Perhaps because, like last week, it’s not 2 hours long, AHS: Hotel Season 5, Episode 3 (“Mommy”) feels almost like a non-episode, for without the gimmick of just taking up way too much of your time, it seems this season is failing to find its purpose. The suggested “purpose” of the episode, however, in case you couldn’t catch it from the title — and one it follows through with, albeit often nonsensically — is motherhood. That beautiful thing so many choose to devote themselves to, knowing full well that it could mean having to defenestrate people they see as bad influences on their children, and falling into irrevocable despair when/if their children become diminutive not-quite-vampires who feast on blood and, more worrisomely, far too many jelly beans. Yes, here, the writers of this show lay out the hard truths about the burdens of anyone who decides to bring someone into this cruel, horrific world where jelly beans are the meager pay for child labor and where people like me still inexplicably watch American Horror Story.
The episode begins with Finn Wittrock’s character, Tristan Duffy, proving he’s vying to be the evilest in all the land, for, as Dandy Mott did in Freak Show with Twisty the Clown, he’s sought the aid of a guidance-counselor, here in Evan Peters’ dapperly demented serial killer ghost, James March. (Duffy is especially drawn to March because he’s a Scorpio, “which explains a lot.”) March — who designed the hotel — instructs Duffy on how to put his most depraved architectural flourishes to use. First on Duffy’s kill list is Cheyenne Jackson’s proprietor character, Will Drake — sparked by Drake accusing him of squatting and threatening to call the cops if he sees Duffy in the hotel again.
Meanwhile, suddenly, Alex (Chloe Sevigny) begins a first person voiceover as she treats the measles-ed child of an anti-vaccer (played by Twin Peaks’ Mädchen Amick), saying, “I’m not unaware of the cliché, I wanted to save kids because I needed saving.” (Here, the inability on the writers’ part to transcend cliché just becomes a disclaimer that seems like it should have been run by producers rather than audiences). Through its title topic, this episode becomes the first thus far this season to attempt a reliance on psychodrama over gore, but the result is just as curdled and off-putting than the bodies that’ve been wasting away inside mattresses or the offal milkshakes Kathy Bates’ Iris would formerly feed Swedes.
Alex explains how she unabashedly preferred her son Holden — who was kidnapped… seemingly by a building — to her daughter, and even to her husband, John. She says he always smelled like lavender, “which is and always will be [her] drug of choice.” (This one line beautifully overcomes the rest of the failed emotional drama in sounding like something Lana Del Rey would say on a shopping spree at Bath and Body Works.)
A couple of years after Holden’s death, Alex had attempted suicide and John had saved her, and the montage of her misery lands us in the present, in family therapy, where their daughter Scarlett is trying to explain that she’s not making up the story of seeing the newly jelly-bean-obsessed and coffin-dwelling Holden. The story upsets Alex deeply, who thinks her daughter is aiming a psychological attack at her. But. Then Scarlett mentions that when she saw him, he smelled like lavender, and Alex recognizes the uncanniness of this floral clue.
Back at the hotel, Drake’s fashionista pal is settling into her bed, and duly gets choked and stabbed by the man Hypodermic Sally had sealed inside the mattress. (He’s taken to the hospital, where he confesses to the murder, saying he thought she was Sally; his intent, however, is irrelevant, as he dies right then and there.) Another murder has taken place — this one on a larger scale, at the office of a gossip magazine. In what seems like an empty attempt to remind everyone that this was made this year, one detective ponders whether this is a “‘Charlie Hebdo’ thing.” But it doesn’t take long for John to see that, because everyone’s tongues have been nailed to the desks, floors, etc., this seems like the work of the Ten Commandments Killer, this time enacting “thou shalt not bear false witness” on gossip columnists because “they trafficked in lies.”
At the Hotel Cortez, Sally confronts John, dropping hints that she knows something about the Ten Commandments murders, and John handcuffs her and says she’s under arrest, but then decides to let her lick his face and grab his crotch in the elevator instead. She disappears, and he’s left to ponder whether whether he’s going crazy.
And then comes the episode’s second big Mommy plot line (following the big Sevigny Mommy plot line). But big Mommy moment #2 involves Donovan and his mother, Iris — who has resigned herself to a life in the Hotel Cortez, to be near her son. Donovan, however, is throwing a tantrum because the Countess (who’s now caught up with Duffy and trying to convince Drake that his sexuality is fluid so that he and his money will marry her) dismissed him as her partner in crime and sex (and, incidentally, sex crime).
As angsty sons are wont do, Donovan takes his rage out on his mother, blaming her for everything from steering his father away to giving him “so much fiber in [his] diet [that he] shit [his] pants at school.” Again, in moments where it’s supposed to be ridiculous, it is, and in moments where it’s supposed to be dramatic it’s…still ridiculous. He tells her he hates her, that he’s leaving the hotel and essentially renouncing his role as her son, and she weeps, “I don’t know who I am if I’m not your mother.” To this, he suggests that she just kill herself, then he takes to the streets to cruise for blood and listen to the Jesus and Mary Chain. But alas, he chooses the wrong target.
Angela Bassett, who we soon find out is B-movie star Ramona Royale, happens to be lurking in the shadows. She kidnaps him, intending to use him to infiltrate the Countess’ lair and destroy her most prized creations: her infantile blood machines. Her reason? She and the Countess had been in a decades-spanning (evoked through a costume design montage that’s disorienting in its cuteness, coming as it is from two throat-slitting evil-Deco-dwellers) relationship that Royale ended when she met her true love — who the Countess shot in the head.
Before we get to big Mommy plot #3, we return to #1, with Alex serving John divorce papers in the hotel, reducing him to puerile sobs. After she takes him up to his room, she sees her son, Holden, proving that her daughter isn’t precociously plotting some scheme to destroy her.
Big Mommy plot line #3 thus involves this alternately biological, fantasy notion of a creator: as in vampire lore, the spreader of the blood virus here often takes the… spreadee under their wing/genitals. Their relationship is both parental and sexual, which is likely why Donovan is so quick to reject Iris: for years, he’s been living with a new, totalizing “mommy” figure — the Countess, who’s now abandoned him. Iris, at the episode’s close, happens to be taking Donvan’s callous words literally to heart — as she’s having Hypodermic Sally pump an intentional overdosage of heroin into her veins. Sally willingly partakes in the suicide ceremony, because she hopes — as long as Iris doesn’t have any unfinished business — that it’ll rid the hotel of her. (Given that Iris threw Sally out a window, the grudge is understandable.)
Finally, just as Iris is dying (from asphyxiation-via-plastic-bag, since the heroin simply won’t kill the steadfast concierge), Donovan rushes in and attempts to transform her into whatever non-vampire thing he is! And thus the episode ends, with a return to family values that makes very little emotional sense. Hopefully this potential resolution for the characters will mean a return to less inanely dramatic territory for the show next week.