With only two episodes remaining, it’s probably fair to say that American Horror Story: Coven has evolved in a fashion opposite to that of the prior American Horror Story: Asylum. Where the latter gradually discarded its various narrative convolutions to arrive at a conclusion of surprising emotional purity, the former opened with a confident sense of parody that’s been gradually cluttered up with a variety of desperately WTF tonal switcheroos. It’s difficult at this point to evade the suspicion that creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk prize the moment, the here and the now, above any particular thematic coherence—a development that won’t come as much of a surprise to those who watched Murphy’s initially addictive, eventually monotonously “outrageous” series Nip/Tuck. Which is to say that this week’s episode of Coven, “Protect the Coven,” is eventful without being especially involving, as Murphy and Falchuk’s game of “anything goes” appears to be very close to stalling out. If anything can happen, then nothing’s really at stake, as the writers have proven themselves perfectly willing to reverse or outright ignore any past development that has the potential to impede a moment of quick theoretical shock value or novelty.
We learn this week, for example, that Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) and Delphine (Kathy Bates) survived the raid on Marie’s (Angela Bassett) hair parlor because, well, why not and who cares? It’s clear by this point that no one, mortal and immortal alike, can really die on this show anyway. Queenie’s blossoming powers, which now include the ability to take a silver bullet in the head with apparently no physical recourse, inspire her to assume, in the tradition of seemingly every other character on the show, that she may be the true next Supreme. Queenie’s new powers must also include a form of advanced rejuvenation, as Delphine has been restored to a state of being that includes a full ambulatory body again, after having had most of it whacked away by Marie a month or so ago. Why? Because the writers said so.
Whatever the explanation for her reappearance, it was Delphine who supplied “Protect the Coven” with its juiciest moments, particularly when Spaulding (Denis O’Hare)—that’s right, he’s also inexplicably back—tricks her into trying to kill Marie with a “powerful potion” that a contemporary viewer will recognize as over-the-counter Benadryl. Needless to say, an antihistamine isn’t a threat to the powerful voodoo witch’s immortality (though this show has grown so bugfuck random that a viewer could be forgiven for taking Spaulding’s claim at face value), and so Marie is little more than irritated when Delphine plunges a huge gleaming butcher knife into her chest after lacing her cocktails with cold medicine. Marie chases Delphine around the coven’s cavernous mansion until Spaulding knocks the former out with one of his dolls, sending her tumbling down the stairs to be presumably buried quasi-alive by Delphine, in an act that mirrors Marie’s initial vengeful burying of Delphine. And in a perverse twist, we learn that Spaulding did actually have a motivation for this series of manipulations: to get Marie out of the way so he could have her recently stolen baby, who was originally intended for Papa Legba (Lance Reddick).
A lot of other stuff happens too, most of which is almost certainly beside whatever point Coven is presumably building toward: Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) plunges her eyes out with a gardening utensil in an effort to restore her gift of second sight, so that, to paraphrase Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy), she can discern the threats that could undo the coven from within. (Cordelia’s apparently forgotten that the internal threat is her mother, Fiona, whom she tried to kill for the safety of the coven.) Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) and Kyle (Evan Peters) cast a spell over the bathtub to unearth the truth behind Nan’s (Jamie Brewer) drowning last week. Meanwhile, Madison (Emma Roberts) exhibits signs of irritation at Zoe’s proclamation of love for Kyle in a variety of gestures that have the effect of endearing us to Madison at the expense of the tediously drippy love birds, who eventually flee, no joke, to the Epcot Center in Florida at Myrtle’s insistence and expense, though one assumes they will be magically brought back into the fold for a final series showdown of some sort.
There was a showdown this week as well, of course, as Fiona and Marie met with Harrison Renard (Michael Cristofer), the CEO of the witch-hunting corporation Delphi Trust, so as to discuss a truce that might convince the witches to enable the Trust to make money again unencumbered by the watchful eye of the Federal Justice system. The bloodletting that ensues is clearly meant to be spectacular, particularly when Fiona drives an ax into Harrison’s neck, but a more likely response is yet another bored sigh. After all the foreshadowing, all the anticipation, all Fiona and Marie had to do was chop these greedy white motherfuckers up? Why bother with the fortune-draining rodent-maze routine at all?
“Protect the Coven” is not the first episode of Coven to drop a huge unwieldy plot bomb on us, but it’s so disappointing this late in the game because it distances us from the characters at what should be a juncture of pivotal emotional understanding. Fiona and Marie barely register as individuals at all, though they’re afforded a great deal of running time, because they’re busily positioned as sexy, sassy, quip-ready avengers. There’s little of the pronounced mood of melancholy and longing that’s imbued the best episodes of Coven with a sense of empathy and resigned sexiness. Everything here feels rushed together as an afterthought; this episode is a work of bookkeeping intended to clean the ledgers for whatever shallow water-cooler shenanigans are to most likely occur in the next two weeks. I hope I’m wrong, but Coven’s legacy appears to be that of a once ambitious and poignant work of soap-operatic pop art that collapsed into self-conscious camp.
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