Daniela Romo (Angela), Jorge Poza (Diego), Irene Azuela (Ysabel), Erick Elias (Julio), Ilse Salas (Belen), Diana Bracho (Teresa)
One of the most enjoyable telenovelas in recent memory is the Mexican El Hotel de los Secretos, which first aired in 2016 and is now available for revisiting on YouTube. Lavishly produced, the show is set in 1908 with elaborate sets and period costumes. The cast, unusually for any genre, gives two of its four above-the-title billed roles to older women (Daniela Romo and Diana Bracho), both of whom have great fun with their diametrically opposed parts, the repressed ama de las llaves (head housekeeper) Angela and the evil owner of the grand hotel of the title, Doña Teresa.
The show ran for 80 episodes. I shan’t concern myself here with the final dénouement, but, rather, with the series’ biggest internal climax, Episode 34. Indeed, so over-the-top are the plotting and reveals of El Hotel de los Secretos capítulo 34 that the expression “episode 34” deserves to enter into the lexicon to denote something extraordinarily exciting. “Did you see that?,” someone might ask. “OMG, it was totally episode 34!!”.
So what it is about episode 34 that makes it stand out so? Simply the pile-up of surprises, including one of the best and most wonderfully preposterous plot twists I have seen in nearly half a century of watching soap operas.
Sharing the pleasures of episode 34 with an English-speaking audience is difficult as, naturally, all the episode’s surprises are built into evolving story arcs. A summary of the first 33 convoluted episodes would be interminable. Still, if the reader is to understand the fun of Episode 34, some background is necessary.
So here goes:
The show is set in a grand hotel somewhere in the Mexican provinces. The hotel is ruled by its owner, the widowed Doña Teresa, who has three children, Sofia, Ysabel and Felipe. Felipe is most easily disposed of: he’s the family screw-up, and, by episode 34, is living as a lay brother in a nearby monastery. Ysabel is the heroine, nearly always clad in white, and in love with the brooding Julio. He initially comes to the hotel to search for his missing sister, to which end he gets a job as a waiter. Things do not go easily for Ysabel and Julio – how could they if they are to come together only after 80 episodes? – and episode 34 begins, in fact, with Ysabel marrying the hotel’s manager, the truly nefarious Diego.
The linchpin of the entire action is Ysabel’s older sister, Sofia. Sofia is in emotional extremis from the start: in the first episode, she falls down the stairs and loses a baby that, for simplicity’s sake, we’ll just posit is highly necessary. Because the baby is so important, Doña Teresa instructs her daughter, who is already fragile of mental health, to feign an ongoing pregnancy. As for what is to happen when Sofia comes to “term”, the fates drop a solution into Doña Teresa’s lap.
The villainous Don Diego has, in the meantime, been sleeping around with the hotel maids, and has gotten one of them, Belen, pregnant. When this comes to Doña Teresa’s attention, she makes Belen an offer she can’t refuse to buy the baby so that it can be substituted for Sofia’s fictitious one. Belen, however, covers her bets by becoming engaged to the impossibly good-looking and saintly Andrès, the son of Angela the head housekeeper:
Carlos Rivera as the impossibly good-looking and saintly Andrès
On the day of his wedding, however, Andrès suffers what we’ll call an accident, the result of which is that he winds up in a coma.
As for Sofia, she doesn’t take well to the idea of raising Belen and Diego’s bastard. She responds first with an hysterical pregnancy and then by becoming a laudanum addict.
I think that sets the stage for episode 34.
The episode takes place against the background of Ysabel’s and Diego’s wedding. In the show, there is always something afoot elsewhere in the hotel when there is a large set piece going on in the public rooms. The wedding is no exception to the pattern.
The episode’s first surprise is the wedding itself. The audience by this point is aching for Ysabel to come together with Julio, but, in a sort of prologue to the episode, she assents to marry the villain instead.
Sofia arrives at the reception in a state (“no puedo” is her catchphrase), and the mysterious doctor-in-residence (fully in on Doña Teresa’s scheme) briefs her on her supposedly eight-month pregnant condition and how she should prepare herself for going into “labor” anytime soon.
And, wouldn’t you know it?, that’s when Belen goes into labor herself. One of the maids notifies Angela of Belen’s condition…and all hell breaks loose. Doña Teresa has Angela send to the pueblo for the midwife (vocabulary word: la partera), while she and the doctor take Sofia upstairs to prepare for the bloody charade of her own labor. That’s literally bloody: the doctor is well prepared.
The main doings are downstairs with Belen, however. Before the midwife can arrive, Diego barges into Belen’s room and proceeds to slap her around:
Ilse Salas (Belen) and Jorge Poza (Diego)
He demands that she turn over a letter from Doña Teresa’s late husband that contains the hotel’s ur-secret. (We still don’t know what the secret is at this point.) Belen may be a figure of considerable sympathy in Episode 34, but many of her actions leading up to her going into labor have been downright reprehensible. Diego locks the door to the room and pockets the key, threatening not to let the midwife in so that Belen and her baby will be left to die unless she surrenders the letter.
To add to the suspense, the midwife turns up, and Angela and the chauffeur with the arresting blue eyes try to break into the locked room, from which they can hear Belen’s screams. They try to force the door – we watch breathlessly as we hope it will give – but it won’t budge. Not until Belen has finally been “persuaded” to relinquish the letter does Diego open the door, allowing the midwife entry so she can minister to her patient.
Upstairs in Sofia’s room, Diego confronts Doña Teresa with the letter. Rather than turning it over, however, he pockets it himself. He then goes downstairs and, cool as a cucumber, dances with Ysabel to the Garland Waltz from Sleeping Beauty while Julio watches yearningly from the sidelines.
Belen gives birth to a boy, which exactly what Teresa and Sofia need. There are coos of “esquincle” on the part of the midwife, but, before she can give the baby over to his mother, Doña Teresa arrives to claim the child and take it away to play its part in the scene with Sofia unfolding upstairs. Teresa bribes the midwife to let it be known that the baby was stillborn, and bids the partera depart before she can finish her ministrations to the new mother. Doña Teresa exits herself and locks the door form the outside, leaving the hapless Belen to bleed to death.
The doctor in the meantime attends to Sofia’s “labor” until he is interrupted by Doña Elisa, Sofia’s dreadful mother-in-law, who has been convinced all along that Sofia’s pregnancy is a charade. She is silenced by the arrival of Doña Teresa bearing Belen’s baby. Doña Elisa is foiled and withdraws. In a burst of hysterics, Sofia rejects the baby and the doctor is seen preparing a hypodermic for her.
But wait…there’s more. And this is where the episode goes completely over the top of El Pixo de Orizaba.
Cut to our brooding hero Julio having a cigarette in the service courtyard of the hotel, close to the ground-level windows of the servants’ quarters. He hears the dying Belen screaming and goes to rescue her. Of course, in the case of our hero, the locked door won’t hold, and he breaks in to find the Belen quite literally in extremis. And this is where we get one of the greatest soap opera coups de théâtre I’ve ever seen: Belen gives birth to a twin. That Julio delivers it single-handed is the least of it.
Belen asks that she and the baby be moved to the room that Julio shares with Andrès (do you remember Andrès?). Not minding that he’s in a coma, Belen shares with him (and with us) the shocking plot point mentioned in the letter everyone is after: Andrès is, in reality, the natural son of Angela and…Doña Teresa’s late husband, Don Rómulo.
The viewer is left to ponder the ramifications of all this as the episode concludes with Belen cradling her child alongside the comatose Andrès.
Episode 34 actually provides more intense montañas russas than I’ve indicated. Not only does all that happen, but nearly all the action I’ve described takes place during the second half of the episode. It makes for a 22-minute thrill ride.
The audience is left needing to make itself a tè de manzanilla and to lie down after watching the episode. If game 4 of the World Series was exciting, Episode 34 is every bit as thrilling, and, like a good baseball game, leaves you unable to guess what it is going to happen next.
Novelas are fast-moving, despite their length, and big reveals happen fairly regularly, but not usually with the pile-up of events depicted in Episode 34. Unlike American soap operas, which are open-ended and which can have dull episodes, closed-structured telenovelas are more generous with their surprises. They have a great deal of plot and thereby avoid the glacial pace of their American equivalents. Also missing in novela writing is the American serial drama’s endless recapitulations. Although the convention is for a novela episode to begin with the last couple minutes of the previous night’s show, the dialogue isn’t structured so that everything gets repeated repeatedly for the benefit of people who may have missed an episode or ten. Novelas rather assume that the viewer has been paying attention. As Episode 34 shows, blink and you’ll miss something.
Many people – generally those who do not watch them – make fun of novelas, especially the acting style employed. I very carefully wrote “acting style”, because novelas as a rule don’t live up to their bad acting stereotype. It’s just that the acting is a throwback to a grander style. Look at Diana Bracho or Daniela Romo and you see outstanding examples of an acting tradition that doesn’t exist in the United States anymore. It’s acting that revels in its own actingness, rather than trying to be naturalistic. Yes, to an eye that is no longer used to this type of grand acting, the cast of El Hotel de los Secretos can appear to be chewing scenery, but the cast chews the scenery intentionally and with dignity. You can see it especially from the senior actors of the cast (the ones who are billed as “la primera actiriz” or “el primer actor” in the credits) who provide lessons in a type of acting that is, to my eye, most enjoyable to watch.
The tradition is clearly passed down from the likes of Mmes. Roma and Bracho to the younger members of the cast, so that, for example, Domenika Paleta plays Sofia’s 80-episode mad scene without ever descending into the ridiculous, unless the viewer isn’t going to allow himself to accept the conventions of the genre. The same applies to Ilse Salas during the lunatic scenes of Belen’s episode-long double labor. The situation could be ridiculous: the plotting is over-the-top, but the acting, while it comes close to that, still retains a fundamental dignity, and makes the insane reveals of the episode riveting television.
I can add that, as someone whose Spanish is good but not perfect, the broadness of the acting makes it possible to understand the action when my vocabulary momentarily fails me. Acting you can follow without dialogue isn’t bad acting – think of Gloria Swanson’s speeches on the subject in Sunset Boulevard – and you can usually know what’s going on in a novela just by watching. If watching television is a great way to learn a language, a novela is one of the best ways to do so. (El Hotel de los Secretos, which includes no anachronistic modern slang, is especially helpful in this respect.)
El Hotel de los Secretos offers up a kind of violent storytelling that is designed to keep the viewer on the edge of his (actually, more likely her) seat and is intentionally sensationalistic. You’re supposed to jump off the couch when Belen has her twin and maybe fall into a faint on the living room floor. It shows how exciting novela writing can be, and what kind of good television telenovelas can deliver.