For all the fuss that critics (including myself) have made of American Horror Story’s often gratifying determination to satirize the various forms of insidious (often white, always male) oppression that continue to dictate this country’s methods of social discourse, perhaps it’s worth reminding ourselves that the series is also a gleeful, wicked debauch. Creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk suffer few indulgences of sentimentality, even of the kind that agrees with their probable politics, and that refreshing tendency is on full display in this week’s episode.
“Burn, Witch. Burn!” repeatedly plays with our expectations of character redemption, in the tradition of the best portions of American Horror Story: Asylum. Fiona (Jessica Lange) has the opportunity to partially atone to daughter Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) for her largely absent motherhood when the latter is cruelly splashed in the face with acid, but instead, she exploits Cordelia’s attack as an opportunity to settle scores with Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy). Myrtle, who appears to be the most influential member of the Council of Witchcraft, is also, of course, a former classmate and rival of Fiona’s, a disappointed witch resentful of her own failure to possess the status of Supreme Witch. In a conventional series, Fiona might grow soft at the sight of her daughter’s burned face, and Myrtle might be a relatively uncomplicated avenger type, but their respective reasons for wanting justice are of the self-gratifying and egocentric variety.
Despite her faults, though, Fiona appears to the only one to recognize the extent of Queenie’s (Gabourey Sidibe) powerful magic, and this week’s best moment finally fully exploits the latter’s remarkably resonant ability to harm herself so as to inflict harm on others. Fiona coerces the troubled pupil to dip her own hand in acid to make it appear as if Myrtle burned her own hand while throwing acid at Cordelia—a crime that merits burning at the stake. And so Myrtle is marched out to somewhere in the atmospheric countryside, and promptly burned in a shockingly brutal moment that refuses to evade the extent of Fiona’s capacity for vindictive, cold-blooded political gamesmanship. Queenie, feeling understandably sick afterward, is assuaged by Fiona’s promises that she might be the next Supreme.
But it appears, as a friend suggested, that Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) is looking more and more like the next all-powerful one, particularly when she’s able to rouse herself to mentally block Marie Laveau’s (Angela Bassett) remote mental control over the angry horde of zombies she summoned to attack the coven’s primary grounds, and that’s after Zoe’s just manually cut most of them to pieces in a moment of over-the-top cartoonishness that Peter Jackson might cheer. Zoe’s arc, finally, appears to be cohering with the governing Fiona-Marie-Myrtle plot thread in a logical and satisfactory way, partially because the ever-hopeless Kyle (Evan Peters) was tellingly nowhere to be seen.
On the other hand, it’s disappointing to see Cordelia bed-ridden in a hospital, seemingly set aside from the show’s main actions just as she was beginning to come into her own as a character of stature, but this is a disappointment that could work in the grand context of Murphy and Falchuk’s end game. We learn that Cordelia has some kind of psychic power of touch that’s probably new, because she’s now on to the schemes of her passive-aggressive husband (Josh Hamilton). When he touches her, Cordelia sees sudden, frightening glimpses of his infidelity as well as of the subsequent murder of the beautiful woman he picked up online last week. Cordelia’s down, but almost certainly not out, and it will be interesting to see how her blossoming knowledge of her husband’s betrayal will influence her almost-certain discovery of the cruelties her mother has inflicted superficially in her own name.
One imagines that the chickens might finally come home to roost for Fiona in a fashion that resembles Madame Delphine LaLaurie’s (Kathy Bates) grappling with her recently resurrected zombie daughters, who have a much bigger bone to pick with their mother than we could have imagined. As the opening flashback to All Hallow’s Eve in 1833 reveals, Delphine didn’t just reserve her cruelty for her black servants, as we see her chaining her daughters up in her grotesque torture chamber, promising to one of them to fill her mouth with shit when Christmas rolls around. Granted, the daughters were planning on killing Delphine. But, even more granted, she richly sowed the seeds of such contemptuous familial conspiracy.
It was nice to see Delphine’s viciousness acknowledged again, as it was looking as if the character was going to slide into easy domestic racial relations comedy after a promising introduction, but she’s beginning to crystallize as one of the writers’ trickiest creations. From what we’ve seen thus far, Delphine is the most disgusting of Coven’s villains (though Fiona is catching up with her by the minute), but she’s portrayed in a fashion that alternates between terrifying and plain flippant, and it’s a testament to the show’s tonal elasticity that, so far, the conceit has worked as a parody of richly justified social humbling.
“Burn, Witch. Burn!” is probably the most consistently paced episode of Coven since “Bitchcraft”; all of the subplots are beginning to gracefully fold into the primary arc of the struggle for control over the coven, and though Misty Day (Lily Rabe) is still literally stranded out in the swamp somewhere, her pivotal resurrection of Myrtle at the very end implies that she may also be forced to take sides, and that, as a woman herself once burned, she won’t be too sympathetic to Fiona’s relentless draconian practices. An epic storm appears to be brewing, and it may ultimately yield the most ambitious, not to mention ambivalent and disturbing, series of American Horror Story yet.
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