the end. Chances are, anyone who dies will be back next week, meaning that it’s difficult to be upset by any character deaths that occur. Furthermore, with the exception of maybe Alex, I can’t say I feel emotionally attached to any of the characters. This is one part of a much larger problem affecting Hotel, namely that this series is very much a case of style over substance, presenting us with great characters but never completely fleshing them out.

The final “mommy” of the episode is the Countess, who by her very nature shares a curiously oedipal relationship with her creations. Her latest, Tristan, whose cockatoo-esque mullet wins the award for worst hairstyle this series, is busy getting acquainted with the ghost of serial killer James March. This meeting provides the best verbal exchange of the episode, with Tristan telling the ghost that he “googled” him, followed by March’s delighted reply of “that sounds obscene!”

As great as it was to see March again this episode, albeit fleetingly, this week’s highlight was, without a doubt, the return of Angela Bassett. This series, Bassett plays the Pam Grier-esque Ramona Royale, star of ‘70s Blaxploitation movies like Bride of Blackenstein and Slaughter Sister. Ramona wants to make the transition from B movies to Hollywood, but is held back by institutional racism and sexism. While sweet-talking a sleazy producer, she meets the Countess, and the pair begin a relationship that lasts almost 15 years. Unlike the Countess’s other love affairs, however, this one is ended by Ramona, who, in the early ‘90s, falls for an upcoming rapper called Prophet Moses. The Countess is unable to handle rejection, and promptly murders him. Two decades later, Ramona is back for revenge, and she wants Donovan’s help to get it.

Adding Bassett to the cast in Series 3 was the best decision the showrunners have ever made, and ‘Mommy’ is proof of that. As usual, her performance is captivating, and along with Lady Gaga’s Countess and Evan Peters’ serial killer, I think Ramona could well be the best thing about this series.

On a sour note, I know I sound like a broken record, but I’m becoming tired of waiting for Hotel to become scary. A slower, more emotionally-centred episode like this might have been a nice break in a more frightening, fast paced series, but in an already slow one, it feels nonsensical. Ryan Murphy has claimed that Hotel will be darker, “a little bloodier and grislier”, than other series, but I’m yet to see any evidence of that. On a show with previous villains like a clown with half a face, a Nazi asylum doctor, and a woman with a torture chamber in her attic, this series “Ten Commandments Killer” is disappointing. Aside from being unoriginal (Se7en did it so much better), it simply isn’t interesting enough to act as the central plot of Hotel. Call me ghoulish, but people having their tongues nailed to tables seems rather tame when two series ago a woman plucked her own eyes out.

It’s all riding on next week’s Halloween-themed episode, in which March will be hosting a ghoulish dinner party with guests that include Aileen Wuornos and Jeffrey Dahmer. If the writers can’t make that scary, then there’s little hope for this series.

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