So the sixth episode of Coven kicked off with a slasher-noir prologue featuring the son of John Huston as a maniacal jazz-obsessed serial killer and the daughter of Meryl Streep as a suffragette witch, plus homages to Jack the Ripper, The Exorcist, the death of Julius Caesar, and the tenth plague of Egypt. Some of this was intentional and some of it might have been accidental. (At one point, Danny Huston’s Axeman said, “I am invisible, even as the Ether which surrounds your earth.” For a second, I thought he said “Aether,” which would mean Coven is set in the same universe as Thor: The Dark World.) To me it felt like high-level mythmaking. Every iteration of American Horror Story has used flashbacks, but Coven deploys them ambitiously, cycling back around to pivotal points in our nation’s history – this time 1919, the cusp of women’s suffrage and Prohibition and the Jazz Age. It helps that New Orleans is a city built on simultaneous ritual tradition and groundbreaking progressivism – a place that feels like the deep past and the near future all at once.
Take the Axeman. On one hand, he’s a serial killer – and like all slasher villains, he’s a vision of freaked-out conservatism who specifically preys upon women (plus the men who warm their bed.) But he’s also a jazzman: We see him fondly hide his axe inside of his saxophone case. Moses told his followers they could ward off the Angel of Death with lamb’s blood; when the Axeman writes a letter to the local papers, he simply asks that everyone who doesn’t want to be murdered play some jazz.
In 1919, jazz music wasn’t yet the cultural force it would become – and for young people in the ’20s, jazz was basically a combination of rock, punk rock, hip-hop, and EDM all at once. In this sense, you could argue that Coven was positively codifying the Axeman as a libertine, a man ahead of his time. Part of what makes American Horror Story scary is how conservatism and progressivism keep getting jumbled together. Or, put another way: Liberal or reactionary, everybody on this show seems to wind up killing women. If no one’s a good guy, does it matter if you’re bad?
But this time, the women were ready for the Axeman. He walked down the street in a state of euphoria, hearing sweet jazz pouring from every window…except the windows of Miss Robichaux’s, which taunted him with opera. In 1919, Miss Robichaux’s was filled at capacity with young women, dressed in identical clothes. Grace Gummer led the team, a young witch with a passion for gender equality who refused to let the Axeman torture the women of New Orleans. The Axeman found her upstairs, laying out Tarot cards. He approached her, but the camera lingered on her face in an eye-popping shot that suggested the Axeman was a rat getting deeper into a trap. (Props to episode director Michael Uppendahl, a frequent AHS presence who also helmed the best and weirdest episode of Mad Men this year.)
The Tarot card for Death came up. The Axeman swung his weapon, and hit dead air. The young witch appeared in the shadows and stabbed him. Her sister witches came out of the shadows, stabbing the Axeman back and forth. A vintage Caesar, with added subtext. (In slasher movies, penetration-by-knife is never just penetration-by-knife.) It’s wrong to take any triumphant moment in American Horror Story at face value – heroes become villains with startling frequency. But you could read this scene most clearly as an example of collective female power, of what women can accomplish when they work together. Or you could read it in another direction, as the specific moment when the patriarchy began to die. (Danny Huston is always symbolic of something.)
If the prologue was a portrait of sisterhood at its zenith, we cut to a very different cultural moment of that same sisterhood in decline. While digging through a box of Madison’s things, Zoe was led by an empty airplane bottle of vodka to a secret compartment containing various relics from the Salem coven’s history. The pictures showed the bygone days of Miss Robichaux’s, when the Academy was so full they needed bunk beds. Now, the “school” was comprised of four witches, one missing and presumed dead. “It’s a numbers game,” explained Zoe. “Witches are dying.” For Zoe, this was a galvanizing realization. “We can’t afford to lose a single witch. From now on, we watch each other’s backs.”
Zoe is a strange character. The first episode implied that Coven would comprise a coming-of-age narrative for the young witch: Essentially, she was Harry Potter if Harry Potter starred Kitty Pryde and if Kitty Pryde’s mutant power was the ability to kill boys with sex. But Zoe took a back seat in recent episodes to various outré characters in the ensemble. In hindsight, the last few episodes showed various possible mentors for the young witches all proving unfit for the task: Devolving into petty jealousies, or occasionally just killing the students they were supposed to protect. Zoe was advocating a new direction for the Coven. The adults can’t protect us, so we have to protect ourselves.
Queenie was skeptical. She’s watched out for herself. But Zoe wanted her to see how powerful they could be together. They drank Absinthe and brought out a spirit board and played F’Real Ouija. They were trying to find Madison. Instead, they conjured up a spirit. A spirit who died in this very house. A spirit who called himself the Axeman.
NEXT: Breaking Goode