2010's, American Horror Story, American Horror Story: Coven, Angela Bassett, Denis O'Hare, Emma Roberts, Evan Peters, Frances Conroy, Gabourey Sidibe, Jamie Brewer, Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Lily Rabe, Sarah Paulson, Taissa Farmiga
I decided to go back to American Horror Story again to catch up as I felt I’d fallen behind. This will be my review of Season 3, subtitled Coven. While still as chilling and weirdly perverse as Murder House and Asylum, I just feel like there’s something missing from it to make it a better entry. Not that the season is bad, in fact its far from it with excellent acting, chills and atmosphere, it just slightly pales in comparison with its predecessors. Be warned, spoilers will follow in this review.
Coven is set in modern-day New Orleans. Zoe Benson( Taissa Farmiga) is a young girl whose life appears pretty normal, until a strange and tragic incident reveals that she is in fact a witch. Her power is that when anyone comes into sexually contact with anyone they will die horribly. Feeling alone and afraid, she is bundled off to Miss Robichaux’s Academy that doubles as a haven for witches to harness their powers and survive intolerance thrown at them. The school is watched over by the demure Cordelia Foxx( Sarah Paulson), whose mother Fiona Goode( Jessica Lange) is the reigning Supreme ( in other words the most powerful witch). Fiona has been out-of-town on a personal vanity trip to find a way to restore her waning youth. She returns and takes charge of the school, much to the chagrin of her estranged daughter. Fiona is still obsessed with retaining youth and her position as Supreme and no one is going to stand in her way, even if it includes murdering the next in line. Fiona’s integrity and less than perfect rise to being the Supreme is constantly questioned by the council, specifically Myrtle Snow( Frances Conroy), her most sworn enemy. Little by little, we see how devious she can be and how only Spalding( Denis O’Hare), the mute butler of the Academy knows of her past misdeeds. Meanwhile Zoe befriends fellow witches Madison Montgomery( Emma Roberts), the catty movie star who is telekinetic, Queenie( Gabourey Sidibe), an African-American girl who can inflict pain on other much like a voodoo doll and the wise clairvoyant and telepathic Nan( Jamie Brewer). As the series progresses the witches come under attack from outside forces. A long truce between witches and voodoo practitioners comes to a bitter end when Fiona over steps the mark when searching for eternal beauty and angers priestess Marie Laveau( Angela Bassett) with harrowing results. We also have Delphine LaLaurie( Kathy Bates), a wealthy women who murdered slaves in the 19th Century and was cursed with immortal life by Laveau resurfacing again after Fiona finds her unmarked grave. She’s not the only person returning as we have Misty Day( Lily Rabe) a nature loving witch with the power of resurrection who dwells in the swamps after being burned at the stake for her gift by the zealously religious community . Zoe meets nice guy Kyle Spencer( Evan Peters) at a party and takes a liking to him. But when his frat brothers rape Madison, the movie star gains revenge by flipping over their bus and killing them. Zoe is devastated that Kyle is dead because he was innocent and Madison, who is clearly more confident with magic makes a bargain with her. Through dark powers and an assembling of assorted body parts in the morgue, they resurrect Kyle again but their experiment turns him into a Frankenstein like being of immensely violent and unpredictable rage. Intolerance from the outside world and unrest among the girls also threatens to sneak in as they must not only band together, but ultimately eliminate the others to rise to being the new Supreme.
I think I’ll start by talking about the main things that didn’t work for me first. While I know that subtlety is not what American Horror Story is all about, I just felt that Coven overdid it with the sheer outrageousness this time around. And while the campy humour and crackling dialogue is often a Godsend on this show, it really went overboard. Hopefully when I get to the next season, this can be a bit more controlled and not as disjointed as it is here in Coven. Also, I felt certain plot elements( such as almost a million resurrections) were used repetitively and thus became a little stale. I mean in the beginning the resurrection thing is interesting for certain characters like Misty and Myrtle, but then when it shifts to other it becomes a little dull. Many of the episodes feel disjointed and this does have a negative impact on this season.
And now onto the good stuff of this flawed but still watchable season, of which there is a lot. I really liked the whole arc of witchcraft and voodoo clashing and the history of it. It also introduces in various ways the subject of prejudice and intolerance. It can be seen with the young girls of the academy as they are shielded away to avoid abuse and the racism of the past that still lingers on. Coven delivers the horror in spades, with little nods here and there to films that populate the genre and a few new spins. Like most of the seasons, I don’t think anyone will find it easy to sleep after watching the horrifying and brutal episodes that abound. I mean just listing some of the things that happen doesn’t do it justice: we’ve got killer zombies, rituals, cascades of dripping blood, necromancy, beheading. You named it, Coven’s got it. And I can’t do a review without mentioning yet another sinister title sequence. This time we have stark black and white images of fire, tarot cards, witchcraft rituals, a Minotaur and plenty more disturbing imagery that is designed to disturb.
The music throughout is spine-chilling with an intense electronic pulse that seems to predict the gloom that will inevitably come once the war breaks out. Unusual camera angles and strange jump cuts only add to the effect of the season and capture the alienation that is felt primarily by Zoe because of her gift. The location of New Orleans offers a Southern Gothic atmosphere that is palpable and memorable. From the swamps to the cemeteries, it has such a mystical and mysterious aura surrounding it.
Once again, we have many amazingly written and played female roles on display here, which is one of the show’s biggest strengths. Jessica Lange is at her glorious best in the role of Fiona, a powerful witch and a ruthless bitch. Lange successfully embodies the fabulous personality of her, while showing us that as despicable as Fiona is, there is a heart in there somewhere beneath the hard exterior. The talented Lange is at her best when delivering catty lines, going to extreme methods to stop her from being usurped and exuding menace as the vanity obsessed Fiona, which gives the show that something else. Kathy Bates is an excellent addition to the show, bringing her always high calibre skills to the role. She portrays Delphine as initially remorseless for her cruel and twisted actions in the past. Yet Bates goes beneath this and shows that is remorse in there and injects the character with eccentricity and mordant humour as she has the tables turned on her by having immortality and struggling to accept the modern world. The fact that she strikes up an unusual friendship with Queenie( an excellent Gabourey Sidibe) shows a different side to Delphine. Angela Bassett rounds out this trio of excellent women with her fierce performance of the voodoo queen Marie Laveau. Bassett exudes rage, a sense of mystery and unquestionable power as she declares war on the coven. It’s safe to say that the combined talents of these three amazing actresses, armed with one-liners and put downs, ensures that Coven is watchable, despite a few flaws.
The rest of the cast is none too shabby either. Taissa Farmiga is superb at getting under the skin of isolated Zoe who discovers the extent of witchcraft along the way. Sarah Paulson ably charts the emergence of Cordelia from her insular and demure facade to powerful witch who is not to be trifled with. A lot of this change comes when she is blinded by acid, by this she gains the power to see the true nature of people and sends her on the way to battle. Emma Roberts obviously is relishing the role of Madison, who is trashy, flashy and bitchy. Roberts brings this seemingly stock character who is criminally underwritten to life with verve and tongue in cheek delivery. Jamie Brewer and Gabourey Sidibe both turn in great work as two of the witches of the coven that befriend Zoe, while the always reliable Denis O’Hare gives the role of the silent butler Spalding menace and intrigue. Lily Rabe is ethereal and dreamlike as the nature-loving, Stevie Nicks fangirl and very strong Misty. Rabe just radiates this glow that is hard to describe but you just can’t take your eyes off when she appears on screen. Frances Conroy stole whatever scenes she was in as the determined, wildly dressed and ostentatious Myrtle Snow. While Evan Peters did a credible job as the resurrected Kyle, I personally felt he wasn’t given enough to do in comparison with the characters he has played in the past.
Flawed it may be and probably the series of the show that so far I didn’t fully enjoy, Coven is far from unwatchable thanks to a game cast and overall craziness.