American Horror Story: Coven – “The Dead”
After building to it for a while now, American Horror Story: Coven is finally addressing its big theme: resurrection, and how subverting death shifts the paradigms of both the resurrected and the living. Oh sure, there’s the magical race war and Fiona’s long, slow death (more on those in a moment), but “The Dead” almost entirely spends time with our characters who have cheated death. And with one notable exception, it’s all the better for it.
That notable exception is the Axeman. I’ll be blunt: I don’t like the Axeman. He’s a lame character trying to spice up a boring storyline and failing miserably. All of his sax tunes are insurmountably cheesy, but in the wrong way, immediately sucking any fun or tension out of scenes where they pop up in the background. The fleshing out of his time as a ghost starts tender and turns deeply creepy, and when the show tries to bring it back around to tender, it just never happens. Danny Huston is a perfectly fine actor, but the character is so flat, and the writing, oh god, the writing! The shoehorned-in 1920s slang alone is enough to drag even Jessica Lange down, who unfortunately spends most of the episode with Mr. Axeman. What’s most perplexing is watching the rest of the episode snap the season’s narrative into place while the show keeps insisting that the Axeman belongs somehow, even though there’s no place for him. The only character he has any effect on is Fiona, and even then his purpose is what, exactly? To give her powers a momentary kickstart with his magic jazzy ghost sex? Puh-lease.
Fortunately, the rest of the episode actively works to push the season forward in the right ways. Most promising is the development of the relationship between Queenie and LaLaurie. Both outsiders, they bond over burgers and shakes in one of the season’s best scenes to date. Even after Queenie visits Laveau and LaLaurie tells her the story about the infant she killed (which was genuinely chilling), I believed in their new friendship, and was heartbroken when Queenie delivered LaLaurie to Laveau with as much venom as she could. What started as a groan-worthy pairing has subtly morphed into one of the season’s best relationships, largely due to the work of Gabourey Sidibe and Kathy Bates. LaLaurie is the “dead” in the most precarious position: fully aware of her actions, complete mental faculties, and suddenly thrust far into the future. Oh, and also hated and hunted by one of the most powerful beings in town. As the plot now most associated with the magical race war, it’s a relief that it’s a successful story being told by three fantastic actresses.
The remainder of the episode’s plots hang loosely around Zoe, pushing Taissa Farmiga further into the center of the story and the stage. Cordelia discovers Madison and learns that Fiona killed her, so Cordelia and Zoe plot to take Fiona down. Zoe tries to put Kyle out of his misery, but instead brings him into the house and begins fixing his brain. Zoe interrogates Spaulding, who has a tongue again thanks to some exposition that was both deeply disturbing and distractingly tacked-on, and he corroborates Cordelia’s story, so Zoe kills him. Now that the season’s narrative is coming together around her, Zoe is becoming a real character, and Taissa Farmiga is mostly rising the challenge. Her attempts at season-one level deadpan fall much flatter than they intend to, but when called on to be conniving, tender, or angry, she delivers.
But the “dead” the episode title refers to the most are Kyle and Madison. The cold-open gives us a flashback of Kyle with his frat brothers, two of whom are getting lame tattoos, and though it’s extremely on the nose–both his line about only getting one life to live and the reveal of the two frat bros’ tattoos–it’s a nice break from Naked Hulk, the mode Peters has been in most of the season. Madison opens the episode proper with a voice-over that is both jarring and more than a little silly, about “millennials” and how all the methods she used to “feel” in life are useless in… not-life? Undeath? Whatever. But when Emma Roberts and Evan Peters finally share the screen, it’s one of the season’s biggest lightbulb moments, even if they had to punctuate it with a nice, big shot of Evan Peters’ ass. Having the two undead characters use each other to become more alive is an interesting idea, even if it’s not wholly original. And it gives the episode another one of its best moments, when a towel-clad Zoe is dragged into the room by Madison, only for Madison and Kyle to invite her into their kinky zombie love fest. Pedestal down as the towel hits the floor, cut to black.
Oh, and Hank the witch killer’s got his arsenal laid out and is coming soon. Yipee?
“The Dead” is uneven, but in the parts that work, it makes a concerted effort to connect lines and fix Coven‘s cohesion issues. Brad Falchuk’s script tries to distribute the screen time fairly, even if the plots aren’t always working, and director Bradley Buecker (whose previous directing is exclusively in Ryan Murphy shows, including a few pivotal episodes of the first two seasons of American Horror Story) keeps the tricks to a minimum, instead opting for many smartly-framed shots that enhance the emotional beats of the scenes. And with a better idea of where much of the season is going–Laveau exacting her revenge; Cordelia and Zoe taking down Fiona; Queenie’s struggle over where she belongs; the sexy zombie threesome–it gives the less savory elements a small pass, though if I hear that damn saxophone the rest of the season, I might go Naked Hulk myself. “The Dead” has problems, but in the context of the season, it’s a tightening of the screws that sets up the back half of the season with reasonable success. And with so many wildcards still in the deck who don’t get any attention here, “The Dead” is as much about anticipation as anything else.
- Ghoul Tunes: Pretty obvious choice, “Song for the Dead” by Queens of the Stone Age.
- Sarah Paulson doesn’t get much to do in this episode, but as always, she makes the most of it.
- Hey, where’s Nan?
- Actually there’s a whole lot of stuff that kind of disappeared this week. But there’s plenty of season left, so I’m not concerned just yet.
- I really can’t get over how awful all of the Axeman stuff was. Remember when Connie Britton ate brains? It was pretty much like that.
- Have you guys seen the Entertainment Weekly cover for Coven? Because it is absolutely glorious: