Everybody Suffers

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American Horror Story: Coven, “Go to Hell”

Everybody has to pay for their sins, Papa Legba tells us, and is there a greater sin in television than being boring? American Horror Story: Coven has had flashes of brilliance (about 80% of which involve Frances Conroy and a theremin), but more than anything, it’s felt incredibly boring. By the end of “Go to Hell,” the central story of Coven is exactly the same as it was at the end of the first episode, even if we didn’t realize it yet: the old Supreme is out, and the hunt for a new Supreme is on. And while Murder House similarly never really moved forward with its story until the very end, the insanity and search for pathos in all of the terrible people inhabiting the story at least made it moderately exciting. Asylum succeeded because, for much of the season, its central story was essentially abandoned, allowing the bizarre tales and tangents that made the season so great to flourish. Coven has been so bogged down by the battle for Supremacy, while barely servicing its tangential themes of race relations and female empowerment (hey, remember when female empowerment was a theme of this season?), that the whole enterprise feels stiff and lifeless.

“Go to Hell” seemingly exists mostly to tie up the various loose ends, killing off almost all of the older characters, regrouping the Supreme hopefuls (with the glaring absence of Nan), and setting the stage for the Seven Wonders Showdown in the finale. There’s a strange time jump at the beginning which adds to the season’s pacing problem. Cordelia—who, let’s remember, has lost her eyesight twice this season—regains her sight power, except now she sees… the future? Her first real vision occurs when Fiona puts a necklace on her (apparently her power now only reacts to personal objects, as opposed to touching the actual person), a decently eerie tableau showing that Fiona plans to murder the rest of the coven. But the second major vision, involving my Most Hated Character the Axeman, is dimly lit, shifting in and out of focus, and I guess it’s supposed to be from the Axeman’s point of view, but the vision makes no sense–not only is it a vision of the future, but there isn’t enough context for what we’re seeing to have any effect—and the superhero mask eye holes make it laughably incomprehensible, as opposed to just incomprehensible. In a third, lesser vision, Cordelia finds out where Misty Day is and rescues her, with Queenie’s help. Sarah Paulson is also given the thankless task of exposition dumping re: all these new powers, explaining that all the witches manifest new powers in times of crisis. Which, really, makes almost everything that’s happened thus far in this race for Supremacy ultimately meaningless.

The most interesting parts of the episode fall in its first third. The cold open, shot in the style of a silent film, finally details the Seven Wonders, and while the scene is visual exciting and helpful narratively, it’s undercut by how long overdue it is. The stuff with Queenie, Papa Legba, Laveau and LaLaurie is interesting conceptually (Coven‘s version of Hell, while not very original, is fun in its own way), but its only real purpose is to take the pieces for Laveau and LaLaurie off the table, and even the last scene, where Legba introduces Laveau and LaLaurie to their shared Hell, never hits the kind of high insanity needed to come together.

But “Go to Hell” isn’t entirely a slog. Frances Conroy continues to be Coven‘s MVP, no matter how little screentime she gets, and she and Lance Reddick seem to be the only ones having any fun with it all anymore. I’m glad Misty Day is back, because Lily Rabe is a treasure and has proven to be one of the Ryan Murphy American Horror Story Repertory Players’ strongest assets. The Axeman is finally dead, and while I think I’m in the minority, I was unashamed to dance a little jig as the young witches slasher film’d all over him.

So what else to say? I guess I’m interested to see what exactly happens in the finale, though the chances of Coven sticking a landing on a season that’s gone this far into nosedive are slim at best. Mostly I’m just ready for this season to be over. The tiny pleasures have held me over while watching each episode, but the collective shrug of a plot finally caught up to me, casting the whole season (except for those theremin scenes, God bless you Frances Conroy) in a bad light. But then again, maybe they pull it off. I just hope that Asylum wasn’t a fluke, a season that careened so sharply that it became something better altogether. If Murder House and Coven are going to be the gold standard of American Horror Story going forward, it’s going to get very old very quick. So no pressure, “Seven Wonders,” you’ve only got a whole season of television to save. Kathy Bates’ talking head needs you.

Stray Observations:

  • Fuck you, Axeman.

  • No seriously, fuck you Axeman.

  • Oh yeah, and Zoe and Evan Peters come back. They get literally nothing to do except help kill the Axeman, so there’s that.

  • No way Fiona is actually dead. I hope there isn’t some stupid scheme she and the Axeman went in on. Uuuggghhh.
  • Final Bet on New Supreme: My heart cries out for Nan, but I’m gonna go with the more viable option of Madison. With all this talk about how the next Supreme has to be better than Fiona, it only makes sense that it ends up being the most awful of them all, right?

What Would Stevie Do?

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American Horror Story: Coven – “The Magical Delights of Stevie Nicks”

It seems Coven is finally turning its back on the magical race war, and we’re all better off for it. “The Magical Delights of Stevie Nicks” is as close to “classic American Horror Story” as the season has gotten, a good balance of insanity and silliness that takes the story into new, potentially interesting places.

Probably the most notable aspect of this episode are its two guest stars. First, Stevie Nicks shows up as a “fictional” version of herself—because if anyone actually is a witch, it’s Stevie Nicks—to give Misty Day some clothes and perform not one, but two musical numbers for us. Also appearing is the nigh-unrecognizable Lance Reddick as Papa Legba, an actual voodoo figure the show reimagines as a cocaine-guzzling, soul-buying, innocent-soul-sacrifice-requiring demon in creepy-ass makeup. Turns out he’s the reason for Laveau’s immortality, as she sold her soul to him for it. His innocent soul requirement is also annual, meaning Laveau has to steal a baby for him early in the episode. Fiona tries to sell her soul to him, even offering some primo blow and to murder the people she loves (a reasonable offer, if you ask me), but he turns her down because—surprise surprise—Fiona doesn’t actually have a soul. Poor Fiona.

With the magical race war off the table thanks to Hank, the world’s worst witch hunter, Fiona and Marie Laveau are now teaming up against… everyone? In this episode alone, Hank’s dad and his witch-hunting cover business are shut down due to some bizarre spell involving a rat maze full of rats and traps and surrounded by wads of cash and the two drown Nan in a tub as a switcheroo sacrifice to Papa Legba in place of the baby Laveau stole. While this story is moderately confusing and difficult to follow, watching Lange and Bassett play off each other more is worth whatever contortions the plot must go through.

Madison spends her part of the episode with Misty Day, as the two tag along to a jazz funeral and discuss the politics of being Supreme. But things go sideways in a fun scene where Madison, in a show of her own budding powers (more on that in a second), traps Misty Day in an empty coffin minutes before it goes into its tomb. Zoe, on the other hand, accompanies Nan (pre-drowning) to the hospital, where they finally learn of Luke’s death. The two then hop over to Patti LuPone’s house, where she reveals that Luke is now a vase of ashes and therefore un-resurrectable. Nan immediately knows Patti LuPone murdered Luke because clairvoyance, then uses her new-found mind-control powers to force LuPone to down a bottle of bleach.

The battle for Supremecy is one of the more confusing elements of Coven. Of course, simply revealing who it is would be too simple for Murphy and Falchuk, but the rules of the young witch’s powers and how the Supremecy is determined—just like the rules of life/death/resurrection—are basically nonexistent. Misty Day, Nan, and Madison all started show new powers, which is exciting, but they’re all the same powers, which is too easy narratively and lessens the uniqueness of their individual powers. Besides, it seems more and more it’s just going to end up being Zoe anyway, which would be a disappointing and predictable end to the story.

And speaking of disappointing, both Queenie’s physical absence (Gabourey Sibide is one of the most electric performers of the season) and the rest of her sister witches’ complete lack of interest in whether or not she’s still alive was an odd element of the story that I couldn’t just ignore. Sure, it creates “tension” to keep a character off-screen after a possibly fatal moment, but it’s not like the events of the salon are completely ignored here. Laveau doesn’t just move into the school, her presence is known and accepted by those living there. And yet no one is worried about poor Queenie? I call bullshit.

But for the little problems, “The Magical Mystery Tour of Stevie Nicks and Lance Reddick’s Rob Zombie Cosplay” delivers the kind of fun, creepy energy American Horror Story can at its best. The changing tides bode well for the end of a shaky season, and a good ending could save even the most problematic parts of Coven.

Stray Observations:

  • Some solid laughs courtesy of Frances Conroy: we cut to Fiona working in her greenhouse, creepy theremin music in the background, only for the camera to pull back and reveal Myrtle Snow playing an actual theremin in the greenhouse. When Fiona insults the instrument, Myrtle replies with one of Conroy’s best lines of the season: “Don’t be a hater, dear.”

  • Besides Queenie, Kathy Bates’ head is also notably absent from this episode. Poor gal is probably tired of the DVD menu from that Civil Rights documentary.

  • The logistics of almost all spells used in this season make zero sense, though I admit that my knowledge of various types of witchcraft is very small. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon did a bang-up job filming that mouse spell though.

  • I’m taking bets on how far into next week’s episode we get before Misty, Nan, and Patti LuPone all reappear. Heck, I’ll throw Luke and Hank in there for good measure.

  • Oh yeah, no Evan Peters this week either. Probably too busy humping something wildly.

  • Fuck you, Axeman.

20 Things Every Witch in Her 20s MUST Know

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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.

Stray Observations

  • 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:
    Cover-EW-1287

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.

“You got a death wish, Johnny Truant?”

American Horror Story: Coven – “The Replacements”

The best episodes of American Horror Story are designed to leave your head spinning. They burn through plot faster than the first two seasons of Homeland combined, and throw as much insane shit as possible at you, hoping something will be ridiculous enough to make you overlook any deficiencies or less-than-tasteful moments.

So when the camera panned in on Kathy Bates’ Madame LaLaurie sobbing in front of a television showing Barack Obama giving a speech, unable to accept that there could possibly be a black president, I knew “The Replacements” was kicking into classic AHS mode, and it didn’t let me down.

So much kooky stuff went down in “The Replacements,” the most grounded plot was the one about a frankenzombie. Zoe visits Kyle’s mother (Mare Winnigham, recently giving a brilliantly campy turn on the turdnugget Under the Dome), who’s smoking a lot of pot and generally very depressed. After having his wounds healed by Misty Day in her Stevie Nicks-soundtracked swamp shack, Zoe comes to take Kyle home, and leaves him on the doorstep like a package. Kyle’s mother is relieved, but becomes concerned when he won’t speak, and even more concerned when she sees his penis in the shower and realizes it’s not his. Oh, yeah, it seems Kyle’s mom was sexually abusive, masturbating him while he lies in bed and trying to convince him no girl could ever please him like her. In his first real act of agency, Kyle finally lashes out, beating her head in with a trophy, leaving her there for Zoe to find when she comes over later for dinner. (NOTE: my cable cut out for a good twenty seconds or so right after Zoe found the body, so if something happened after that I didn’t catch it. Sorry.)

Cordelia and her husband Hank are still trying to get pregnant. It seems the sexy blood magic from last episode was unsuccessful, and when she visits her doctor, he tells her that she can’t get pregnant at all. Her blood work was very disturbing, and makes it impossible. She visits Marie Laveau to ask her to perform a voodoo spell, one creepily played out for us that involves two ounces of semen, a ridiculously hot pepper, and Cordelia rubbing goat’s blood into her vagina. Oh, and $50,000. But when Fiona agrees, Laveau laughs in her face, telling her that she’ll never perform a spell for her, not only because they’re from different tribes, but also because Laveau and Fiona are arch-enemies. Cordelia is shocked to learn that Fiona has visited Laveau at all.

And speaking of Fiona, she too visits a doctor (a plastic surgeon) who tells her that her blood work is unsettling. It seems her body is literally shutting down, and she knows what this means. In the cold open, we learned that when a new Supreme emerges, the former begins to waste away, and Fiona knows that’s what happening to her. (She also slit the former Supreme’s throat while Spalding watched.) After Madison and Nan visit new uber-religious neighbors Joan and Luke Ramsey (Patti LuPone and Alexander Dreymon, respectively) and accost Joan’s delicate sensibilities (and fling a knife at her and set her curtains on fire), Joan visits Fiona, bringing a Bible and telling her of the horrible things Madison’s done. Fiona finally realizes Madison is the new Supreme, and takes her out drinking, eventually revealing Madison’s true nature to her. Fiona gives Madison the same blade she used to slit the former Supreme’s throat and begs Madison to do the same, but she resists, and in the struggle, Fiona–in a twist I saw coming the minute the struggle started but loved all the same–slits Madison’s throat instead. Of course, Spalding stands in the doorway, handkerchief ready. “This coven doesn’t need a new Supreme,” Fiona opines nonchalantly, “It needs a new carpet.”

And then, there’s Queenie. Madam LaLaurie has had a difficult time adjusting to the modern world, especially the non-enslavement of black Americans, but Fiona assures her that she will not tolerate racism, and forces LaLaurie to be the house’s maid and tend to Queenie’s every want and need. But when the two are in the house alone, Queenie requesting peach cobbler and telling LaLaurie about her desire for love, who should come aknockin’ but the Minotaur himself. LaLaurie breaks down and tells Queenie what she did to the man and begs for Queenie’s help. Queenie agrees, gets some of LaLaurie’s blood on a rag, and uses it to lure the Minotaur away from the house. Out in the shadows of the yard, she tells the Minotaur that she understands he was only acting out of love, and asks him to love her as well. She begins to masturbate in front of him, and he moves behind her, rubbing his horns gently on her face, but suddenly grabbing her and dragging her away.

So, yeah, pretty bonkersawesome. Wacky plot twists, bizarre character moments, big, campy acting, these are ingredients that go into great episodes of American Horror Story. But what really put me at ease in this episode was a lessened focus on the magical race war. Even the scene showing the voodoo spell Cordelia asks for is allayed by Angela Bassett’s reactions to Cordelia’s request. The show also gives a peek at what’s really going on in these stories, and it seems less about a magical race war than about the oppressive white witches receiving comeuppance for their actions. It’s a much more interesting angle than just pitting the two tribes against each other, and the show doesn’t seem interested in questions of guilt, only punishment. As I’ve said before, the oppressed defeating the oppressor is a long-standing trope in fiction, and it makes me feel better about the racial elements of Coven knowing that’s the direction it’s going.

Lots of insanity, great performances, and too many Dutch angles to count all contribute to the first truly strong installment of American Horror Story: Coven. Patti LuPone is a fantastic addition to the cast, and the unexpected death of Emma Roberts’ Madison puts a fun new wrinkle into the plot. Of course, there’s no way she’ll be dead for long, which makes it even more exciting. Coven is finally kicking things up a notch, and it’s all the better for it.

Stray Observations

  • Ghoul Tunes: With all this talk of Minotaurs, it’s Poe with “House of Leaves.”
  • Seriously, the directors for this show bust out every single trick they can. The amount of different shots, angles, and filters in any given scene is dizzying.
  • Nan doesn’t do much in this episode except brag about how much she gets laid, but that’s okay because that scene was fantastic.
  • This was the first episode of Coven that’s made me laugh heartily out loud and throw my hands up and yell “What?!” at my television, and on a base level, that’s all I really want out of this show.
  • More Lily Rabe please.
  • Speaking of, let’s get Frances Conroy back in this mother as well! Her bizarro mix of Hagrid and Professor Trelawney was amazing.

My body’s a zombie for you

Man, the Barbershop movies have taken a strange turn.

American Horror Story – “Boy Parts”

In my “Bitchcraft” review, I talked about the problematic nature of American Horror Story: Coven‘s view on race, and it seems that things aren’t looking to necessarily change as the season progresses. I don’t know if I’ll ever be 100% on board with that aspect of Coven, but the show is committing to it, and for that I do concede some… respect is too strong a word, but appreciation. Commitment has always been what brings American Horror Story together at its most insane, so maybe it will work here.

But man, the concept of a magical war between two sets of witches, a war where the two sides just happen to be blacks versus whites, is crazy unsettling. Part of what makes it so unsettling is that it’s difficult to tell which character we’re meant to empathize with. Depending on the point of view, there are two distinct revenge stories at play, with Jessica Lange’s Fiona in the middle, kicking up the dust. We’ll see where things go, but for now this part of Coven is skating by on the performances from Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates, and not even they can keep that ship afloat forever.

Fortunately, the rest of the episode was appropriate bonkersawesome (to steal a phrase): Zoe and Madison sneak down to the morgue, where they bring Kyle back to life by sewing up a bunch of different, well, “boy parts”; Cordelia’s trying to get pregnant but is having difficulty, so she and her husband (she has a husband, apparently) get freaky in some sexy blood magic to help the process along; Misty Day returns and helps Zoe heal the frankenzombie; and Nan gets annoyed by how loudly Madame LaLaurie is thinking, so she unties her and sets her free.

Floating through it all is Fiona, eating fried chicken in front of her tied-up Madame LaLaurie, brainwashing two detectives who come to ask questions about the bus flip, throwing Zoe and Madison up against walls, and confronting Marie Laveau herself in her, ugh, beauty salon. But Lange plays it all like the pro she is, dancing around like she did to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in “Bitchcraft.”

The rest of the cast also puts in good work, especially Lily Rabe and Emma Roberts. Roberts’ schtick is a little difficult to parse, but it’s starting to come together, and it seems like a perfect fit for American Horror Story. Gabourey Sidibe and Jamie Brewer only get a few short scenes, but are both great. And Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett are poised to steal the show from Jessica Lange at any given moment.

After a shaky start, “Boy Parts” sees Coven getting back on track, and while I’m still apprehensive about the racial aspects, for the rest of it, I couldn’t be more pleased.

Stray Observations

  • Ghoul Tunes: This week it’s the song that gives this review it’s title, “My Body’s a Zombie For You” by the Ryan Gosling-fronted Dead Man’s Bones.

  • Super short review, but I’m just trying to get this thing up before the next episode. Whoops.

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.