Fire up the cauldrons and cast the bones; American Horror Story: Coven is here! The third season of FX’s horror anthology series delves into an age-old conflict between witches and practitioners of voodoo, but just who deserves to come out on top remains to be seen. Coven’s premiere brings back familiar faces along with some first-timers in a debut that’s not quite as shocking as the first season’s intro while plainly having a bit more fun than last season’s Asylum. Tonight’s episode, “Bitchcraft”, makes quick work of introducing characters and establishing multiple points of conflict, so the remaining 12 episodes should be free to go crazy. Hit the jump for my recap and to find out if you’re genetically predisposed to witchcraft or just bulimic.
- Jessica Lange – Lange is three for three, returning to Coven as Fiona Goode, the youth-obsessed, estranged and powerful witch known as the Supreme.
- Taissa Farmiga – Farmiga returns to the anthology after skipping out on Asylum and stars as the newly awakened witch, Zoe Benson, a femme fatale who induces aneurysm-like effects in her sex partners.
- Sarah Paulson – One part witchcraft instructor and one part scientific researcher, Paulson plays Cordelia Foxx, head of Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies and daughter of Fiona Goode.
- Evan Peters – Playing the male lead in a mostly female cast, Peters stars as Kyle Spencer, a good-natured fraternity guy who winds up on the wrong side of an ugly altercation.
- Frances Conroy – After playing an ageless maid and an angel of death, Conroy now stars as Myrtle Snow, the eccentric head of the Witches Council.
- Lily Rabe – Rabe stars as Misty Day, a gifted young woman in the Louisiana bayou who is burned alive by members of her Pentecostal community.
- Denis O’Hare – Getting only glimpses of screentime early on, O’Hare stars as Spalding, the long-serving mute butler of the academy.
- Jamie Brewer – Brewer returns to the show as Nan, a clairvoyant young witch studying at the academy.
- Kathy Bates – In a role that co-creator Ryan Murphy called “eight times worse than Misery,“ Bates steals her scenes as Madame Delphine LaLaurie, another youth-obsessed witch who appears in both the 19th and 21st century storylines.
- Emma Roberts – Roberts plays actress/witch Madison Montgomery, gifted with telekinesis but cursed with a bitchy and inflammatory personality.
- Angela Bassett – Bassett guest stars as voodoo practitioner, Marie Laveau, the lover of a slave tortured by Delphine and catalyst for the Madame’s demise and resurrection.
- Gabourey Sidibe – Completing the quartet of academy students, Sidibe stars as Queenie, who has the unique ability of acting as a “human voodoo doll”.
Now that we all know who’s who, let’s take a look back at that voodoo that they do (or did) in the opener. AHS has become known for jumping between various points in time. Coven, for now, alternates between 1834 and present day. In the 19th century, Madame Delphine LaLaurie is quickly set up as a pretty heinous person, as she keeps Black slaves imprisoned in her home in order to drain their blood, harvest their pancreases for cosmetic purposes, and to act our her bizarre Greek mythological fantasies. (Fun fact: this particular character is drawn straight from her horrendous real-life counterpart.) LaLaurie appears to get her just desserts rather quickly via a poisonous tonic disguised as a love potion, courtesy of voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau. The evil of LaLaurie cannot be contained to the 19th century however, which brings us up to current times.
Farmiga gets a classic Murphy introduction to welcome her back to the show: a sex scene that results in her character’s boyfriend’s death via brain aneurysm. Zoe is blessed with the genetic inheritance of witchcraft, but cursed with the ability to literally “fuck someone to death” (Murphy’s words, not mine). While this power results in the unfortunate passing of her boyfriend, it acts as her awakening and leads her to the academy; it also lets her exact a perverse sort of revenge later on in the episode.
Zoe is the new girl at the academy and seems to get along well enough with the other three students there, after an initial misunderstanding. These witches aren’t the cute and cultured spellcasters from Hogwarts (although the pop culture reference is made within the show), but rather a rare few remaining individuals from a once proud people who have been nearly bred out of existence. Witches have opted not to bear children or have gone into hiding in order to prevent another epidemic of witch hunts. Fiona Goode, the reigning Supreme, is out to change that mindset.
Speaking of the Supreme, we meet Lange’s newest character, a wealthy benefactor, while she demands access to an anti-aging treatment from a researcher she is supporting. When the drug fails to live up to her expectations, she uses her powers to drain the scientist of his life and vitality instead, but that extreme measure only has temporary effects. Goode then returns to the academy to take over as the girls’ instructor, butting heads with her daughter along the way and likely upsetting the Council, who may be none too pleased with Goode’s overt and aggressive stance on witchcraft. One can’t help but wonder just what nefarious purpose Goode’s return ultimately serves, especially since the first episode ends with her quite literally digging up LaLaurie for some 21st century shenanigans.
From a shock value standpoint, Coven played it safe (if you can call the mutilation and minotaur-making of a group of imprisoned slaves “safe”) up until the fraternity party. As a fraternity member myself, I’d love to say that Murphy’s presentation of the drugging and gang rape of a young woman at said party was an overdone stereotype, but recent events show that, yeah, this is still a problem. While Madison got some version of instant retribution by going all Carrie on the busload of frat boys (and Zoe finished the job by offing the surviving offender), it remains to be seen whether this event will continue to haunt either young woman or if it was just for shock value alone. It also leaves the question of Kyle Spencer’s condition up in the air, at least until next week.
On a technical note, the camera work and direction of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon were standouts of American Horror Story: Asylum and played a key role in some of my favorite episodes from that season. However, his fish-eye lenses and swooping, rotating shots made much more sense in the insanity-filled Briarcliffe than they do at Miss Robichaux’s or in the streets of New Orleans (although I’ll allow it in Goode’s drug-induced haze accompanied by Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”). There’s such a thing as too much of a good thing, Gomez-Rejon. I will say that the academy itself was shot beautifully, putting the grandeur of the building on display and allowing the setting to become a character in and of itself. All the crazy angles, however, are unnecessary.
- For someone who claims to be as progressive as Murphy, it’s a bit disappointing to see the female protagonists’ main motivations to be prolonging their youth and beauty, or winning the affections of a man, while also being subjected to male sexual abuse. Asylum featured some of the same themes, but incorporated more practical obstacles such as workplace and racial discrimination.
- Farmiga’s narration is an interesting aspect of the premiere, but we’ll see if it continues throughout the series.
- Welcome back, Jamie Brewer!
- Zoe on inheriting the witchy gene: “My cousin Amanda, she’s just bulimic.”
- Those “Men in Black” were particularly interesting visually, especially since some of them appeared to be albino (See Sir Maejor).
- Snow: “I’m just mad for tartan.”
- Queenie might have the coolest power and I’m curious to see how this is elaborated on going forward.
- Zoe: “I think frats are full of fascists.”
- Fiona: “The world’s not going to miss a bunch of assholes in Ed Hardy t-shirts.”
- Pop culture references: Harry Potter, Nicolas Cage, Wizard of Oz, just to name a few.
- I love that LaLaurie just up and followed Fiona out into the streets after being buried alive for the last 180 years.