“The Seven Wonders” finds American Horror Story: Coven largely tending, predictably for the most part, to a final bit of plot bookkeeping. Fiona (Jessica Lange) is finally dead, after one last inevitable revival or fake-out or reversal, and apparently destined to spend her eternity catfishing with the Axeman (Danny Huston) in a realm presided over by Papa Legba (Lance Reddick), a demonic entity that’s retrospectively revealed to be entirely superfluous to Coven’s grand narrative scheme. Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) and Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) are installed as new Supreme Cordelia’s (Sarah Paulson) upper management, and it appears that their work will be cut out for all of them, as a swift PR maneuver has rejuvenated the institution with a global-wide new influx of troubled witches looking to hone their baffling new powers.
In other words, the series finale belatedly remembered that Coven once fashioned witch lore into an obvious but nevertheless poignant metaphor for America’s history of rounding up and systematically destroying almost anyone who isn’t a straight white male. Coven most effectively applied this metaphor to the exploitation and marginalization of women and African-Americans, but the concept was generous enough to include any other wronged portions of the population, particularly in this episode’s last few moments, which were clearly staged to resemble a battle cry in the key of a gay protest march.
For these reasons, the final 15 minutes of “The Seven Wonders” were moving. It was wise to bring Lange back for a final curtain call, even if this sort of unexpected bad-girl vulnerability was better utilized in the concluding episodes of Asylum. But the 45 minutes leading up to this conclusion only served to remind viewers of just how disastrously far this series slid downhill over the course of its last several episodes. The contest of the Seven Wonders is revealed, in the tradition of so many lardy bits of Coven exposition, to be essentially meaningless: Madison (Emma Roberts), Misty Day (Lily Rabe), Zoe, and Queenie are charged with competing for the position of the Supreme in a series of displays that ludicrously suggest a supernatural reprise of American Idol. The only quasi-surprising developments are the witches’ required trip to the netherworld, which manifests as the hell of your personal choice, and the divination, which resembles the Buddhist practice of discerning the new Dalai Lama.
The hell voyage tripped up both Misty and creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. Misty’s lame and galling final moments suggest that the writers share my contempt for my least favorite Coven character. Are we to believe that anyone will find an eternity of dissecting frogs in high school to be the ultimate manifestation of the worst that all of existence can possibly offer? If it was a joke, the punchline didn’t land. Madison and Zoe’s respective hells, which we didn’t actually see, equally appear to have been conceived as an act of contempt, as they’re the absurdly trivial fantasies of bubble-heads who fail to possess the emotional maturity and social perspective of a healthy child. (The only version of hell that resonated was Queenie’s, which we’d memorably seen in a previous episode.)
The divination sequence didn’t really matter either, but by this point “The Seven Wonders” had completely lost interest in the Seven Wonders anyway, as Cordelia’s birthright is suddenly remembered, and the contest is more or less put away entirely after Zoe undergoes the traditional series induction: a death and resurrection, of course. In response to her revelation as the Supreme, Cordelia’s vision and luminous beauty are restored (again) and Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy) is burned at the stake (again) at her own request, as this new coven leadership must surge forward unburdened by the bitter rubbish of old thinking.
So where does that leave Coven in the evolving context of American Horror Story? Coven surged strongly out of the gate with a satirical confidence that initially surpassed its predecessors, but eventually collapsed under the pressure of a mulish refusal to establish any narrative logic or continuity. Coven ultimately failed to capitalize on the chief pleasure of a miniseries: namely, the novelistic satisfaction of watching a long story gradually reach its intended and long gestating fulfillment. It’s the new low point for American Horror Story, placing a distant third after Asylum and Murder House, which, while uneven, ultimately delivered on their promises to imbue traditional horror tropes with nuances specific to contemporary social moors. But one can’t close the book on Coven in total frustration, as it continued to further American Horror Story’s most valuable tradition of spotlighting the most consistent and varied collection of American female performances to be found anywhere in film or on TV. Coven is the kind of failure that still leaves you anticipating what might be next.
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