American Horror Story: Coven opens in New Orleans in 1834 with Madame Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) presiding over a lush party at her expansive family estate with all the manipulative, panicked hypocrisy that we’ve been primed by pop culture to expect from such an antiquated Southern hen. LaLaurie is relating her daughters’ various talents to a pack of hungry-looking suitors, and we understand with an iris-in that one of her feistiest girls is carrying on with a black member of the help. It’s revealed soon after that LaLaurie doesn’t weather such social blasphemies kindly: The black man is chained up in the family dungeon with all the other brutally mutilated slaves, a mask of a bull affixed to his head as the woman of the house feverishly explains her lifelong love of Greek mythology. Now she has her very own Minotaur.
And in just those few pre-title minutes, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk remind us that American Horror Story has evolved over the course of two seasons from a reliably lurid soap to a sophisticated work of despairing protest pop-art. It’s the ultimate series for our so-called post-racial age as a still young and impetuous country, as Murphy and Falchuk routinely set about pushing our faces in America’s legacy of savagery, inarguably insisting that the demons sprung from our colonialist past (and present) aren’t to be so quickly swept under the carpet just because we’ve learned to feign a few puny social gestures, often grouped together under the umbrella term “political correctness.”
If last year’s American Horror Story: Asylum ultimately asserted itself as a wrenching essay concerned with almost every permutation of our country’s insidious reduction of women, Coven appears to be taking aim at our legacy of privileged white supremacy at the expense of everyone else’s pronounced desolation. Watching the first few minutes of the first episode, it’s hard not to think of the similar motivations that drove Django Unchained, and to be reminded that director Quentin Tarantino took the easy way out, painting all of his white oppressors as broad caricatures that prompted us to let ourselves off the hook as having long evolved beyond the barbarism they exhibited. But you don’t cast an actor with the emotional vivacity of Kathy Bates and expect to be denied a character’s humanity, no matter how disgusting she may be. Murphy and Falchuk invite you to indulge your gleeful superiority over LaLaurie in the opening party scene only to cut to her scrubbing her face, desperate to preserve the youthfulness that’s often a woman’s currency, and, having then complicated your reaction to LaLaurie, Murphy and Falchuk go on to reveal the extent of her perversity.
“Bitchcraft” is unavoidably charged with delivering reams of exposition that will presumably set the course for the remaining season, but Murphy and Falchuk still manage to imbue it with enough inventive, subversive horror energy for five feature films. After the credits, the episode flashes forward to the present day, introducing us to Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga), a teen coming to terms with her inherited powers as a witch, which manifest as an inability to have sex with someone without killing them. After inadvertently killing her deflowerer, Zoe is spirited off to a secret witches’ institute in New Orleans, where she meets the requisite variety of oddballs who comprise the modern coven to which she now belongs, but not before we learn, in a wonderful touch that corrects the powerful white Catholic propaganda of movies like The Exorcist and The Conjuring, that, while witches are real, the people slaughtered in Salem hundreds of years ago were innocents. All the powerful white politicians managed to accomplish was to drive the witches down to New Orleans.
The present-day witches include lapsed young movie star Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), who appears to hide considerable stores of rage and power beneath her fashionable sassy-bitch persona, Queenie (Gabourney Sidibe), who possesses the gift of a “living voodoo doll” in that she can hurt others by purposefully harming herself (a metaphor with bottomless potential), and Nan (Jamie Brewer), who has advanced abilities of psychic detection that often go by unnoticed beneath her veneer of a “retard.” Coredlia Foxx (Sarah Paulson) is the troupe’s benevolent Professor X-type, a headmaster who believes that witches should mostly live in peace with normal humans, and to live in peace with them is to live, of course, in hiding.
The enraged Magneto of this world is Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange), Cordelia’s all-powerful witch mother who believes that her daughter is leading her pupils astray with fancifully naïve talk of corralling their powers for a benevolent higher good. Fiona’s ultimate philosophies are still a mystery (in classic American Horror Story fashion, her motivations will probably flip-flop dozens of times, testifying to both a character’s complexity and to Murphy and Falchuk’s willingness to do whatever the hell they please), but we know, after a memorable murder scene that owes more than a bit to Brian De Palma’s The Fury, that Fiona isn’t unduly tormented by empathy with the regular humans. Fiona’s clearly cooking something up too, as she springs her daughter’s students off on a field trip, instructing them to dress in black, which leads to the witches strutting around the present day streets in garb that’s suggestive of a Madison Avenue re-envisioning of the classic pointy-hat-and-robe motif, in a moment that’s typical of the show’s sexy flippancy toward tradition. Where’s Fiona taking everyone? To the LaLaurie estate, where a bit of resurrection is in order.
Like Asylum before it, Coven is immediately striking for how brutally it cuts to the bone of the subtext of alienation and subjugation that fuel the sources of Murphy and Fulchak’s various riffs, which most obviously include Harry Potter and every superhero currently in vogue, in addition to virtually every strain of horror film that’s always been under the show’s consideration. Murphy and Fulchak have never been interested in trivializing human need in order to reach a broader audience in the tradition of most youth-courting fantasies though, and in this episode’s finest scene they place Zoe in a situation that reflects the sexual logic that’s almost always denied of superheroes when she sneaks into a hospital to fuck a rapist to death, both out of vengeance and out of an obvious chance to obtain a quasi-guilt-free sense of sexual release. It’s a stunning moment, resonant and outrageous even for American Horror Story. It also encapsulates this ever-shifting series in all its willfully humane extremity, as it’s a burst of violent, purging, ambiguous reckoning.
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