This week’s episode of American Horror Story: Coven, “Fearful Pranks Ensue,” is ideally timed to remind us that, while Halloween is now most typically acknowledged by the American middle class with parties, binge eating, and horror-movie marathons, it was, for many, once a dangerous pagan event in which spirits were to be bribed away from invading your home. Logically, Halloween is a big day for the witches of Coven, particularly for Fiona (Jessica Lange), who finds herself being investigated for Madison’s (Emma Roberts) murder by the Council of Witchcraft, the latter of which is amusingly imagined to include an obvious stand-in for Truman Capote. More importantly to Fiona, however, the council also includes former classmate and rival Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy), who’s sure that Fiona murdered the former Supreme, Anna Leigh (Christine Ebersole), years ago, as well as Madison the day prior, though she can’t quite prove the premeditation of either crime.
That’s not even the full depth of the hot water Fiona’s gotten herself—and by extension the remaining witches of the coven—into. The current Supreme is also approaching what appears to be an open war with Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), after the former sends the head of the latter’s Minotaur lover back to her in a box, in a gesture that could be regarded as either trick or treat, or perhaps one in the same. We explicitly learn in flashbacks what’s already been implied: The white tribe of witches had once made peace with the black tribe after years of violence, and Marie is regarded as a hero by her kin for having had the vision to swallow her pride and allow such an arrangement. But the Minotaur’s murder stirs memories of killings associated with the white resistance to the civil rights movement, and Marie finds herself understandably unwilling to continue swallowing hypocritical white displays of power.
“Fearful Pranks Ensue” is unusually plotty for American Horror Story, and you can tell that creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are tending to requirements of their end game here, and that’s not a bad thing—not yet anyway. So far, Coven has benefitted from a degree of conventionality that wasn’t apparent in Murder House or Asylum, as this season has a stronger sense of a three-act narrative plot progression that serves as a useful method for containing Murphy and Falchuk’s casually outrageous conceits. Simply: This season’s (so far) graceful narrative orchestration allows the punk outrage to hit you on the rebound with a welcome degree of comparative subtlety.
For example, it might only retrospectively occur to you how deranged a conceit it is to parallel the atrocities associated with the backlash against the civil rights movement to a consciously campy melodramatic war between two Supreme queen bitches. Fiona is about to instigate a race war more or less out of wounded vanity: because Laveau won’t give her the immortality spell. But this notion works because of the sheer empathetic energy of Murphy, Falchuk, and their various collaborators’ invention. This series doesn’t wear its humanist credentials on its sleeve in a bid for congratulation for its relevancy; that wouldn’t be hip, but it effortlessly burrows deep into the obsessions of its most important characters. The series practices, rather than preaches, its outraged messages of tolerance.
The war with Marie is also promising because it suggests that the series has quite a bit more in store for Bassett, which partially assuages my fears that she’d be little more than window dressing for a four-to-five episode arc. It appears, especially at the episode’s end, that Marie is a force that will haunt the remainder of Coven, as she’s revealed to be a sorceress of considerable power—a woman who can summon the dead at will and send a plague of zombies upon Fiona’s house, a development that climaxes with a wonderful bit where Madame Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) is faced with the walking corpses of her three long-murdered daughters.
Otherwise, though, Delphine still represents one of the show’s failures of imagination. The idea of the character meshes well with Coven’s premise of racial reckoning, as we’re to see how easily someone of power can be socially reduced and humbled, but that hasn’t yet come to life as anything more than a conceit. And Delphine’s potentially blossoming friendship with Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) has dangerously sentimental suggestions of the kind of superficial racial brotherhood clichés that Coven has otherwise admirably resisted. But it’s still early in the game, and one imagines that people as resourceful as Murphy and Falchuk have cast an actress of Bates’s stature for a reason.
While we’re carping, the Kyle (Evan Peters) and Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) arc is still DOA; these characters so far only appear to exist in order to continue the tradition of Peters and Farmiga’s past association with American Horror Story. But at least Cordelia (Sarah Paulson), another of Coven’s duller characters, is beginning to assert herself as a player in the show’s various schemes and rivalries: Her shrewd performance in front of the Council of Witchcraft where she drops the bombshell that Madison couldn’t have been the Supreme because of her concealed ill health ups her stake in the show’s primary arc considerably. So are we to believe that Cordelia might, in fact, be the next Supreme? That’s probably still too easy. My bet is that the next Supreme will be Nan (Jamie Brewer), who continues to show hints of a great wealth of essentially unacknowledged power. But Cordelia’s gambit reveals that she plays her cards closer to the vest than previously implied, a skill that might come in handy when she eventually discovers that her lame schmuck-o husband (Josh Hamilton) is actually some kind of cuckolding Internet-stalking serial killer. A girl just can’t catch a break in these days.
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