For all of American Horror Story‘s flaws, something that has to be respected is Ryan Murphy’s fearlessness in tackling social issues. In some cases, when he is at his most ostentatious, he beats you over the head with symbolism so hard that you become concussed with empathy. But in the case of “Room Service,” he gently caresses you until you understand. And that caress was so welcome.
There hasn’t been a single moment in any season on this show that has emotionally affected me more than Liz Taylor’s backstory, and then again later with Iris’ self-discovery. As much as I tend to loathe the typically lazy device of the flashback, which is generally overused on this show, Liz’s past was approached with a kind of finesse that aided the season’s narrative instead of detracting from it. Her origin story began with a refreshingly honest admission from Iris: “I look at you and all I see are questions.” While blunt, the statement it encapsulates the ignorance, without any repugnance, of the cisgendered experience.
Originally a married father from Topeka, Liz (then a man named Nick) arrived at the Hotel Cortez in 1984 with some douchey work colleagues who wanted to use their spare time to dip their pens in some LA ink. Nick, however, stayed behind and luxuriated in the smoothness of his wife’s slip and the glamourousness of her fur coat. The Countess found her way into his hotel room to give him a side of confusion with his champagne, and confessed she was drawn to him because while his outward appearance was that of a man, but he had the smell of a woman. “It’s Paco Rabanne,” Nick told her, a flicker of worry flashing on his face as though his cologne was his best defense at not giving away his true self. The Countess dismisses that: “Not your skin,” she says. “Your blood.”
The honesty, love, and understanding that infused the delivery that line broke me down nearly as much as Nick proceeded to, as he is finally able to admit to another person that the identity in which he lives is not his true one. A short makeover montage later and the Countess christens him Liz Taylor, smoky eye and all. What happens next is to be expected: as she gives Liz the assignment of flaunting herself freely through the hotel’s hallway, her coworkers arrive and spew the kind of callous remarks reserved the most insensitive of douches.
Their use of the f-word, the assumption that she has AIDS simply because she’s “gay,” and that said virus can be transmitted through sharing a drink are all kinds of ugly misconceptions of gay and trans culture that one would hope stayed in the ‘80s. For the cause of this episode, it’s important that Liz reiterated that she is not a gay man (she stated it twice), and it’s just as important that, even to the present day, Liz has not fully transitioned (she’s still got that “floppy appendage” that prevents her from wearing pencil skirts.) The kind of misconceptions that fuel the douches’ hatred towards those who are transgender can also be seen in milder misconceptions of sexual orientation and gender identity. Liz Taylor’s backstory has served a purpose beyond learning her past; it served as a reminder to the power of sensitivity.
Any cynicism I may have had about Gaga’s presence on this show (as nothing more than Ryan Murphy’s new muse in the strong, fabulous bitch) was quickly nullified here, when, as the Countess implores Liz to become the person she was born to be, I half expected her to break out into “Born This Way.” It occurred to me that I had forgotten Gaga’s off-screen persona (kudos to performance here), which happens to include being a staunch ally for the LGBT community. Suddenly, her presence on the show was less about being a new, daring window dressing, and more about her continuing her message of empowerment. Her presence has come to actually mean something.
It’s worth mentioning that the filmic treatment of Liz’s flashback really helped it become the one of stand-out scenes of this entire series. The voiceover is an element that tends to overpower an exposition scene, since it’s tempting for an actor to simply narrate their character’s actions as opposed to delivering the lines as though they were inhabiting the brain of their character in those moments. (Think A Christmas Story versus Wild.) The gentler approach the voiceover imparts a more sympathetic tone for the scene, and Denis O’Hare’s knack for subtlety creates a beautifully profound moment in an otherwise heavy-handed show.
Liz’s story was the reigning highlight of this episode, but Iris’ newfound strength is something to reckon with. Her slow build from crumbling pushover to tenacious victor was exquisite, and her ultimate exclamation of “I matter!” was the kind of rousing battlecry that I think Ryan Murphy tried (and failed) to get out of the whole of Freak Show.
It was a real treat to have Hotel bring forward some of its background characters for “Room Service.” Even in a show that boasts its proclivity for ensemble performances, the likes of Denis O’Hare and Kathy Bates often get relegated to supporting roles. After all, Denis O’Hare is not among the five pretty boys splashed all over the internet this week, and Kathy Bates isn’t (arguably) the kind of siren that lends itself to playing the sexier roles given to Jessica Lange and Angela Bassett. Liz and Iris claimed their place in the world in this episode, and the respective actors claimed their place as the power players they are. Bravo.
It’s worth mentioning that the other plotlines, while less powerful, appropriately supported the episode and set the season up for additional conflict. John was fired because he’s coming off a little nutso, but it was refreshing to see him ignore the supernatural occurrences around him. In a different show, he may be trying to convince his peers that the serial killers from the last episode were real, and for that I appreciate Hotel’s ability to restrain itself. Alex set some wheels in motion that will likely have lasting impacts on the season. Rather than let a kid die, she infected him with the vampiric virus, and he’s now purposefully infecting other kids and killing his parents and teachers in a Children of the Corn-style plot device. Sure, the Countess kills people for the sake of her feeding, but at least she doesn’t do so recklessly. Give a preteen a gift and the little shit will exploit it to its last drop (pun intended!). I need to continue to remain cautious of this season’s developments for the sake of my frustrated nerves, but this episode gave me more hope than I’ve ever had for Hotel to succeed. Maybe, like Iris in her murderous glory, American Horror Story will also witness a “transplendant rebirth.” Or, maybe we can just keep watching entitled millennial hipsters chow down on cat food. Both are equally satisfying.