If there’s one thing you can never accuse Ryan Murphy of, it’s subtlety. If that means Jessica Lange sauntering on screen and saying things like, “You were a sloppy little witch bitch,” well, we should all be thankful.
The first episode of American Horror Story: Coven is titled “Bitchcraft,” telegraphing the surprisingly campy tone of the New Orleans-set third installment of Murphy’s annual scare anthology. That tone, as it happens, is the unexpected ingredient that makes this batch of horror-trope jambalaya the tastiest yet in the out-of-its-mind, reliably terrifying AHS series.
Having tackled haunted houses, serial killers, Nazis, aliens, insane asylums, religious corruption, ghosts, and an endless array of creepy sideshows, AHS’s new iteration focuses on, as its title suggests, witchcraft. Coven doesn’t skimp on the kitchen-sink elements that AHS fans delight in. Copious blood and gore and a buffet of appetite-ruining imagery are still served to the viewers who were so perversely titillated by those elements in the show’s first two seasons.
But whereas 2011’s first run of AHS brooded so much it nearly bored and last year’s insane asylum-set season committed so deeply to its Saw-meets-One-Flew-Over-the-Cuckoo’s Nest ambitions that it nearly played like an Eli Roth fever dream, Coven is refreshingly grounded in reality—at least as grounded as a series about corrupt witches can be.
Or a series by Ryan Murphy, for that matter.
The premise is far more structured than anything AHS has attempted before, as Coven is essentially a young adult novel with an R rating. The narrative swings back and forth from a modern-day finishing school for girls—specifically girls who possess The Gift—to origin tales of how the world’s powerful (read: evil) witches rose to havoc-wreaking prominence.
We’re invited into Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, a Ryan Murphy-ized outpost of Hogwarts or Professor X’s School for Gifted Youngsters, where pupils are sent to live as outcasts and learn how to manage their “gifts” after their powers unexpectedly manifest themselves in unfortunate ways. Take Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), for example, who learns she’s not like the rest of us after her attempt to lose her virginity to her boyfriend climaxes with…his bleeding to death in graphic, Ebola-like fashion.
(“So apparently I’m a witch,” Zoe announces after receiving the traumatizing news, in a matter-of-fact fashion that only Murphy could get away with.)
Overflowing with melodrama and camp? Of questionable taste?...We mentioned this is a Ryan Murphy production, right?
Clearly, Harry Potter this is not.
This is Murphy’s world, where the toiling-and-troubling debutantes at a finishing school are the clairvoyant Nan (Jamie Brewer), human voodoo doll Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), the telekinetic former movie starlet Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), and newbie Zoe, whose “gift” is, as Murphy himself says it, her ability to “fuck someone to death.” And don’t be fooled. It is an ability, one that comes in handy toward the end of the episode.
Much like Hogwarts or Professor X’s mutant academy, Miss Robichaux’s, under the tutelage of Sarah Paulson’s headmistress Cordelia Foxx, exists to teach the girls how to control their powers, lest they do something silly like cast a spell on someone while a gawker with an iPhone is present, a direct line from YouTube celeb to kindling on a stake.
Yet these are teenage girls we’re talking about, and in Coven hormonal fits of rage express themselves as destructive bouts of magic. A dinner-table tiff escalates into a bloody voodoo brawl. When Madison is drugged at a frat party and then gang raped (should it need to be mentioned again: Harry Potter this really is not), she exacts revenge by overturning a bus carrying her attackers, killing almost all of them.
This coming-of-age element in Coven gives it a dramatic and emotional relatability, but this AHS installment has something else the previous seasons lacked—and which Murphy excels at: a sense of humor. After all, isn’t half the fun of watching a horror movie the cathartic giggle fit that follows the heart-stopping fright of a scare scene, or the hide-your-face assault of a quick shot of gore?
Coven not only gets that, it relishes it. And its secret weapon for employing it us Jessica Lange.
For these three seasons/series of American Horror Story, Lange and Murphy have been an odd couple of ridiculous proportions, which is why the fruits have been so epically delectable. Lange plays supreme witch (read: most talented) Fiona Goode as an unsettling yet captivating symphony of steeliness and camp, escalating to a glass-shattering pitch. (No, really—Lange has a killer mirror-breaking scene about halfway through the episode.)
In addition to the tone-setting “witch bitch” barb, Fiona’s reaction to Madison’s impulsive bus-throwing incident, Lange gets to fire off genius one-liners that wink at the entire operation Murphy is trying to put together here.
“I don’t have a broom,” Cordelia tells her mother after she breaks a glass vial. “How ironic,” Fiona retorts. Then there’s her delicious “don’t make me drop a house on you” threat later in the episode.
But Fiona isn’t just incredibly powerful with a sharp wit. She’s also insatiably vain. It’s her desire to look as young as possible that leads her to go full Succubus on a doctor who fails to provide a fountain-of-youth drug. And it’s the same ambition that brings her to New Orleans and the finishing school in the first place.
This is where that always exciting—but nonetheless worrisome—“can Ryan Murphy really pull this off?” question comes in. (Other occasions it popped up: when he decided to have a man in a rubber suit have sex with Tami Taylor in Season 1. Oh, and when he decided he was going to have an asylum inmate convince people she was Anne Frank last season.)
The mythology here is that in the 1830s, a vicious society woman named Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates, in all her Misery glory) sadistically—and gleefully—tortured her house slaves, gruesomely removing their pancreases to create a face mask that would make her look younger. One of the slaves she tortures happens to be a married to a woman who practices black magic (Angela Bassett), who tricks LaLaurie into drinking a potion that supposedly kills her.
In a twist that should surprise no one who thinks that this show would cast Kathy Bates and then kill her off in Episode 1, Fiona later exhumes LaLaurie, and the two skip away on a mission to look young together, racial injustice and disturbing cruelty to slaves be damned.
Needlessly complicated? Of course. Stressfully ambitious? We’d expect nothing less. Overflowing with melodrama and camp? Of questionable taste?...We mentioned this is a Ryan Murphy production, right?
American Horror Story: Coven is all those things. And it’s creepy. Scary. Fun. If the first episode is any indication, Coven will be the strongest, most entertaining iteration of the series yet.
Because these witch bitches be crazy.