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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 12, "Show Stoppers"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 12, “Show Stoppers”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 12, “Show Stoppers”

Freak Show, which is now all but certain to go down in the record books as the weakest season of American Horror Story so far, helps to confirm an unofficial rule about the series at large: The more a season actively utilizes its chosen setting, the better it is. Asylum explicitly, cannily exploited the fears we have of a mental institution, positioning it as a convincing, disturbing barometer for social ills. Murder House played with most of the haunted-house-movie tropes, adding a dash of kink to a genre that, as of late, too often resists it. Coven, the first really uneven season, appeared to be driven by clichés that are more routinely associated with superheroes (particularly the X-Men) than witches. And Freak Show, apart from the occasional ghoulish flourish, really needn’t be set at the titular grounds at all, as much of its conflicts, such as they are, derive from isolated betrayals and killings that are often accompanied by the obligatory speech about freaks’ rights. A freak show is a potentially great setting for a horror series, but it’s hardly mattered here, as we’ve rarely seen a performance of the show, and backstage shenanigans are essentially nonexistent.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 10, "Orphans"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 10, “Orphans”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 10, “Orphans”

“Orphans” finds American Horror Story: Freak Show taking a surprisingly earnest detour from its usual preachy, ultra-violently “relevant” shenanigans. The episode is mostly concerned with pinhead Pepper (Naomi Grossman) in the wake of her husband Salty’s (Christopher Neiman) sudden death in his sleep, which is to say that, for the first time in eons, the series is centered on an actual narrative idea that serves to unify most of its tangents. Acting out, thrashing about the freak show, Pepper is inconsolable. Her depression, coupled with the fact that the freaks are finally appearing to notice that they’re dying left and right since the arrival of Stanley (Denis O’Hare) and Esmerelda (Emma Roberts), spurs Elsa (Jessica Lange) to talk strategy with Desiree (Angela Bassett), which leads to a conversation about the formation of the freak show as the two knock back schnapps.

American Horror Story: Coven Recap Episode 13, "The Seven Wonders"

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 13, “The Seven Wonders”

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 13, “The Seven Wonders”

“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.

American Horror Story: Coven Recap Episode 12, "Go to Hell"

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 12, “Go to Hell”

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 12, “Go to Hell”

The penultimate episode of American Horror Story: Coven, “Go to Hell” finds the series still desperately scrambling to introduce busy conceits. Theoretically, we should be eagerly anticipating the revelation of Fiona’s (Jessica Lange) successor as the next Supreme, but how can we? As an audience, we never know if any event “counts,” or if it will be reversed to satisfy a new creative whimsy. The first two or three hundred character resurrections were a cheeky way of illustrating Coven’s ’s willingness to screw with viewer expectation, but that device, along with the witches’ highly varying procession of week-to-week powers, has long ago devolved into tedium. And somewhere down the line, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk also lost a valuable sense of pace: Major events seem to rush by now in a barely coherent tizzy, while negligible vignettes eat up a significant portion of running time.

American Horror Story: Coven Recap Episode 11, "Protect the Coven"

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 11, “Protect the Coven”

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 11, “Protect the Coven”

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.

American Horror Story: Coven Recap Episode 8, "The Sacred Taking"

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 8, “The Sacred Taking”

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 8, “The Sacred Taking”

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.

American Horror Story: Coven Recap Episode 7, "The Dead"

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 7, “The Dead”

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 7, “The Dead”

Viewers, particularly straight males, may have found themselves in the position of actively envying two dead men while watching this week’s episode of American Horror Story: Coven, because, to put it bluntly, several of the witches were feeling rather randy. It finally dawns on Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) that Kyle’s (Evan Peters) unique stature as a fully ambulatory quasi-corpse renders him the ideal method of circumventing the dangers of her potentially fatal mating habits, though it admittedly takes the newly revived Madison (Emma Roberts) to fully convince her of this fringe benefit. To be fair, Zoe’s had a lot on her mind this week, as she’s also plotting a coup with Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) to overthrow Fiona (Jessica Lange) as the head of the Coven.

American Horror Story: Coven Recap Episode 6, "The Axeman Cometh"

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 6, “The Axeman Cometh”

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 6, “The Axeman Cometh”

In this week’s episode of American Horror Story: Coven, memorably titled “The Axeman Cometh,” an elegantly interlocking series of plot turns suggests a major character’s undoing. Most pivotally, we learn that Cordelia’s (Sarah Paulson) unfaithful, murdering husband, Hank (Josh Hamilton), has a larger stake in Fiona’s (Jessica Lange) escalating rivalry with Marie (Angela Bassett) than we could have reasonably suspected. Hank’s an agent, of sorts, working with Marie to help ferret out the locations of the remaining descendants of the Salem witches in order to systematically execute them. Kaylee (Alexandra Breckenridge), the gorgeous redhead who Hank killed in a hotel room a few episodes ago, was actually a witch who’d discussed joining the coven with Cordelia, only to resist in favor of pursuing a “normal” life. In one of the episode’s many flashbacks, we see Hank eavesdropping on the meeting and subsequently seeking out Kaylee, who was presumably just one of who knows how many other young victims.

American Horror Story: Coven Recap Episode 4, "Fearful Pranks Ensue"

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 4, “Fearful Pranks Ensue”

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 4, “Fearful Pranks Ensue”

This week’s episode of American Horror Story: Coven, “Fearful Pranks Ensue,” is ideally timed to remind us that, while Halloween is now most typically acknowledged by the American middle class with parties, binge eating, and horror-movie marathons, it was, for many, once a dangerous pagan event in which spirits were to be bribed away from invading your home. Logically, Halloween is a big day for the witches of Coven, particularly for Fiona (Jessica Lange), who finds herself being investigated for Madison’s (Emma Roberts) murder by the Council of Witchcraft, the latter of which is amusingly imagined to include an obvious stand-in for Truman Capote. More importantly to Fiona, however, the council also includes former classmate and rival Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy), who’s sure that Fiona murdered the former Supreme, Anna Leigh (Christine Ebersole), years ago, as well as Madison the day prior, though she can’t quite prove the premeditation of either crime.

American Horror Story: Coven Recap Episode 3, "The Replacements"

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 3, “The Replacements”

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 3, “The Replacements”

There’s a moment late in “The Replacements” that indirectly addresses a curiosity I’d already had in regard to American Horror Story: Coven. Fiona (Jessica Lange) and Madison (Emma Roberts) are having drinks after recently discovering a commonly powerful interest in screwing around with other people’s heads, mostly out of their private contemptuous amusement. Fiona, who’d been looking at the past quite a bit throughout this episode already, admits to Madison that she was never a good mother to Cordelia (Sarah Paulson), and that, much worse, she was never much of a Supreme Witch. Madison counters with the obvious response in the face of what’s clearly vanity and self-pity cloaked under superficial regret: that it’s not too late. Fiona tosses off a sentiment that, yes, it’s indeed too late, and that she isn’t going to change, nor does she want to.