In the Garden of Eden

American Horror Story: Coven – “Bitchcraft”

A chill fills the air. The night creeps on just a tiny bit earlier each day. The leaves on the trees die and fall to the ground in reds, yellows, and browns. A subconscious terror floats through the back of your mind. It can only mean one thing: American Horror Story is back.

And my, has it been missed. Sure, there are other shows that have some of American Horror Story‘s unique elements, say, your Sleepy Hollows and your Hannibals, but only Ryan Murphy and Brad Fulchuk know how to blend them into the perfect mix of insanity, horror, and camp. The anthology structure also gives them a fixed space in which to play, where they can write themselves into the tightest corners imaginable, making the sweet release all the sweeter.

Unfortunately, the anthology structure also means that the first episode of any season has so much work to do. And honestly, if it weren’t for the American Horror Story Repertory Players, it would be nigh unbearable. “Bitchcraft” feels more bogged down than ever before, having to dole out so much backstory that there’s barely any room for plot or general insanity. But we’ve got Sarah Paulson, Exposition Machine on our side, and if anyone can hold our hands through this first episode, it’s her.

Paulson’s turn as Lana Winters in American Horror Story: Asylum was a revelation, and she joined Frances Conroy as the actors most capable at going toe-to-toe with Jessica Lange in a given scene. Thankfully, Paulson and Lange will be sharing many scenes together as mother-daughter witches Cordelia and Fiona, respectively. Lange, of course, is an absolute dynamo, strutting around the witchcraft school like the Queen Bee she is, and the scene with her in the hotel room, playing “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” snorting lines, and sucking the life out of some poor stem cell researcher, is one of the episode’s finest. Oh, and there’s also the scee where she digs up a still-alive Delphine LaLaurie (the amazing Kathy Bates), with “C’mon Mary Todd Lincoln, I’ll buy you a drink.” Seriously, can we just give her the Emmy already?

The girls of Paulson’s school are an extremely motley crew. There’s average-girl Zoe Bennett, played by Taissa Farmiga, who just seems happy to be back, and brings her deadpan from season one with her. Madison Montgomery is a spoiled movie-star played by Emma Roberts, and I’m… not really sure exactly what she’s doing yet. Jamie Brewer returns as Nan, a playful girl who acts as the groups peacekeeper, and rounding out the group is Gabourey Sidibe as Queenie, a boisterous, if tightly-wound, presence. Interestingly, each of the girls have distinct powers: Madison has psychokinesis; Nan is clairvoyant; Queenie is a “human voodoo doll” who can inflict pain on herself and transfer it to others (which, real talk, is kind of super awesome); and Zoe, who–wait for it–has a killer witch vagina that causes all the boys to have brain aneurysms and bleed… a lot. Also on the powers front, Cordelia’s seems to be the crafting of potions and powders, while Lily Rabe makes a too-short appearance as a witch with the power of resurrection. And of course, Jessica Lange is the Supreme, the witchiest witch with all the powers.

Rounding out the cast is Dennis O’Hare as the school’s servant, Spalding, who really just looks like Chris Elliot’s character from Scary Movie 2. You know, this guy:

There’s also Angela Bassett as Marie Laveau, poised to be the season’s antagonist, Evan Peters as Kyle, a fratty bro who’s killed when Madison flips a bus, and Frances Conroy, hamming it up as Myrtle Snow, the school’s “talent scout.” Like I said, the cast is always one of American Horror Story‘s strongest aspects, and this season is no different.

But there is something that feels distinctively different, and while it might be early to worry, it could become problematic down the road. American Horror Story has always deftly delineated between the serious and hilarious, and its that playfulness with the line that gives the show so much of its oomph. But I’m worried that the treatment of race in this season might not fit so clearly into the shows paradigm. Sure, the other most controversial topic American Horror Story has broached was the school shooting in season one, and it was treated with more care than anything else in that season, but when the only people of color in the show’s maincast are The Voodoo Queen and a girl who begins almost every sentence with, well, “girl,” while one of the main characters is a woman notorious for the obscene torture and murder of black slaves, it’s worth having the discussion. We’ll see how these aspects shake out further in the season, and I hope to be proven completely wrong, but for now, it’s an uncomfortable note, and not the kind of uncomfortable the show normally traffics in.

On a higher note, the exploration of witchcraft seems more appropriate than ever. Witchcraft is traditionally associated with female power, and at a time in our country where women are still facing challenges that are downright retrograde in nature, empowerment is the right story to tell. These kinds of stories are a staple of horror, the beaten and the damned fighting back through whatever means necessary, and the choice to bring Delphine LaLaurie from the 1840s to modern day is an inspired way of drawing parallels in progress (or lack thereof). Yes, the story is being orchestrated by two men, and as a man myself I know I’m not in the best position to comment on such things, but the premise itself is admirable, and if this season unfolds the way Asylum did, Coven could really unleash its feminism onto the world.

“Bitchcraft” is messy, and especially unkind to Sarah Paulson as she wades through the tomes of exposition needed to set the season up, but the players hold it together. It remains to be seen just how Coven deals with its more sensitive topics, but for now, I’m giving Murphy and Palchuk the benefit of the doubt. So grab your pumpkin spice whatever, turn down the lights, and get ready to get spooky, ’cause it’s terror time again.

Stray Observations

  • Ghoul Tunes: Every week, I’ll be throwing a spooky tune (I promise that’s the last “spooky”) down here for your enjoyment. This week, in honor of one of the earliest movies that scared the poop out of me (and the supplier of the review’s last line), it’s the unofficial theme song from Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, “It’s Terror Time Again” by Skycyle.
  • Jessica Lange off-handedly throws off some ruminations about witches living in the modern world so proliferated with social media. I actually hope the season explores this some more, as I was genuinely fascinated when it was brought up.
  • Oh, there was another aspect of this episode that rubbed me the wrong way, and that was the date-rape scene leading up to Madison’s bus flip. I’ll admit, they laid that on thick, and it was unpleasant, and I’m honestly not sure if I can say much more about it. On one hand, it was a relatively damning indictment of rape culture and how pervasive it is; on the other hand, it’s extremely difficult to have a scene like that in your work and it not seem problematic.
  • Jessica Lange delivers the episode’s two best lines, one serious and one camp:
    • Serious: “When witches don’t fight, they burn.”
    • Camp: “Don’t make me drop a house on you!”
  • So at the end of the first episode, two season regulars are dead, and one who was dead has been brought back. I’m just gonna roll with it.
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