All that jazz

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American Horror Story – “The Axeman Cometh”

How important is it for a season of American Horror Story to have a strong central narrative?

In its two previous seasons, the show had a clear storyline that spanned the entire season, with a million and a half subplots branching out from it, many of them evaporting after a single episode or spiraling into craziness. So far in Coven, there are several main plots, but none of them feel fully formed quite yet, and combined with the requisite diversions into crazy town, it’s made the season a bit more difficult to parse out.

When I read the episode synopsis for “The Axeman Cometh,” I immediately was taken back to Asylum‘s “Unholy Night,” the episode that gave the world Murder Santa, quite possibly the greatest thing to exist in American Horror Story yet. And in some ways, “The Axeman Cometh” is reminiscent of Murder Santa, but mostly in concept. Where Murder Santa was a way to pay homage to season one’s–and no, I will not call it Murder House because that is dumb–premise, where the murders of the past haunt of the tenants of the present, Coven brings the Axeman directly into its DNA. I’ll admit, I had almost forgotten the Axeman was even a component of this episode after Zoe found Madison, and his appearance in Cordelia’s room was the most Murder Santa-esque part of the whole episode. But when he sits down beside Fiona at the bar, Coven enters an entirely different relationship with the character. And that’s the biggest problem: where, in this menagerie of crazy swirling around our four or five big plots, is there room for the Axeman, and what purpose can he serve? I’m interested to find out, but it’s odd choice at the season’s midpoint.

Despite being the episode’s namesake, “The Axeman Cometh” has surprisingly little to do with the charming fella who just wants to hear a little jazz. I already mentioned that Zoe finds Madison, but there’s also Cordelia dealing with her new blindness (and the visions it allows her), which leads directly to the revelation that Hank is actually a witch hunter (as opposed to just a garden-variety serial killer) hired by Laveau to infiltrate the school and destroy the coven, Zoe conveniently stumbling onto FrankenKyle when she goes to Misty Day for help reviving Madison, and also more business about Fiona slowly dying of cancer and gaining new powers, or something. Oh, and Zoe is either 100% the new Supreme, or we’re being set up for a plot twist that will make zero sense whatsoever.

It’s all very ambitious, but ambition needs a foundation to support it. It’s here that the Ryan Murphy American Horror Story Repertory Players come in. The slow, nearly-plodding Fiona arc survives almost solely on Lange’s performance, which takes elements from her two previous performances and mashes them into yet another boozy mess. Taissa Farmiga, who was good-not-great as the moody loner, shines in her new position as the leader of the young witches. And Sarah Paulson, bless her heart, continues to imbue some of the season’s most bizarre stories with a grace that would be impossible from a lesser actress. And the supporting players are no slouch, either. While I crave more Misty Day, Lily Rabe steals every scene she wanders into, and her spotlight tonight, when she attempts to bathe FrankenKyle and sends him into a sexual abused-triggered rage, was one of the episode’s best moments. Gabourey Sidibe and Jamie Brewer continue to deliver from the sidelines, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cackle with glee when the first words from a revived Emma Roberts, slit throat still exposed, are “I could really use a cigarette.”

But what does it all amount to? Just when it seems Fiona is the season’s secret protagonist, Hank as Witch Hunter is revealed; the new Supreme keeps switching from girl to girl at a dizzying pace; I’m still not 100% what Laveau is even doing. I don’t mean to sound so harsh, I really am enjoying this season! But Asylum set a bar for the way this series tells its stories, and Coven hasn’t quite lived up. Do I expect several thousand more twists and turns? Absolutely. Is it possible this will all make sense in a few weeks’ time? Of course. But by the season’s midway point, I’m longing for a more cohesive effort, because without that cohesion, the bonkersawesome doesn’t get the chance to shine the way it should. And if the bonkersawesome isn’t shining bright, is it even still American Horror Story?

Stray Observations:

  • Ghoul Tunes: In honor of the Axeman, it’s “Bloody Murderer” by Cursive.
  • Dennis O’Hare speaks! Sort of!
  • Myrtle Snow has been sown, which means we’ll be without her for at least a few episodes, but I can’t wait until she returns.
  • Evan Peters is really making the most of naked raging.
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