Say hello to the FX anthology series' fresh batch of witches, death, and morbid sex scenes, topped off with Jessica Lange's greatness.
They've introduced the world to television's first S&M leather-clad ghost. Let a serial killer named Bloody Face hack up Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine. They even taken a break from the violent insanity to jam out with an extended song-and-dance rendition of "The Name Game." At this point, who's going to question anything that co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk do with American Horror Story: Coven, the franchise's third season. They're immune to naysayers and anyone else questioning their warped ambition.
Sharing their no-fucks-given outlook is returning star Jessica Lange. The award-winning actress—like Murphy, Falchuk, and everyone else onboard the AHS supporter train—knows she can do no wrong. Fittingly, her bosses have written what could be her iciest AHS character yet: Fiona Goode, a.k.a., "The Supreme," an HWIC (Head Witch in Charge) leading a dying breed of spell-casting and telepathic women.
In Coven's kickoff episode, cheekily titled "Bitchcraft," Lange wastes no time going for show-stopping broke. Desperate to combat the aging process, Fiona convinces her doctor to start injecting her with a serum that's only been tested, successfully, on a chimp. Five days into the unsanctioned treatment, she doesn't notice any positive changes. Unhappy with her progress, Fiona, dressed in all-black and occupying a darkly lit penthouse suite, snorts lines of coke and dances like a carefree flower child—eyes closed, arms waving, trying to grab onto clouds—as Iron Butterfly's macabre "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" blares. She then makes her doctor pay for the serum's ineffectiveness in a lustful murder sequence that, as is standard in the AHS universe, is hallucinogenic and sexy. But it's also quietly evil in a way that previous American Horror Story death scenes have not been.
And it's not alone. Later into the episode, a similar air of dialed-back malevolence powers a scene in which young witch Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts) gets some well-deserved vengeance. While attending a local frat party with Zoe, Madison gets slipped a Roofie and then gang-raped by a bunch of frat guys. The sexual violations are staged with a choppy surreality, intentionally or not (most likely not), that's a mix of Mia Farrow's "This is really happening!" run-in with a frisky Lucifer in Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), also bringing to mind the jarring being-woken-up-by-Satanists scene from Ti West's The House of the Devil (2009). But the vengeance that follows is toned down, devoid of any on-camera bloodshed. With the frat bros fleeing the scene on their party bus, Madison exacts some Carrie White revenge by casually turning over an outstretched palm, causing the bus to flip over. The scene, a swift and efficiently handled multiple homicide, is driven by raw emotion, not a carnivalesque desire for another money-shot to add to American Horror Story's already sadistic catalog. It's Sissy Spacek manipulating John Travolta and Nancy Allen's car in Carrie, except that it's delicate and PTSD, not wide-eyed and maniacal.
Has American Horror Story gone soft? Definitely not—any TV show twisted enough to close its premiere with a rape-murder, committed by an actress who looks all of 17 years old, no less, can't be called "soft." Still, amidst all of its perverse lunacy, "Bitchcraft" hints at something more lighter in tone than the previous AHS seasons.
Queen witch Fiona is the mean-spirited and sassy overlord of Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, a "safe haven" for up-and-coming witches located in modern-day New Orleans. Fiona's philosophy is simple: "When witches don't fight, we burn." And, please believe, she's not about to burn. As she and her daughter/Robichaux headmistress Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson), point out to one another, witches are nearing extinction, though Fiona doesn't address the matter as delicately as Cordelia. Says the elder woman, "Do you really think with Twitter and Facebook that a witch does anything at all, she won't be videotapes and turned into some viral freakshow, like a dog that says, 'I love you?'" This, mind you, coming minutes after Fiona chastises the academy's most disobedient student, famous actress Madison, by calling her a "sloppy little witch-bitch," and shortly before she threatens someone else with, "Don't make me drop a house on you." The latter, of course, a snarky wink-wink towards The Wizard of Oz and Miss Robichaux's (also fictional) kindred grandmother, the Wicked Witch of the West.
Co-written by Murphy and Falchuk, "Bitchcraft" separates Coven from its two predecessors, 2011's American Horror Story: Murder House and last year's American Horror Story: Asylum. With Murder House, Murphy and Falchuk had no way of knowing whether or not audiences would accept their anything-goes approach—ergo, the season's mood was unpredictable and vibrant but often morose, as if they were constantly volleying from one tone to the next. Asylum, mostly set in 1964, and energized by the first season's widespread success, amplified everything that made AHS Year One so strangely bizarre and fascinating, but to a fault. The characters were more grandiose, the scares more precise, and the kitchen-sink mentality more reckless. One could picture Ryan Murphy saying to the audience, with his best Alfred Hitchcock Presents impersonation, "You want some aliens? Here you go. Let's just work them in somewhere in between Bloody Face's slasher movie kills, that demonically possessed and extremely horny nun, and those deformed mongoloids stalking the woods outside of the mental institution." At times convoluted, Asylum was ultimately a success but veered dangerously close to being inaccessibly bonkers.
If "Bitchcraft" is any indication, Coven isn't going for the same kinds of what-the-fuck scares found in Murder House's Harmon family abode or Asylum's Briarcliff Mental Institution. Here, the vibe is almost, dare we say, cutesy—a confection of accessible weirdness for those Pretty Little Liars fans who also appreciate Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem.
As directed by AHS regular Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, "Bitchcraft" warrants the description "bubblegum horror." The episode plays like the darkest ABC Family pilot never made. Front and center is Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga), an everyday teenage girl who learns of her family's witchy lineage after accidentally causing a boy's brain to implode into a bloody mess during bedroom foreplay. She comes from a line of Benson witches, though the supernatural bloodline skips generations. Before Zoe, her grandmother had "the same affliction"; her relatives suspected her cousin Amanda to be the next one, but it turned out that she's "just bulimic."
Zoe's mother pays for Cordelia to dispatch her Men in Black-esque, albino goons to fetch her scared and confused daughter and bring her down to New Orleans, where she meets her three Miss Robichaux classmates: Nan (Jamie Brewer), a clairvoyant with Down Syndrome; Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), a self-described "human voodoo doll"; and the aforementioned Madison, who's all arrogance, prissiness, and demureness. Inquiring about why the academy's head servant, Spalding (Denis O'Hare), can't speak, Madison asks, "Did you lose your tongue doing something wicked, or do you just suck at going down?"
Yeah, she's upfront. Missed opportunity, though: Madison not also asking him why he looks a hell of a lot like Chris Elliot in Scary Movie 2.
Aesthetically, "Bitchcraft" pops with as much colorful attitude as Emma Roberts' performance. Unlike Asylum's period-evocative graininess and muted color schemes, Coven looks and feels radiant, glamorous, even, at times, psychedelic. That is, after a prologue that recaptures Asylum's Grand Guignol absurdism and shadowy veneer. "Bitchcraft" opens in 1834, in the home of Madame LaLaurie, played with charged-up spunk by Kathy Bates. A wealthy New Orleans socialite, LaLaurie isn't pleased that one of her daughter's is bumping uglies with their black servant. In her household's torture chamber of an attic (where several black men are locked in hanging cages, with their eyes and lips sewn shut and skin burned), the Madame uses her philandering man-servant to fulfill a childhood dream, one that stems from the days when her daddy read her tons of Greek mythology: "The minotaur was always my favorite. Half man, half bull…and now, I have one of my own!" And it's appropriately nightmarish.
Just in case you didn't think Murphy and Falchuk could top Asylum's over-the-top grotesqueries, Coven's opening five minutes prove you terribly wrong.
As "Bitchcraft" concludes, there are no minotaurs. There's just Zoe Benson, carrying out some heinously perverse payback. Sneaking her way into the hospital room of one of Madison's surviving rapists, Zoe puts her magical power (i.e., killing men during sex) to good use, slipping the bedridden and immobile fraternity deviant's member into herself and riding it until he's dead, his blood having poured out of his eyes, ears, mouth, and nose. Tears stream down Zoe's face. She's embracing her "affliction" while also hating it. It's murder through masochism.
Well, sort of.
Fiona Goode certainly wouldn't sympathize with Zoe's masochism For her, murder is a sport. Zoe's clearly Coven's heart and soul, but Fiona is its roaring engine.
While on a tour of Madame LaLaurie's mansion, Fiona learns about how LaLaurie herself defied aging, or at least tried to—she'd smear blood taken from the pancreatic areas of her torture victims' insides all over her face. Naturally, Fiona wants to test those methods out firsthand. Digging up LaLaurie's coffin, she discovers that the 1830s psychopath is, miraculously, still alive and wearing her throwback garb. "Well, Mary Todd Lincoln," says Fiona, "I'll buy you a drink."
Yes, fellow American Horror Story lovers, it's time to party.