This week’s episode of American Horror Story: Coven steers the series into unexpected and retrospectively logical narrative and thematic directions. So far, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck have been primarily concerned with offering viewers an often frank and disconcerting parody of a race war as waged in that uneasy cultural melting pot known as New Orleans. But if “Head” is a proper indication, Coven is moving toward introducing a grander villain who’s amusingly of the times as well as indicative of the sentiment that class and money cut deeper than skin color. That’s right: Turns out that witches are as vulnerable to massive corporate gentrification as the rest of us.
Hank’s (Josh Hamilton) ultimate fate at the business end of a pistol, as unconventionally wielded by Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), is particularly characteristic of the show’s sometimes troubled inventiveness. Hank was introduced to us as the kind of blandly good-looking, unceasingly passive-aggressive yuppie who inspires resentment in many of us on weaker (and perhaps not-so-weaker) days, and he appeared to exist so as to bolster the show’s girl-power themes. And he eventually did, but in a surprising way: Hank was really a contemporary Renfield, a stoolie who represented a vast corrupt organization’s initial stabs at wiping out a people it deems bothersome or irrelevant. This is an enormously resonant idea, one of the best to ever be introduced to American Horror Story: Murphy and Falchuk have connected the Salem Witch Trials, an atrocity bluntly indicative of female subjugation, with the much later civil rights movement, which was an effort to combat another form of subjugation, with the contemporary bluntly obvious corporate control of the American government.
In one episode, the writers have flipped Coven over from a racially tinged soap opera into a darkly satirical corporate comedy, asserting that all of these qualities are inseparably related. Fiona and her black archrival, Marie (Angela Bassett), are symbolic of working-class whites and blacks bickering with one another over virtually nothing while a larger faceless entity casually fucks them both over, but this symbology isn’t offered to us without irony: Fiona (Jessica Lange), lounging around in her vast mansion that’s loosely called a coven, isn’t accustomed to a lifestyle one would reasonably term “working class.” No, Fiona bears a much closer resemblance to the kind of Southern exploiters who’re regularly parodied in the form of Delphine (Kathy Bates), and the series isn’t blind to that. Much to the contrary, it’s that kind of ambiguity and anything-for-effect contradiction that emboldens Coven with subversive energy.
The episode’s title, “Head,” has multiple meanings (though, stunningly for a such a randy series, there isn’t a double entendre along the lines of the legendary scene from Re-Animator), the most obvious two being bluntly figurative and literal, respectively: Events appear to be coming to a head, and, well, Delphine’s head is still floating around in the service of achieving the occasional comical effect, after Queenie neglects to burn it out back per Marie’s instruction. Queenie insists that Delphine be educated and learn the error of her racist ways, setting her down for a marathon viewing of Roots as well as footage from the civil rights movement. Delphine initially refuses to indulge that “nigger caterwaulin’,” but eventually opens her eyes as well as, if we’re to presume correctly from her tears, her figurative heart.
This already tonally risky moment is interspersed with another in a montage that’s bold even for American Horror Story. As Delphine watches civil rights footage, we hear Odetta’s “Oh, Freedom” on the soundtrack, as Hank raids Marie’s beauty parlor, blowing everyone in sight away with a shotgun and a variety of pistols, which is to say, we’re watching a white man mass-murder a group of black women while the disembodied head of an 1800s-era white supremacist discovers the meaning of black humanity. It’s a stirring moment (everyone involved is playing with too much too-loaded material for it not to be), but I don’t think the episode earns it. Underneath the shock is a soggy redemption bit: Delphine’s light bulb of blossoming empathy plays, humorlessly, to the typical white Oscar-friendly platitude positing, “Can’t we all just get along?” No, we can’t, not this easily, and especially via a medium that Delphine doesn’t know and didn’t trust two episodes ago.
But, fortunately, this admittedly compelling blunder paves the way for promising developments that establish Hank’s employer, a shadowy witch-hunting corporation known as Delphi Trust, as a prominent Big Bad, which subsequently renders Marie’s temporary truce with Fiona somewhat believable. Some dangling plot threads remain: I didn’t mention Hank’s shooting of Luke Ramsey (Alexander Dreymon) and his mother, Joan (Patti LuPone), last week because I wanted to wait and see where it was headed, and, well, I still don’t see the point of their arc. The story of the Ramseys, like the ever-expendable tale of newly resurrected Kyle (Evan Peters), has yet to be folded into the rapidly shifting larger story of the witches’ warfare with the oppressors who flushed them out of Salem to begin with, at least not with any satisfaction. Perhaps the squandering of the youthful characters (Zoe and Madison were hardly seen this week either, and seem to have drifted from the show’s concern) is the point: A potentially chic-girl series has turned into a story of elders fighting an endless fight of increasingly murky proprietary import. Sounds about right.
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