If the last few episodes of American Horror Story: Coven were marked by a palpable sense of creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck’s concern with lining up certain narrative pawns in the proper positions so as to satisfy a larger game plan, then “The Sacred Taking” finds the show’s variables nearly, but not quite, cohering into a grand narrative arc. There are pros and cons to this evolution. The pro, obviously, is that there’s pleasure in finally seeing certain hints begin to pay off, but the con is that Coven sometimes threatens to favor a certain heaviness of plot at the expense of the weirder moments with which American Horror Story typically thrives.
Fiona (Jessica Lange), who seemed to be taking a sex vacation from the primary concerns of the series for the last few weeks with her loverboy, the Axeman (Danny Huston), reasserted herself back into the coven this week with a vengeance. Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) rallies her young witches, Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), Madison (Emma Roberts), and Nan (Jamie Brewer), to initiate their plot to murder Fiona for the supposed larger good of their traditions. Helping them in their quest is Misty Day (Lily Rabe) and the newly resurrected Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy), who’s still working through the foggy disorientation of a month-long swamp bath following a burning at the stake. Myrtle is of the opinion that the next Supreme is Misty, based on her obviously amazing powers of cheating death, and she and Cordelia decide that the best tack to take with Fiona’s murder is to coerce her into committing suicide, which adheres to an ancient tradition referenced in the episode’s title.
For reasons that were never entirely explicit to me, Myrtle and Madison construct an elaborate manipulation designed to convince Fiona that Madison is still the next Supreme and that she, particularly given her weakened cancerous state anyway, would be well advised to swallow a big helping of pills and sleep for eternity, though that may be a relative term in a universe in which no one stays dead. (Seriously, at one point, Fiona confesses to the Axeman that she fears death, but her lover has been dead for decades and seems to be getting along just fine as a sexual dynamo freed from the living tyranny of having to earn an income.) The point, though, is that Fiona’s unusually vulnerable to Myrtle and Madison’s scheming, but why must she continue to believe that Madison’s the next Supreme? To keep her from trying to kill the real future Supreme, whose identity is still unresolved? To help cement Fiona’s dawning senses of hopelessness and uselessness with the confident proclamation that a new head witch is in the pipeline? Emotionally, this last one makes the most sense, but this part of the plot still seems overly busy and precious, an excuse to mount a long sequence that’s still wonderful regardless of how much literal sense it makes.
The central set piece of “The Sacred Taking” is a stunner: a prolonged, theatrical series of alternating dreamlike duets primarily between Fiona, Myrtle, and Madison. Once again, it’s worth pausing for a moment to take in the generosity of Murphy and Falchuk’s vision, which includes plum roles for a list of extraordinary actors who otherwise seem relegated in films to either simple mother or bitch roles or nothing at all. Conroy hasn’t had a lot to do this season until now, but the initial killing of her character seems to have logically unhinged her choices, particularly her frog croak of a new voice, which underlines the idea of Myrtle as a subterranean avenging angel, an entity who torments Fiona, justifiably, for having behaved as a vicious, petty tyrant. Lange, typically for her, hits a remarkable variety of emotional notes: self-pity, self-loathing, hatred, remorse, fear, vanity, vulnerability, conveniently manipulative selflessness, and on and on. And it’s time to give credit where it’s due to Roberts, who I admit to occasionally taking for granted as a pretty face with a fairly nifty sense of timing: Her timing isn’t just nifty, it’s divinely crisp and chilly.
This long sequence builds toward another misdirection that has the weird distinction of potentially fooling veterans of American Horror Story more than folks who’re tuning in for the first time this year. Fiona’s very-near death echoes Asylum’s startling turn toward pathos near its end when we’re boldly asked to accept Lange’s exploitive, torturing Sister Jude as a sympathetic martyr figure. But Coven is revealed to be deliberately toying with that expectation when Spaulding (Denis O’Hare) appears at the last minute to help Fiona flush the poisons from her body and to lecture her for her sentimentality; he might as well be scolding us for being so easily hoodwinked. Fiona isn’t going to follow the path of a convenient redemption arc—not yet at least.
Because Fiona’s a sociopath, and seems to best respond to sociopathic modes of discourse, the coven’s failed scheme to kill her appears to have the effect of finally bonding her to the witches and maybe even rousing her for one last true campaign of leadership against a variety of threats, which include Cordelia’s ousted witch-hunter husband Hank’s (Josh Hamilton) half-assed attacks as well as the more formidable blood-soaked plotting of Marie (Angela Bassett), who hasn’t quite yet confidently folded Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) into her pack of outraged voodoo sorcerers. Despite her best instincts, Queenie has bonded with Delphine (Kathy Bates), who’s now Marie’s tortured captive.
Marie and Delphine’s arc is the most explicit victim of this episode’s over-plotting. It’s logical, and emotionally promising, that Marie’s in-house tension with Queenie and Delphine would parallel the inter-coven politicking that dominates “The Sacred Taking,” but the former’s brief moments with her new prisoner feel tossed off and not entirely realized; it’s a disappointing failure of imagination that Marie would finally get her hands on the woman who ruined her life, only to start chopping of body parts and sending them over to the coven as a threat. Where’s the grit, the deep and dirty poetic justice? “The Sacred Taking” is uneven, no doubt, and it feels whittled down from a feature-length running time, but its crimes aren’t galling, and the potential is still enormously suggestive, particularly if Marie’s allowed to eventually gain the stature of character that Fiona and Myrtle have recently achieved. The end game is beginning to become visible in the horizon now, and much of the suspense, and fun, comes from the knowledge that Murphy, Falchuk, and the show’s gifted actors have proven themselves capable of trying anything.
For more American Horror Story recaps, click here.