American Horror Story is back with an all new season — Coven. And if you couldn’t guess from the subtitle, this story is all about witches. ‘Bitchcraft’ (the episode name tells me these ladies be sassy!) opens in New Orleans in 1834. Kathy Bates is Madam Delphine LaLaurie, the sadistic mistress of a large mansion who hosts opulent parties in the front rooms, while up in the attic hides away tortured slaves shackled to the walls or stuck in cages too small for human bodies. And those are the lucky ones who haven’t been flayed alive. LaLaurie has three daughters, one of which is openly defiant and brazen in her sexuality. The madam takes her kin in stride though, as she is all too concerned with keeping her girlish looks by painting on a red concoction of blood and pancreatic secretions (all in the name of beauty). When LaLaurie’s youngest is caught cavorting with a black freedman, she has the man taken up to the attic of horrors and mounted with the head head of a bull!
Cut to present day. Young Zoe Benson, played by Taissa Farmiga (missing from last season’s Asylum series, but present in AHS’s first, Murder House), is having her very first sexual tryst with a boyfriend. This first lesson of carnal knowledge also comes with the revelation that she is not a regular teenage girl. Things do not end well for her partner, as Zoe discovers that she has the power to suck the life out of men.
Zoe, obviously distraught over this turn of events, is informed by her mother that she is indeed a witch, despite the genetic trait having skipped a generation or two. Consequently, she is sent away to a boarding school (a regular Hogwarts) in New Orleans. Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies is run by Cordelia Foxx (AHS alum Sarah Paulson) and hosts a coven of three other witches in training: Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), a Lindsey Lohan-esque party-girl actress with the power of telekinesis; Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) a human voodoo doll who can inflict pain on others by physically harming herself; and Nan (Jamie Brewer, another AHS season 1 returnee), a clairvoyant.
The coven is rounded out by Fiona Goode (played by the fabulous Jessica Lange). Fiona is the “Supreme” of this witch generation, meaning that she is the most powerful (and likely also most ambitious) witch walking the Earth. Her powers are tantamount to those of all the other witches combined. She can levitate, do Jedi-mind tricks, toss people aside with a mere flick of the wrist, and steal the life-force away from a man with a single kiss. This last power seems to be waning however, and Fiona is depicted as being on a quest for youth. Following a failed injection of vitality serum, she soulsucks the scientist who developed it, and then decides to drop back in on her estranged daughter Cordelia and the school’s bevy of neophytes.
The night before Fiona’s return is a deadly and eventful one, when Zoe accompanies Madison to a frat house party. There, Zoe meets Kyle (AHS stalwart Evan Peters), the mature fratboy of the group (who doesn’t mind being reduced to a stereotype). While the characters of Peters and Farmiga were fated to love each other for eternity in AHS: Murder House, this pair hardly has a chance to get their relationship started, as a drugged Madison is being raped upstairs by Kyle’s frat brothers. Kyle puts the kibosh on that and tries to talk some reason into his fraternal brethren, but only gets knocked out for his trouble. Zoe and the now conscious Madison follow the fratboys out to their bus, where Madison uses her power to get revenge by toppling over the bus and setting it ablaze.
The next day, in a powerplay that is sure to continue throughout the season, Fiona defies Cordelia’s wishes and takes the students on a tour of historic haunted New Orleans. First stop: the LaLaurie Mansion! It is here that Fiona realizes that her aims coincide Madam LaLaurie’s, who had been poisoned and presumed dead, but whose body was never found. Fortunately Nan is able to locate the body buried near a fountain, and wouldn’t you know it, after Fiona has a few men dig up the chained coffin, out pops a rather befuddled, but altogether alive Madam LaLaurie.
Following the encouragement to embrace their powers by Fiona (rather than Cordelia’s method of self-preservation through hiding) Zoe goes back to the hospital where two of the fratboys had survived the bus crash. She is dismayed to see that Kyle was not one of the survivors, but she is able to extract a bit of vengeance by killing the one who initiated Madison’s gangrape. Sexual promiscuity equalling death is one of the oldest tropes in the horror genre, but never has it been so hamfistingly clear as when it is portrayed by a witch deathfucking a comatose victim.
This season of American Horror Story has started out in a much more linear fashion than the last season. It is much less schizophrenic, which is a good thing, considering the change of setting. Last season got away with showing a lot of crazy stuff because the main theme was sanity. This season seems like it will stick to a traditionally told (main storyline told chronologically, with some flashbacks to the 1800s).
The initial voiceover with Zoe seemed a bit amateurish at first, but it was much less annoying during the ending of the show. These younger actresses (Taissa Farmiga & Emma Roberts) have quite a bit of work to do to get to the level of a Jessica Lange or Kathy Bates. But being on set and able to perform with such veterans should give them quite the leg up. One of the best aspects of this show (apart from being the best written horror series currently on TV — sorry Walking Dead) is the fantastic acting. Lange can really chew up the set pieces if given the right material, and I thought that Sarah Paulson really shined last season too. The interplay between these two (as well as Bates) should be captivating to see.
I didn’t mention in my beat-by-beat about the short appearances by other American Horror Story alumnae Frances Conroy and Lily Rabe, but they were both good too. Conroy was the one who personally shuttled Zoe to New Orleans, so I assume that she serves as some sort of talent scout for the coven. I’m sure we’ll see her character again in the series, probably in a more limited role like last season. Rabe, unfortunately, played covenless witch Misty Day who was discovered and burned at the stake. Although it looks like she is dead, given that this story is about witchcraft and one of their powers being resurrection, she may return.
Also, Angela Bassett was the witch (voodoo priestess?) who poisoned Bates. Certainly we haven’t seen the last of her!
The fratboys in the deadly bus crash reminded me of the similar scene in Night of the Creeps. I doubt American Horror Story will feature any brain-dwelling alien slugs though (at least not this season anyway). Also the subject of rape and fraternities is all too topical these days given this rapebait email scandal.
Finally, it seems to me that witches are presently having their day in the sun (er, full blood moon night). One of the summer’s biggest horror films was The Conjuring, and this show as well as the surprisingly not terrible Sleepy Hollow TV show prominently feature witches. I’m all for it, and say, let the zombies shamble on into the sunset; this is a witch’s time to shine.