Is 'American Horror Story: Coven' Cursed, or Just a Poorly Written Hot Mess?
Since the first hints of its inception, I’ve been obsessed with American Horror Story and amazed by creators and writers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. While perhaps they caught the True Blood/Dexter wave, the pair brought us a distinctly new and different slant on the ever-so-slightly campy horror hour, offering brilliant actors, gorgeous camera work and a clever seasonal reset. AHS had a well-received first season, then followed up with the ultra dark Asylum that some found a little too terrifying, what with the flying body parts and Nazi medical experiments. In response to feedback he’d gotten, Murphy promised the third installment would lighten things up and be a bit more fun; “It’s much more buoyant and comedic and crafty than last season, which was much darker by design because it was about heavy social stuff…” Coven’s premise declared “the smart ones” (witches) had evacuated Salem and gravitated to New Orleans, but unfortunately, the seasonal sorceresses we’ve met don’t seem especially clever—in fact—they come off rather foolhardy.
After “Bitchcraft” introduced the glorious group of actors and their characters, and “Boy Parts” began what we wouldn’t have guessed was going to be a recurring theme: That Which Dies Shall Never Stay Dead (though oddly, bodily injuries or illness can’t easily be repaired). And from there, each week things became ever more questionable; albeit mostly entertaining. Is this, as someone in the Facebook AHS group suggested, a third season curse—or is Coven just an incomprehensible hot mess? Let’s have a look at some of the issues. There’ll be current season spoilers, obviously…
Silly, Stupid, Whiny Witches.
From the outset, we wanted to root for Sarah Paulson’s Cordelia. She’s daughter of the reigning Supreme, trying to make a name for herself teaching young witches how to harness and use their powers to defend themselves. Maybe she’d even surprise mommy dearest by being her unexpected successor? But, it didn’t take long to see how completely broken and inept Cordelia is; she’s practically useless as a leader, unwittingly married a witch hunter, cries at the drop of a hat, and has absolutely no clue how to handle Fiona—let alone any real threats to the coven. From the outset, the school’s few students, Nan (Jamie Brewer), Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), and Madison (Emma Roberts) learn more through incidental experience than they’ll ever be taught by Cordelia, and even as the season wears on, not a one of them can figure out any truly useful significance for their powers (or their minds). Eleven episodes in, Cordelia has thrown her umpteenth woe-is-me crying fit and stabbed out her own (well, stolen) eyes, and Nan, Queenie and Madison have each died at least once—which brings me to my next point.
If Dead Isn’t Really Dead, What’s the Meaning of Death?
It was at first super cool to find out Misty Day (Lily Rabe) had self-resurrected after being burned at the stake—that’s a handy dandy power to have. So, of course she could bring back others from the dead, including Myrtle, Madison, Joan, the pieced together NuKyle, a couple of crocs and a bird. Queenie dies after a post-coital minotaur attack; Fiona breathes her new life. Spaulding (Denis O’Hare)—who might possibly already have been undead or granted everlasting life—and the Axeman (Danny Huston) both died at the Coven house and returned in spirit form. Delphine (Kathy Bates) lost her head and mysteriously returned alongside Queenie…whole. Nan—after being drowned by Fiona and Marie—is traded as an innocent sacrifice to Papa Legba (Lance Reddick); we could hardly be surprised if we see her again. But if everyone who dies is revived within an episode or two, where is the emotional impact? Why should we care about all these meaningless killings?
Inexplicable Character Changes.
Of all the inconsistencies, the most jarring has been the changes in Delphine and Marie—both introduced as intrinsically strong, harsh, women with evil tendencies and very little sympathy for anyone not themselves. Raised from years in her dark grave, Delphine is understandably confused by societal changes, and a certain amount of her fear of the unknown is to be expected. But this woman who tortures and kills is almost immediately transformed to a timid, quaking, subservient being, afraid of everything—until she isn’t. Back and forth she goes throughout the season, from defiant, bloodthirsty killer who serves up a mean shit soup to the whimpering, cowering servant who somehow thinks Queenie’s her best friend.
Even worse is when we’re expected to swallow a nonsensical and instantaneous friendship between Marie and Fiona. After the previous nine episodes established the ever-so-bad blood between voodoo priestess and supreme witch—Jessica Lange and Angela Bassett can barely contain their hissy-spit whenever they speak—the two decide to band together against a common (if not entirely ridiculous, easily defeated) enemy. Okay, so that’s understandable, but what isn’t is the complete behavioral turnaround. What was only moments earlier a relationship of seething hatred and passing a severed head back and forth, is suddenly mimosas and chit chat. Never mind the fact that one of the two hired the enemy to kill the other; Fiona and Marie are at once the long lost sisters each never had.
Mommy Issues Just to Shock.
You forced yourself to forget about this, didn’t you? See, it’s not enough that Delphine is a horrible mother who imprisons and feeds crap to her daughters, tortures their lovers and others, and murders for fun. It’s not enough that Fiona is a narcissistic, murderous witch who alternately mocks and feigns concern for Cordelia. It’s not enough Zoe’s mother sent her to the school from hell, that Madison’s capitalized on her daughter’s fame, or Queenie grew up in foster care. We needed incest, and Murphy brought back Mare Winningham just so we could witness it. But lest we be off the hook a little too early in the season…
Mama Joan (Patti LuPone) came along to dazzle us with a forced bleach enema. And after returning from death, she amped up the fun times by smothering her Luke (Alexander Dreymon) with a pillow.
Mommy issues; we get it. Thanks
moms Obama Murphy!
Give the Special Guest Star a Reason to Shine.
I think we can all agree Stevie Nicks is a national treasure. We adore her twirly, probably-not-a-real-witch self, and her beautiful songs. If only Stevie had come on as a character, with any reason at all behind her appearance; heck, she could have been in a Misty vision or dream and it would have been brilliant. The possibilities were endless—Fiona’s rival, a cousin, a grandmother in flashback, the first Supreme, Goldie, the Magic Dust Woman, a council member, Nan’s mother…she could have been anyone at all. Instead, Stevie was paraded out as Stevie, with no real meaning other than to point at the screen and yell, “Look, it’s Stevie!”
Hey, Has Anyone Seen the Plotline?
When first he outlined the Coven story ideas, Ryan Murphy spoke of a New Orleans school where witches would be taught to protect themselves; of the Supreme’s return to help keep them safe, and of “Salem witches plotted against voodoo witches.” It’s true, we’ve seen a lot of things going on at Miss Robichaux’s Academy, but have actual lessons been among them? Just how and when have the girls learned all their incantations? There was talk of feminism, oppression against minorities and fighting against it, families—especially mothers and daughters. Taissa Farmiga would be involved in a prominent romance, reminiscent of the first season relationship between Violet and Tate. And while some of those elements may have been hinted, the actual storyline seems to be missing. Where have we been led this season, and what is the point? Fiona’s return certainly had nothing to do with protecting the coven, or anyone but herself. There has been no real pitting of witch against voodoo, and the two adversarial leaders banding together seemed more about Fiona and Marie hanging out together than being forced to band together against an enemy…speaking of, what enemy? A group of old men sitting around in a conference room? Heck, neither of those powerful ladies was even needed to whack off the “hunter” heads; the Axeman could have handled it all by himself. The only steady theme this season seems to revolve around which witch will be head bitch, and honestly, does anyone even care anymore? Are we to infer feminism from a group of women all trying to kill each other? It’s true, our fair witches finally came together to re-kill the Axeman, but as soon as they’d finished, the contest to reign Supreme was back on. Has anyone been taken in by the “romance” between Zoe and Kyle? I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when the dim duo fled to Florida, then collectively groaned at their immediate return. (Can’t anyone just stay gone?) There are no real consequences, there is no story cohesion; Fiona’s cancer symptoms vary greatly between episodes; the passage of time is unclear. The Council of Witchcraft appeared and sentenced Myrtle to be burned after being set up by Fiona as Cordelia’s attacker. After being revived, Myrtle then murders her fellow Council members (Cecily and Quentin [ (Robin Bartlett, Leslie Jordan]), and ever after, the Council is mentioned no more. I guess that explains why all the later witches attacking witches go unpunished. And don’t even get me started on that laughable “Burn Witch, Burn!” zombie attack. While last season’s Asylum included some shady alien goings-on, those close encounters were the Brando to the Rob Scheidery Marie-controlled zombies that were nonsensically paraded in and around the school, harming nary a witch. I could go on and on…and on, but the last thing we need is more meandering. Let’s face it, we’re haven’t been watching for the story for quite a while now, have we?
We’re Watching for the Actors.
Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, Gabourey Sidibe, Frances Conroy, Denis O’Hare, Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe, Lance Reddick, Danny Huston—and dare I say boy beater, Emma Roberts—are just killing it. We couldn’t ask for a better cast of actors to get us to the end. Even if “The Seven Wonders” dissolves into nothing but a bucket of bloody body parts, the fantastic actors we’ve been privileged to watch have made Coven worth it; heck, Bassett’s glorious sneers alone practically justify the season. Add in O’Hare’s delightful doll fetish, and the endless snark spewing from all these beautiful mouths—I mean, we’re damned lucky to have this series, aren’t we?
Despite It All, We Love This Show.
There are few minds like Ryan Murphy’s, and I for one am still happy to see his horror fantasies play out, even with the preachy, campy asides. Give me American Horror Story with its buckets of guts, and ghosts, its disease and spanking and nipple lamps, its basement critters, its alien murder and pregnancy manipulations, and Stevie Nicks obsessed witches. Give me gorgeous lighting and crazy camera angles, brilliant actors carrying out Murphy’s wildest dreams, and yeah, throw in all his freaky shit. Cursed or hot mess—I’m all in. And if you’re reading this, I’ll bet you’ll be watching American Horror Story Season 4, too.