Great pulp explores heavy topics with a light touch. It hides big themes behind trash and camp. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a meditation on communism, McCarthyism, midcentury suburban conformity; it’s also a movie about freaky alien pod-person clones. I Married a Monster from Outer Space is a movie about marital ennui and repressed homosexuality; it’s also a movie called I Married a Monster from Outer Space. Great pulp tastes like sugar but hits like cough medicine. And American Horror Story is pulp taken to the highest register possible: It’s a barrel full of Lucky Charms marshmallows drenched in Robitussin that spontaneously combusts every 10 minutes.
Coven has already dipped its toes into an assortment of heavy topics. The first three episodes explored the history of feminism, retelling the history of female power within the veneer of a subculture of witchcraft dating back centuries. The fourth episode of Coven jumped head first into the history of American racism. It was an episode that began in the days of integration with a murder so terrifying it was rendered in monochrome; an episode that imagined a peace treaty between the white-establishment Salem Coven and the voodoo witches, with a 1971-era Angela Bassett modeling a blaxploitation-heroine afro; an episode that featured Madame LaLaurie – a character based on an actual historical figure who wrought inconceivable torture during a lifetime of terrorizing her slaves – having an overnight change of heart on the whole “being a horrific racist” thing after Queenie saved her life. And in the same episode, a creepy tongueless butler with a doll fetish welcomed the corpse of a dead Hollywood starlet to his tea party. This is the essence of pulp: High and low, painful reality and weirdo wildness all mashed together.
The episode began in 1961, with a young African American boy being chased down the road by the most terrifying monsters of all: Racist White Dudes. It was a scene set squarely in the era of American Horror Story: Asylum. The second season of AHS is already gaining a reputation as the most disturbing of the show’s three iterations. What made it most disturbing – when you got past the basic fact that insane asylums are the scariest places on earth – was how completely it portrayed midcentury America as a place filled with terror. In the history of our country according to AHS, ’60s America was a place that was dangerous for homosexuals, minorities, and women: Basically, everyone who wasn’t a white heterosexual dude.
Over at Marie’s hair salon, there was a sense of hope. A young mother proudly noted that her son had just started attending an integrated school. Marie warned her she was taking a big chance. The White Citizens’ Council of New Orleans was spreading rumors about Congolese raping white daughters. The mother was stalwart. President Kennedy was in the White House. “I have faith in the future,” she said. The show smash-cut to a faraway shot of her son, swaying from a noose. The mother cried. Marie looked on. She saw this coming. But that didn’t mean she was going to put up with it.
We saw Marie engage in an elaborate ritual. Percussion. Snakes. Beads. Drinking fire. Elsewhere in New Orleans, the Racist White Dudes chatted amiably about a job well done. In the cemetery, hands punched out of graves. A squadron of vengeful undead came knock-knock-knocking on the RWD’s door. They delimbed one man and bit into another. The leader tried to flee…and ran straight into a bayonet belonging to an undead soldier. I couldn’t quite tell through the layers of soot, but the zombie appeared to be wearing a gray uniform: A Confederate soldier, reborn in death as an instrument of vengeance against the white establishment.
I know there are some people who get antsy when American Horror Story trafficks so completely in touchy topics. There are almost certainly more sensitive ways to approach the history of American racism than to send a reanimated Civil War soldier to stab a murderous white man in the stomach while a flock of other zombies devour the white man’s intestinal tract. To me, that first scene was Pulp Unbound, with the metaphor barely even a metaphor anymore. Night of the Living Dead had subtext; American Horror Story takes that subtext and turns it into the lyrics to a Lady Gaga song. And I mean that as a huge compliment: By comparison, the most popular show in America is basically Zombie Death Variety Hour. (Night of the Living Dead had subtext; The Walking Dead has Wingdings.)
We flashed forward to a flashback. Spalding the Mysterious Butler was upstairs arranging an impressive collection of dolls at a tea party. He looked happier than we’ve ever seen him. Here’s a clip from the tea party:
But Spalding heard voices downstairs. He walked right in on the scene that concluded last week’s episode: Fiona committing cross-generation homicide by slicing open Madison’s throat. Afterwards, Fiona tried to explain her actions. “She would’ve made a lousy Supreme,” she said. “This Coven can’t afford that.” Spalding listened quietly, poured her another drink. “I’ve always enjoyed our talks together,” said Fiona. “Especially since you lost your tongue.”
Noises from the garden distracted Fiona’s post-celebricide reverie. She discovered Queenie, covered in blood. “I couldn’t stop it,” said Queenie. A shadow rose up behind Fiona. A few minutes later, Fiona set Queenie down in a bed. Delia came in, and the two witches had one of their trademark poorly-timed mother-daughter talks. Delia chastised Fiona for going to see Marie; Fiona chastised Delia for the same thing, going to see the Voodoo Queen for a “half-assed fertility spell.”
Mid-argument, they noticed that Queenie was not breathing. So Fiona leaned over and – in what amounts to the most tender moment the character has had since we met her – she blew air back into her young charge. In the span of a half-hour, Fiona killed one of her students and saved the life of another. (ASIDE: It’s interesting to see how the AHS creators have gotten even more confident this season their ability to push their characters far outside any recognizable good/evil architecture. Who is the protagonist of Coven? Who is the antagonist? Is Fiona an admirable character because she wants to lead her Coven to greatness? Or is she a despicable character because she frequently confuses the needs of her constituents with her own internal desires? Doesn’t that just make her a good politician? END OF ASIDE.)
NEXT: Farewell, Minotaur