There’s a moment late in “The Replacements” that indirectly addresses a curiosity I’d already had in regard to American Horror Story: Coven. Fiona (Jessica Lange) and Madison (Emma Roberts) are having drinks after recently discovering a commonly powerful interest in screwing around with other people’s heads, mostly out of their private contemptuous amusement. Fiona, who’d been looking at the past quite a bit throughout this episode already, admits to Madison that she was never a good mother to Cordelia (Sarah Paulson), and that, much worse, she was never much of a Supreme Witch. Madison counters with the obvious response in the face of what’s clearly vanity and self-pity cloaked under superficial regret: that it’s not too late. Fiona tosses off a sentiment that, yes, it’s indeed too late, and that she isn’t going to change, nor does she want to.
This exchange, besides providing both actresses with a wonderful bit of respective character texture, also seems to be creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s way of conceding that they know the witch mythology they’ve concocted hasn’t added up to much so far. Fiona is a Supreme Witch, but what does that mean exactly? She has advanced telekinetic powers, which appears to be about the extent of it. And those powers don’t render Fiona immortal, as we constantly see her fretting about her looks and age, and they don’t impart any grander universal wisdom. So far, Fiona is essentially just a glamorous bitch on wheels, her powers little more than parlor games and her coven little more than a club house for other similarly inclined misfits. We never see a class being taught in the coven, and Cordelia, theoretically the teacher and symbolic guidance counselor, has yet to be seen even actively interacting with her students, as she’s been on a quest to make a baby of late.
Fiona’s admission that she’ll never change is really an admission on Murphy and Falchuk’s parts that they’ll also continue to do whatever the hell they like, and what they like is to concoct deranged mood pieces that inventively play with established genre tropes. Lange, who’s always seemingly been cast as the character who provides a direct pipeline into the creators’ cackling id, tops herself again in “The Replacements,” and it’s clear that her collective performances in American Horror Story will eventually be known, if pop culture is just, as some of the best and most daring work of her career. “The Replacements” is very much a Fiona episode, a farce that suggests a compressed staging of Tennessee Williams’s entire oeuvre as refracted through a witch’s cracked seeing orb—a suggestion that’s rendered literal with the episode’s preponderance of bizarre, quasi-random uses of fishbowl lenses.
We learn, unsurprisingly, that Fiona killed her way to the top. In the early 1970s, Fiona slit the throat of the then-reigning Supreme because she couldn’t be bothered to wait for her rightful time, a regret that resonates later on with her contemporary realization that Madison is next in line to become Supreme. That isn’t surprising, either, but it doesn’t mean the development isn’t inspired: Lange and Roberts match up well together, and they bring to Coven complementing enraged energies that aren’t so much yin and yang as past and present yin. Fiona and Madison are lop-sided forces of all shapes of destruction, and it seems retrospectively inevitable that only one of them remain standing.
Still, Fiona murdering Madison, in a manner just “accidental” enough to allow the former to delude herself (though her final line as she lights a smoke quells any suspicion of her action’s lack of intention) is a startling occurrence this early on in a series that has 10 hours left to go, and it also provided Roberts with a moment of welcome vulnerability. Knowing the ever-shifting rules of American Horror Story, as well as the show’s penchant for resurrection of all sorts, it’s probably safe to say that Roberts needn’t file for unemployment yet, but even assuming Madison’s rebirth, this murder is obviously a series game-changer. Which takes us back to the loosey-goosey rules of witchcraft that Murphy and Falchuk have put forth: What does killing a future Supreme do to the continuum of witch—or even human—existence? Will Fiona’s youth and powers be rejuvenated? Will Madison come back as some kind of un-killable wraith imbued with the powers of a satanic god? Will Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) ever be given something more interesting to do than carting her possibly future undead boy-toy, Kyle (Evan Peters), around?
Actually, “The Replacements” threw a terrific kink into Zoe’s story too, which is a marked relief considering the general tediousness her arc was beginning to settle into after a promising start. We now know that Kyle, to use the probable parlance of his now deceased frat-boy-rapist brethren, was boning his mom (Mare Winningham), a revelation that comes about when the latter hungrily kisses the former when he returns to see her at Zoe’s guilt-ridden behest. But all the meddling black magic swirling about has changed something in Kyle: He bashes his mother’s brains in, effectively burning his incestuous nest and paving the way for Zoe’s embrace.
Unconventional, or, in this case, downright deviant, sexuality has always had a place in American Horror Story, usually as an expression of the logical and unavoidable desires that have been stamped out by hypocritical bureaucratic regimes, but it’s hard to recall an episode that explores the various realms of the sexual taboo with the feverish invention that “The Replacements” displays. Besides the revelation of Kyle’s secret, and the continued escalation of Fiona’s panic as she finds she’s not quite able to sway male eyes at the bars the way she used to, Queenie’s (Gabourey Sidibe) suppressed sexual hungers are also temporarily sated when she welcomes the aggressive advances of Marie Laveau’s (Angela Bassett) lover, who was turned into a non-traditional minotaur by Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) a few hundred years ago. Apparently roaming around present-day New Orleans on the hunt to avenge LaLaurie’s act of mutilation, the minotaur mounts Queenie from behind while LaLaurie quivers in hiding from the beast, in a sequence that simultaneously parodies and indulges the dubious sexual fantasy of the virile, subservient black stud. “The Replacements” is another subversive coup for American Horror Story, as it brazenly, breathlessly illustrates, over and over again, that the last place to acknowledge the boundaries of political correctness, or even common decency, is the loins.
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