If ever there were an opposite of Glee, it is the first five minutes of American Horror Story: Coven. Creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (who are ironically also responsible for Glee) have already demonstrated their ability to push boundaries so far the boundaries have probably tried pleading with them to calm down and rethink their actions. Last year’s Asylumwas so gratuitously torturous both with the literal torture and needlessly complicated story lines that I, personally obsessed with starting what I finish TV-wise, gave up with a few episodes left in the season. I am a big fan of horror, but the ‘Horror’ in Murphy and Falchuk’s American Story is often too often focused on graphic human degradation, and there’s only so much of it I can take. Even if the bad guys do get theirs in the end, how much of the good guys getting beaten to a pulp or sexually re-assigned do I have to tolerate before I get a moment of satisfaction? Still, no matter how frustrated Asylummade me, Coven’s cast is to die for, and so I have decided to stick it out this season for better or for worse.
It appears with Coven that right from the start the boundaries just decided to pack up and go home. Immediately, we meet Delphine LaLaurie, an altogether horrible woman who on top of her general horribleness, is also using human blood as a moisturizer and torturing slaves in her attic in ways so brutal I don’t want to describe them here because then I’d have to visualize them again. Delphine LaLaurie was an actual person who I suggest not googling if you want to sleep again, so MurphChuk is not entirely to blame for this, but I can blame them for making this sequence the first five minutes of the show. Hey, at least we know what we’re in for. I mean, it can’t get worse then this, right? Even though this is a horror show, television is still meant to be enjoyed in some form. It doesn’t need to make someone laugh or insight any sort of positive emotion, but it shouldn’t make you regret ever deciding to turn on the TV that night.
The good news is (as if there could be good news following that sequence), it does not get too much worse then that for a while. In the next scene, we are introduced to Zoe Benson, a cute little blonde girl who looks spectacularly like Violet Harmon from the first season (welcome back Taissa Farmiga, you have been missed). Zoe’s problem is that her vagina seems to kill anyone she has sex with by turning them into the human equivalent of bloody water fountains. This is somehow incredibly low-key and non-disturbing coming after a sequence with a man wearing a dead bull’s head. Zoe is then informed she is a witch and shipped off to the incredibly under-populated Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladiesrun by Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson, who at least is unable to be worse off than last season). Here we get a rare voiceover, during which Zoe rather passively explains witch history (it relates to Salem, sometimes witchery skips people or entire generations in a family) to us less clued-in folks.
At the school, Zoe meets telekinetic movie star Madison (Emma Roberts), “Human Voodoo Doll” Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), and clairvoyant Nan (Jamie Brewer, “Addie” from season one, whose line “You’re going to die in here” could be the show’s theme song). We know these are their powers because they all take a moment to literally tell you before they are also immediately demonstrated. These girls are pretty clear cut with one word to describe their powers, so now I’m also little confused as to how Zoe drew the short stick with this death-by-vagina thing. If there is a one-word to describe this, please let me know.
We also learn that, though these girls all have specific powers, there’s such thing as an all-powerful “Supreme.” None of the girls seem to be the “Supreme” (yet), but there are apparently tons more witches out there. Sure, there are only four students in the school at the moment, but Cordelia hopes it will expand. She tells the story of a young woman (Lily Rabe) in a nearby town whose power to revive the dead was recently discovered and she was burned at the stake. If more girls like her were able to find the school before crazy people who use stake burning as a solution to things discovered their powers, lives could be saved and powers honed. All I’ve got to say is Lily Rabe better revive herself from the dead pretty damn soon because I can’t wait to see how she plays into all of this.
Enter Jessica Lange (cue applause) as Fiona, a witch on such a desperate quest to achieve youth she sucks the life out of a scientist who won’t give her a revitalizing serum he’s only tested on monkeys. Hmm, I sense a connection between Fiona and Madame LaLaurie, who are both after eternal youth in creepy and murderous ways. The crazed and clearly powerful Fiona then returns to her daughter Cordelia’s school, where she intends to become a permanent fixture and influence, much to Cordelia’s fury. Fiona, it turns out, is the Supreme, but even such intense magical powers that include the ability to effortlessly throw Emma Roberts against a wall can’t make her get along with her own daughter. Fiona snorts cocaine, kills people, and wants witches to shout their pride from the mountaintops while Cordelia does science, has a cat, and wants to stay quiet about the whole ‘powers’ thing. It’s basically exactly like the CBS sitcom Mom, except even the girls that nearly stab Zoe to death as an initiation upon her arrival to the school are more tolerable than Anna Faris’ pregnant daughter.
Remember, we are watching American Horror Story and nothing horrible has happened in like 20 minutes, so we’re way overdue. Madison gets a tweet about a frat party happening that night and ropes Zoe into joining her. The frat is led by AHS staple Evan Peters as Kyle, who has promised to stay sober at the party so he can keep an eye out on his brothers while they live it up. The boys are on probation and need to play nice, a plan that fails in record time. While Kyle falls in love with Zoe from behind a visually lovely sheet of ice, one of his frat buddies roofies Madison and then invites his friends to gang rape her while they video tape it. Kyle bursts in and thankfully puts an end to the all-too-realistic and disturbing scene. His friends, however, knock him out and they all escape into the night on their frat bus. Zoe chases after them, but quickly realizes her death-sex powers can’t really do much to people driving away on a bus. A more coherent Madison comes up next to her and with the wave of her hand flips the bus over several times. Madison’s been made out to be a whiny bitch who squashed her director with a light cause he gave her a directing note, but in this moment it’s hard to blame her. We’re only in the first episode and Coven has already shown sequences graphic slave torture and gang rape. These characters are clearly going to get no breaks from terror, so they might as well get revenge.
The crash is blown up all over the news, and we learn that seven of the frat boys died while two are severely injured. But Fiona has other things to deal with, and she takes the girls on a field trip to Madame LaLaurie’s historical house. It turns out the visit is not just for educational purposes. Fiona uses Nan’s clairvoyance to discover where Madame LaLaurie’s body is (because she’s definitely a woman who needs to be back in the world). We also learn here how Madame LaLaurie died. A witch (Angela Basset), whose lover had been one of the tortured in the attic, gave LaLaurie a “Love Potion” that was actually poison and killed her. But apparently it didn’t actuallykill her, because Fiona comes back later and digs up Madame LaLaurie’s body, which somehow looks to exact same as it did in the 1830s and is awake and coherent. So either LaLaurie was bewitched in her grave to remain in one state or her human-blood as Loréal(because you ripped out a slave’s pancreas) trick managed to work really, reallywell. I’m in a bit of a rut here because Kathy Bates is a disturbingly great actress but Madame LaLaurie is such a despicable character. The good news is with LaLaurie’s return must come Angela Basset’s, and I can’t wait for the Bates vs. Bassett face-off that has to ensue. I think it’s safe to say this is not a world where good always defeats evil, so at this point it’s anyone’s game. Fingers crossed it’s Angela’s.
Or maybe it will be Zoe’s, because in the course of one episode this girl’s managed to find a painfully sense-making use for her “power.” Upon visiting the hospital, Zoe discovers the surviving boy is not cute, sensitive Kyle but the evil, gang-rape leader. After a deeply unpleasant hand job Zoe proceeds to rape the frat boy to death before quietly leaving the room. In the actual sequence of events, it is after this that Kathy Bates comes back to life, so at least Covendoesn’t quite leave you with the phrase ‘rape the frat boy to death.’ Someone needs to give the boundaries a call and tell them to come home, or at least that they are missed. I would just like to reiterate once more this is the first episode.
Obviously there’s a lot going on this season. Will witches finally take a stand like Fiona wants and rule the world? Which of the girls is going to be the next supreme power? What will the writers do when they run out of popular fantasy stories to reference? Will Emma Roberts finally get a cronut?! The questions are endless, the promo for the season is sufficiently disturbing and involves zombies, and Alexandra Breckenridge of the first season maid’s outfit is signed on for a guest part, so there’s plenty to anticipate.
One curious thing about this season is the fact that Lily Rabe, Evan Peters, Frances Conroy (who appeared for a brief moment as a woman taking Zoe to Witch School), and Denis OHare (the school butler whose tongue has been cut out) all appear in the credits as leads. Gabourey Sidibe and Jamie Brewer do not. Two of the people in the credits died in the premiere while Gabourey and Jamie’s characters are still very much alive. For now. I guess this can and will change very soon. At least with a cast like this if you lose one brilliant actor there are ten more springing up to fill the void. In fact, every single woman in the cast is so talented and mesmerizing it’s unfair. No matter how enticing they seem, I’ve never seen a Ryan Murphy show that hasn’t eventually massively derailed, but his casting sorcery is like a magic power of its own. Lord knows it’s better then whatever Zoe’s got going on.
While I am intrigued by the story and in love with nearly everyone on screen, I’m still not ready to trust this season. In improv class, we had a lesson in ‘earning your material.’ We were taught that before you can deal with serious or dark subject matter, you need to have earned the right to from your audience. You have to prove you are intelligent, know what you’re doing, and can use the material wisely. Ryan and Brad seems to be working backwards with this theory, and if they can make it through the season without me wanting to throw my TV through a window a) it will be a first and b) maybe the disturbing horrificness of this episode and presumably the entire season will work for the overall arc of the show. If Covendoesn’t turn into a “how can we out-do last week just for the sake of it?” gore-fest, it might prove intriguing, dark, and powerful. If it turns out to be like Asylum, it’s only a matter of time before I decide I do not need to subject myself to TV that physically pains me infinitely more than entertains me. There are plenty of people who are able to swallow down this violence for the sake of the phenomenal performances, and Asylumwas actually several of my friends’ favorite season, but I’ll still stick to my guns with that one. However, I have committed to recapping this entire season, so here’s hoping I can at least not break any windows or televisions in the process. Either way, we’re in for a long, spooky, stomach-turning season, right in time for Halloween. Just please don’t dress up as a Minotaur.