“Boy Parts” finds American Horror Story: Coven creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk settling into a relative groove after bursting furiously out of the gates with last week’s almost exhaustively inventive “Bitchcraft.” This chapter fulfills the tricky function of the traditional second episode: To allow viewers to greater acquaint themselves with a show’s atmosphere, after having been previously provided a rough orientation of the principle players and rules of the game without them growing bored and changing the channel. “Boy Parts” sustains a mood of calmed erotic doom that serves to simultaneously indulge and satirize a variety of sexual power fantasies while presumably setting larger narrative traps for the series.
We amusingly learn that Fiona (Jessica Lange) appears to have unearthed and kidnapped the now nearly two-centuries-old Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) for the purposes of selling her off to Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), the powerful witch who infected LaLaurie with the “gift” of immortality before burying her alive out of revenge for the atrocities the Madame wrought, particularly on Laveu’s lover, whom we last saw transformed into a makeshift minotaur. Fiona wants that immortality despite Laveau’s obvious perception of the power as a curse because, though a witch, she’s still a traditional American white woman besotted with pressures to remain young and beautiful forever—a joke that’s further accented by Lange’s unambiguous gorgeousness.
Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) is still the good little witch stuck among a motley crew of vindictive pranksters, and one imagines that the season will partially come to chart her brutal coming of age into regarding the world as it’s actually run by the amoral beings residing at the top of the societal food chain. Zoe and Madison (Emma Roberts) are questioned by a pair of cops about the bus accident that killed Madison’s frat-boy rapists and the former folds almost immediately, attempting to justify their actions while begging for implied forgiveness. Fiona storms in and performs one of her Darth Vader-ish mind manipulations on the police, nearly cooking a resistant officer’s brain before he caves, giving in to her and drinking her saliva-laced glass of water.
The consumption of Fiona’s saliva is staged as a throwaway joke, a traditional act of contempt for authority, but this moment retroactively resonates in the wake of the episode’s obsession with the powerful carnality of the coven and of the supernatural beings that exist at its periphery, such as LaLaurie, Laveau, and most prominently Misty Day (Lily Rabe), a witch who, we learned last week, was burned at the stake for her powers of resurrection. Misty’s now hanging around the swamps, her routine of killing alligator poachers interrupted when she involves herself in Zoe’s efforts to re-assimilate Kyle (Evan Peters) into society after he’s reborn as a confused shambling Frankenstein’s monster in the wake of Zoe and Madison’s impromptu meddling in the morgue.
That’s about it in terms of pure plot: “Boy Parts” is leisurely paced by the standards of American Horror Story, and all the better for it, allowing us to fully register the cast that Murphy and Falchuk have assembled, which is rich in actors who aren’t as prominent in pop culture as they should be for reasons that probably echo the show’s explicit ageist and sexist concerns. Lange, Bates, and Bassett are three titans, and when’s the last time they’d been afforded the opportunity to explore the range of humor, heartbreak, and rage that they’ve already been allowed to display here? (In Lange’s case, the answer would be in American Horror Story: Asylum.) Bassett’s first major moment in the series occurs this week as a flashback, when Laveau is seen enacting her brutal revenge on LaLaurie, who’s blind to the irony that her punishment mirrors the cruelties that she, and whites in power in general, have inflicted on subjugated blacks. LaLaurie’s daughters have been hung outside, her husband killed inside, and she’s buried with the knowledge that she’ll be forever awake in the dark as life cycles endlessly around her.
Bassett doesn’t overplay the notion of the avenging entity; instead she allows us to see Laveau’s efforts to suppress her uncontainable fury in a struggle to remain a recognizable human being despite both the barbarity she’s perpetrating and the barbarity that’s engulfing the society at large. And Bates continues to be magnificent, as she refuses to shortchange neither LaLaurie’s sadism nor her self-absorbed blindness, nor the ferocious sense of self-preservation that gives the character stature.
At its best, “Boy Parts” suggests a round of tag team between these three actors, who often seem to be daring one another to see how far they can push the tone of this remarkably elastic series before the whole enterprise collapses into unintended absurdity. Another moment between Fiona and Laveau in the latter’s present-day hair shop, in which the two racially bait one another while symbolically entering negotiations over the immortality spell, is one of those characteristic American Horror Story scenes that see-saws between satire, melodrama, and an all-out bitchy campfest with a misleading sense of chaotic, stream-of-consciousness ease.
The younger cast members are utilized mostly for their sex appeal so far, though with a sense of play that’s legitimately sexy. Rabe conjures that aura of deranged horniness that she perfected in Asylum: The look in Misty’s eyes and the brief flicker of her tongue when she offers to rehabilitate Kyle out in her remote shack will place audiences in the unusual role of actively envying the recently revived and befuddled dead. And though she’s been characterized, so far, as the goody-goody counterweight to mother Fiona’s anarchic impulses, Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) is allowed a consciously fetishistic moment of witchcraft baby-making with her husband that helps to answer questions of how supernatural powers may come to play in the sack. “Boy Parts” is a languid hot bath of an episode that serves to deflate the potentially overwhelming earnestness of the show’s tragic themes.
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