American Horror Story: Coven presented itself as Harry Potter on acid — if Harry was a Henrietta who could kill boys with her vagina, and…
TV Review

American Horror Story: Coven

BEWITCHED American Horror Story: Coven was as entertaining as it was absurd.
Image credit: Michele K. Short/FX
BEWITCHED American Horror Story: Coven was as entertaining as it was absurd.

American Horror Story: Coven presented itself as Harry Potter on acid — if Harry was a Henrietta who could kill boys with her vagina, and the acid was actually cocaine. This sounds flippant and coarse and maybe even really tasteless, except it's true, and because it's American Horror Story, for which flippancy, coarseness, and questionable taste are values to embraced. The premiere introduced us to Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), a teenage girl who came to learn that she was a true blood witch after she rubbed a boy the wrong way, which is to say, her boyfriend died during sex as a result of some baffling kink in her magical mojo.

Zoe was shipped to a secret academy for witches in New Orleans run by a natural magic schoolmarm named Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson) in lieu of her all-about-me mother, Fiona Good (Jessica Lange), the current Supreme of Witchington. But Fiona was more fixated on figuring out how to live forever than leading her peeps in the here and now, in a culture full of fear and loathing of their devilish Otherness. By the end of the premiere, Zoe had made frenemies with her classmates, including hot and haughty Supreme-wannabe child star Madison (Emma Roberts), and had abused her life-sapping sexuality to vengefully kill a rapey college boy. And this was the allegedly ''lighter'' season of American Horror Story!

It was a provocative, promising premise. But apparently, Coven needed to be so much more. There needed to be Kathy Bates as an outrageously psychotic racist from slave days past and Angela Bassett as a soulless Voodoo priestess with a heart hardened by horror. There needed to be Evan Peters as a Frankenstein monster, built and programmed to be the perfect boyfriend. There needed to be Patti LuPone as a Bible-thumping bigot who sang gospel songs and administered liquid bleach enemas to her son. There needed to be Francis Conroy in an electric peach wig playing the Theremin. There needed to be Danny Huston as a serial killer saxophone player and Lily Rabe as a Stevie Nicks swamp witch, which, of course, meant there needed to be Stevie Nicks, playing Stevie Nicks as a witch. There needed to Minotaur sex, black magic sex, and ménage a trois sex. There needed to be decapitations, eye gouging, eyeball scooping, and blood-spurting axe strikes. Everyone had to die, and then come back to life, or lose a soul, and then go to hell. Lance Reddick as the devil Papa Legba! Denis O'Hare as a doll-obsessed mute! Some witch-hunter guys! Religion! Race! Gender! Power politics! The State of the Union, writ mythic and gothic and insane. And more. More, more, more!

Such was a season of American Horror Story that sought to entertain with much muchness, sensational sensationalism, and great actors giving great close-ups and chewing juicy dialogue, but not with story, and not so much even with the characters themselves, as few of them had vibrant, gleanable internal lives. Just actors, ACTING! And playing archetypes or attitudes, not people. As Fiona, the superstar enchantress desperate to cede her glamour or her rank, Lange was riveting, but Fiona was the least of the three roles she's played so far in AHS. Bassett and Bates had a ball, but their characters didn't finish well, even if their final fates — Marie Laveau, doomed to furiously skewer Delphine LaLaurie's daughter for eternity; Delphine, doomed to watch this violence; their mutual hate, locked in forever, with no hope for forgiveness or even exhaustion — was an effective metaphor for the empty, degrading avenging justice.

Coven was overloaded with interesting stuff, yet you got the sense that the abundance of characters to service got in the way of exploring and maximizing ideas, which in turn denied to season deeper characters with knowable internal lives.

Example: After the second episode, Coven seemed to completely forget about Zoe's killer sexuality. In fact, the season seemed to take a huge step back from her, perhaps because Coven realized that the fun was going to come from the grown-ups. Consequently, the characters linked to Zoe and they to her — Madison, and especially Kyle (Peters) — suffered by extension. Their love triangle, the Zoe/Kyle romance, Kyle killing Madison — none of it cast much of a spell. The sharp shift away from her contributed to a feeling — emphasis on feeling — that Coven didn't know what it wanted to be, except that I think that it did; it just didn't properly scale and nurture its defining storyline. (More on this in a second.)

As much as I appreciated Coven's humor, I think the aim to be ''lighter'' — the tonal mandate for this season — is wrong for this show. American Horror Story can't help but be what it is: Because of its ambition, intelligence and social, cultural, and historical concerns — not to mention the genres from which it draws inspiration from — the show is just going to skew dark and heavy. I know everyone is terrified of being pretentious and deadly serious these days. But for AHS to resist this is to deny its nature and dilutes its power. The outrageous outrages of Coven went down easy — too easy.

And yet! And yet, I remain, as ever, deeply in awe of the sheer creativity of the American Horror Story enterprise and engaged by the heart and concerns and interests of the writers. One saving grace of this season, for me, was how it complemented and built upon the themes of the last. Like AHS: Asylum, AHS: Coven focused on the allure and abuse of power. Unlike Asylum, which examined the theme in the context of modernist monolithic institutions, Coven — set in a post-modern, post-monolith world — went micro, and examined the theme of power in the context of a culture of subcultures who find their identity, for better and worse, almost exclusively in innate and Otherness. With its younger characters, especially Zoe and Madison, it zeroed in on the competing desires of needing the safe haven of community and wanting the significance of being special. With ''older'' characters, like Fiona, Marie Laveau, and Delphine LaLaurie, Coven gave us characters broken bad by that tension, and broken even worse by their fear and denial of mortality, which in turn transformed them into monsters.

If only Coven had aped Asylum by churning all of this richness through a smaller set of varied, well-conceived characters! So many witches, so much sameness! My favorite was the most ostentatiously individualistic: Myrtle Snow (Conroy), who delighted in that most ephemeral and worldly of things, fashion, and yet who was driven by a single desire, to make the world a better place for future generations. She accomplished that mission by facilitating Cordelia's actualization, albeit by immoral means. Aware that her sins made her unworthy of the world that deserves to flourish, she insisted on being punished for it, and more, retired. Permanently. May she rule in her heaven — or hell — in the wrap dress of her dreams.

Coven's finale was fascinating fun and proof of the season's big picture failure. The revelation and ironic twist of this ''Harry Potter on acid'' was that the true hero wasn't Zoe or any of the students, but their stunted teacher, Cordelia. The scales fell from her eyes, this time for good, and she finally saw in herself the power and the glory that she had long denied, in part because her god-awful mother had raised her to deny it: She was the next Supreme, and she always had been. Not that the kids were unimportant; they were crucial to a larger point about needing a culture that is focused on redeeming a fallen culture and all of its corrupt power structures for the sake of future generations. ''The Seven Wonders'' — rich with ironic Christian imagery — concluded with a shot that evoked the only miracle that Jesus performed on himself: The Transfiguration. Cordelia, the sacred Feminine Christ, stood radiant on the steps of The Academy. She was flanked by her exalted counselors, Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) and Zoe, the Moses and Elijah to her Christ, except they weren't oldy moldy men with beards, they were girls, albeit ones wise beyond their years. (Serving them: Their obedient, subservient watchdog/caretaker Kyle. See! There's room for men in the New Order Matriarchy!) They appeared before scores and scores of young disciples — the beautiful and the misfits, young women all — who, thanks to Cordelia, no longer had to live in fear and hide their light of what made them special under a bushel. And the meek shall inherit the earth. It was a happily-ever-after kind of ending — at least until the final line, when one of those meek young things, beholding Cordelia in all of her glamour, raised her hand and asked oh-so-innocently: ''What's a supreme?'' Cordelia laughed a knowing laugh, as experience had taught her there is never anything ''innocent'' about that question.

''The Seven Wonders'' was a satisfying hour of television, but nothing more. While it's clear, in retrospect, that Cordelia's actualization and ascension was always the final destination, the finale didn't feel like the culmination of a well-developed saga, because very little was developed well over the course of the season, including Cordelia's character. They could have aired this episode at midseason — that's how little the characters evolved over 13 episodes. I can't deny my experience: Week to week, the excesses of Coven were wickedly amusing. Next year, I hope American Horror Story can be more than that, and with less. B

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Originally posted Jan 31, 2014
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