If you had any doubts that American Horror Story: Coven was the most delightfully wicked show on television, Wednesday’s episode made the bold declaration that Stevie Nicks is a real-life witch.
Last week’s premiere of Coven more than earned its praise as the best offering yet in Ryan Murphy’s annual horror anthology, cleverly brewing creepiness, cattiness, and camp in the most concentrated—and yet entertaining—potion the notoriously over-the-top auteur has concocted. Coven’s second episode, titled “Boy Parts,” heats the cauldron up just enough that the series could even join Best-on-TV ranks—as long as it continues to manage to just keep from bubbling over into Murphy madness.
Madison (Emma Roberts) and Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), two students at a young witches’ reform school, must deal with the carnage created after they slaughtered some fraternity brothers. (The frat boys gang-raped Madison. She retaliated by using her telekinetic powers to overturn their party bus. Zoe killed one of the survivors in the ICU using her fatal vagina. Yes, this still is a Ryan Murphy production.)
After Zoe suffers a meltdown when cops suspect that she and Madison were involved in the frat bros’ deaths, Madison decides that the only way to keep her emotions from erupting again is to bring Kyle back to life. He was the frat boy with the heart of gold that Zoe crushed on, and who died in the bus crash. They break into the morgue, where the boys’ limbs are in severed piles.
“What do you see?” Madison asks. “Tragedy,” Zoe replies. “I see potential,” Madison slyly shoots back. How’s that macabre wit?
Her devilish plan: stitch together the beefiest arms, strongest legs, and biggest, er, broomstick to Kyle’s head. “We build the perfect boyfriend,” Madison says as they resurrect the Mr. Potato Head version of Kyle, selling Ryan Murphy-esque absurdity with delicious nonchalance.
Meanwhile, Supreme Witch Fiona (Jessica Lange) has her own corpse to deal with—this one living. Desperate to learn the secret to looking ageless, she exhumes the body of Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), an antebellum society woman who had been buried alive for 180 years, not weathering a wrinkle in her skin over those decades.
In flashbacks, we learn that a voodoo woman named Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) cursed Madame LaLaurie with eternal life as revenge for LaLaurie turning her husband into a homemade Minotaur (really). Through what may be the most entertaining beauty parlor scene on TV ever, we learn, after Fiona travels to a salon in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, that Marie Laveau is still alive, hasn’t aged a day, and still holds the secret to eternal youthful beauty.
We’re then gifted with a glorious scene in which Fiona and Madame LaLaurie team up to take down Marie Laveau—and discover the beauty secret that would put Cosmo out of business forever—together. All the thank yous in the world are owed to Ryan Murphy for delivering the epic pairing we never knew we were missing in our lives: Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates. They’ve got the gumshoe gumption of Rizzoli and Isles, mixed with the Southern sass of Thelma and Louise. At the end of the episode, they walk off into the distance together. And we couldn’t be more eager to follow.
So often “boldness” on television, particularly on cable dramas, means creating television that challenges, if not tortures, its viewers. Give them an anti-hero so loathsome it would be immoral to root for them, and then dare them to do just that. Create a series that stews endlessly in its own seriousness, cooking a plot so slow-burning that a satiating payoff seems unattainable. Disguise soap opera in dazzling action set pieces and timely social themes, and call it a “political thriller.”
It’s not that the series that do these things, or attempt to do these things, aren’t great—or “bold.” It’s that, too often, a series that does one or all of those things, but delivers it with an undercurrent sorely missing from so many prestigious series—fun—is written off as silly or slight. American Horror Story: Coven is both those things, but in expertly, and intentionally, executed ways.
Having Jessica Lange, in a delightful “I do declare” drawl, fire off lines like, “In this whole wide wicked world, the only thing you have to be afraid of…is me,” could not be sillier. It could also not be more enjoyable. Having her taunt Kathy Bates by taking a bite of fried chicken would be slight, sure—had Lange’s seductive chomp not been so masterfully enthralling.
So, yes, silly and slight. But Coven is also groundbreaking in ways, at least at this point in its run, that it may not be receiving credit for.
This is a series led by the trifecta of Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, and Kathy Bates, three actresses—imagine!—with the average age of 61—IMAGINE! It’s a series that lets Jessica Lange tackle every piece of dialogue with ferocity typically reserved for lines that end with martinis being thrown in men’s faces, careens to a scene in which Emma Roberts doles out catty one-liners like a demented Kardashian, and then zooms in on doe-eyed Sarah Paulson as she breaks your heart with a wordless stare. It’s a series that can probably only count Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black as a rival when it comes to spotlighting actresses of different ages and races in parts just as meaty—if not more so—as what the guys are being offered.
“Boy Parts” fans the fire under the dramatic stakes first set up in the Coven premiere, amping up the craziness enough to heat up the action without being so insane to burn the series alive. In Ryan Murphy, Coven has the distinct vision of a showrunner with enough ambition to think that a series can scare you and move you and titillate you and make you laugh and maybe even do all those things at the same time.
Doing all that and making a joke about Stevie Nicks being a witch? Bold.