“The Magical Delights of Stevie Nicks” opens with a prolonged instance of “last month on American Horror Story: Coven,” as it behaves as the TV equivalent of what Quentin Tarantino once deemed a “hang out movie.” Fiona (Jessica Lange) and her extended family of witches, ghosts, and disgruntled demons spend much of the first half hour lounging around the coven, trading bon mots and reminding us who’s planning to kill or revive who, with Stevie Nicks occasionally popping in as herself to sing a song and counsel the increasingly irritating Misty Day (Lily Rabe) on her possibilities of being the next Supreme.
The slow open is understandable given the show’s hiatus over the holidays, and viewers, to an extent, will probably be grateful for certain reminders such as how and why Nan’s (Jamie Brewer) would-be squeeze, Luke (Alexander Breymon), was murdered, and that Fiona and Marie (Angela Bassett) are now allies united against taking down the Delphi Trust, a multi-billion-dollar corporation with an ancestry that’s cleverly revealed this week to date back to a group of carpenters and furniture builders who eventually turned toward specializing in private equity. The CEO of Delphi, who we already knew was Cordelia’s (Sarah Paulson) father-in-law, is revealed to be Harrison Renard (Michael Cristofer), who knows that the witches are on to his campaign to annihilate them.
Still, this is one of the bumpiest episodes in the history of American Horror Story, with an uncertain pace that alternates between the disconcertingly accelerated and the unseemly sluggish. It’s also not always possible to parse the intended humor from the unintended, particularly when pictures showing Harrison and Hank publically fraternizing together online are revealed, as one can’t help but wonder how either of them was able to get so far into the inner works of a group of supposedly powerful globe-trotting witches. It’s undeniably a laughable moment, and, for once, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk don’t seem to be in on the joke. There’s a narrative purpose to this contrivance, of course, and it’s to further estrange Fiona from Cordelia, which only underlines another unsatisfying switcheroo: Cordelia’s sudden transformation from Machiavellian upstart to the self-pitying bore she was earlier in the season. Paulson is a gifted actress, but the only scene in this episode that really flatters her is the amusingly outta-nowhere duet she has with Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy), who instructs on her on the pitfalls of mediocrity, which she herself has apparently learned to weather by wiling away the hours in Cordelia’s creepy subterranean laboratory with a theremin.
The stop-and-start, simultaneously prolonged, and rushed pace also shortchanges the theoretically satisfying first phase of Fiona and Marie’s revenge against Delphi, in which they chant over rats in a maze in a ceremony that compels the federal government to freeze the company’s assets and instantly halve their net worth. It’s a nicely cathartic idea, and consistent with Coven’s general concerns with the witches as symbolic of a variety of the country’s historic have-nots, but it feels as if a multiple-episode arc has been compressed into a 90-second montage. It’s an obvious act of bookkeeping on the part of the show’s creators, a way to speed up the resolution of the numerous plot threads.
Sloppy though it initially may be, “The Magical Delights of Stevie Nicks” grows more confident over the course of its running time. Nan, who understandably feels she’s being overlooked for consideration as the next Supreme for her Down’s syndrome, displays a bitterness and viciousness that’s disturbing given her prior guilelessness; her murder of Luke’s mom (Patti LuPone) is particularly chilling despite it being essentially warranted by the moral logic of this netherworld in which no one seems to really die anyway. And the unexpected fusion of Nan’s story with the arc of a new character, Papa Legba (Lance Reddick), is both eerie and weirdly empowering.
When Papa Legba first appears, an understandable reaction might be something along the lines of “Jesus Christ, another bad guy this late in the game?” But Legba’s the sort of commanding wild card that an episode this uncertain needs (Murphy has said in interviews that he’s also a key player in the remainder of the series). Essentially a combination of Satan, Rumpelstiltskin, and Candyman, Legba is the reason why Marie appears to be an eternally hot fortysomething despite the fact that her real age is somewhere in the triple digits. He’s a voodoo entity with a memorable snake-scale face and a penchant for desperate, aging MILFs and good blow, and Reddick’s spry performance restores the show’s tone of erotic comic absurdity.
Unsurprisingly, Fiona is eventually driven to recruit Legba’s services, which come with the price of your soul and the occasional freshly stolen baby or perhaps killing your daughter for the hell of it—a debt Fiona welcomes considering her situation with Cordelia. More surprising is Legba’s response to Fiona: They do a little coke together, after which he tells her that she has no soul with which to barter, which leads inexplicably to Fiona and Marie drowning Nan, which the latter seems to eventually view as a kind of quiet benediction and, perhaps, a victory. Nan walks off into a presumed netherworld with Legba to…what?
Though we’re probably intended to ponder Misty’s fate inside the tomb that Madison (Emma Roberts) pushed her into, it’s Nan and her blossoming anti-relationship with Fiona that’s most promising at this point. (For anyone keeping score, I predicted that Nan was the next Supreme months ago. Just sayin’.) And Fiona’s soullessness, though initially tossed off, haunts the show on the rebound, and complicates the ever-expanding series of reactions we have to this fabulous character: Who is Fiona, and could she even answer that question? The episode’s transition from a negligible slide show of CliffsNotes to something genuinely moving is best illustrated by the Nicks appearances that bookmark it. Nicks’s first song, a performance of “Rhiannon,” is an awkward cap to Misty’s preoccupation with the legend’s work, but her second performance at the end, a heartbreaking version of “Has Anyone Ever Written Anything for You,” is a succinct embodiment of Fiona’s unrelieved loneliness, which is poignant even as its understood to almost certainly be the font of her evil.
For more American Horror Story recaps, click here.