The thing about Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk is I can never quite tell when they’re kidding and when they’re being serious. The two are obviously masters of intentional camp, of moments that are meant to heighten the onscreen action to point out its inherent ridiculousness, but I can never quite decide just where the line between that and the many, many instances of unintentional camp in their various shows begins and ends. For instance: In the opening scene of American Horror Story: Coven, Kathy Bates, as the historical serial killer Madame LaLaurie, chews out one of her daughters for having sex with a slave, and the moment is shot through with the sort of arch campiness that Murphy and Falchuk often apply to sexuality. There’s talk of “rutting” and other archaic terms, and we’re obviously meant to be chuckling, at least a little bit.
But then LaLaurie drags the slave up to her attic where she means to torture him by putting a bull’s head atop his shoulders, and whatever comedy there was drops out. This is terrible and evil. And worse, it’s based on something that actually happened. But the presentation remains campy, even as the material has shifted toward the deadly serious. It’s in the gap between that presentation and what’s presented on screen that American Horror Story lives. Sometimes, the gap is so huge that everything gets lost in the middle of it—season one—and sometimes, the team behind the show manages the gap so perfectly that it creates unexpected art, stories that examine the very real gaps in our own lives between the events that happen to us and our own perceptions of them—season two. But in the first episode of any given season of a Murphy/Falchuk joint, the question is very much open: Just how much of this are we meant to be taking seriously?
In “Bitchcraft,” the answer is a resounding “All of it? I dunno…” Think back to that handmade minotaur. It was presented in much of the season’s promotional material as some new spin on season one’s Rubber Man, the goofy/spooky figure that would stand at the center of the crazy chaos and pull everything into its orbit. But once we actually get to see who that minotaur is (and I think choosing to reveal his identity straight off is a good idea, given the Rubber Man fiasco), none of this seems as wildly funny or amusing. The idea of Murphy and Falchuk engaging with the country’s complicated relationship with race gives me pause, particularly when Gabourey Sibide is there to play a character named Queenie who starts every other sentence with the word “Girl,” but there are hints of the complex American Horror Story here, of the one that understands that being campy can exist right alongside being disquieting.
If there’s something Murphy and Falchuk seem to be aiming at this season, it’s subjugation and what happens whenever people are beaten down enough to lash out. Witchcraft, which has traditionally been an expression of feminine power in mythology, is a solid way of angling toward that basic idea, and in bringing in a topic like slavery and the systemic oppression of African-Americans, the show has a natural thematic B-story to everything else. It’s even there in the present day, when the frat boys toss the driver off of the bus they took to the party, because they don’t need any more people who might testify against them in court as to the gang rape of Madison (Emma Roberts). Some people have all the power, so much so that they seem to wear it like a light summer jacket, and when anyone tries to take that power away, they’re shoved aside.
This, again, is a pretty good basis for a horror story. The powerless taking their power back through force undergirds the subtext of many a horror tale (including Carrie, coming soon to a theatre near you), but I can never quite cotton to the way that Murphy and Falchuk seem far more interested in the actions of subjugation directed upon the powerless than they are in the moments when the power is taken back. Granted, it’s early days, and the image of Emma Roberts flipping over a bus with her hand is pretty cool. But there’s far more time and attention lavished on the build-up to that moment, on Madison’s humiliation and sexual torment, than there is on her revenge. Her revenge is just another thing that happens; the build-up is just the way the world works.
Which is actually true. Subjugation of women and people of other races and those with Down’s syndrome happens each and every second of each and every day, and it’s valuable to examine those questions in a context where the fiction is obviously fictional. (Unless some of y’all are super-powerful witches. Please speak up if so.) One of the reasons I loved season two so much was because it realized that at the end of any experience like the ones suffered by the characters in that season, there was little hope for anything but a few pinpricks of light. Yet the season painted those pinpricks of light with such surprising beauty that they became all the more luminous, and you could see why the characters clung to them as they did. (I also think the show bought some space for itself by being very obviously set in period, whereas Coven doesn’t have the same level of remove.) But horror works best when there’s a pattern of build-up and release, and this first episode, at least, was too much build-up for me, not enough release.
That said, the reason this show works is because Murphy and Falchuk have attracted a repertory company that absolutely gets on board with everything they’re trying to do. Whenever Jessica Lange was onscreen in this episode—and particularly when she was sharing the screen with Sarah Paulson (who does look eerily like her daughter)—I felt a sense of relief. These two know how the game is played, and when they’re sniping back and forth, everybody feels vaguely at ease with how the story will proceed. Indeed, I found myself fantasizing about a version of this story that’s just about a mother and daughter warring for the souls of the surrogate daughters in the latter’s care, but that wouldn’t really be in this show’s milieu, now would it? I appreciate the series’ renewed insistence on playing Taissa Farmiga and Evan Peters as lovers torn apart by circumstance (here, again, it would seem to be death). And God bless whatever Frances Conroy is up to in her very brief appearances.
But it’s all of the other stuff that crowds around the edges that has me a touch uneasy. One of the nice things about continuing TV series is that you sort of know what you’re going to get, even from a shaky season premiere. Over on Homeland, for instance, some stupid story decisions at the end of season two have burdened season three with having to find a way out of the corner the writers wrote themselves into. But viewers more or less know who Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin are playing and are willing to extend the show a little faith and credit. American Horror Story never has to worry about writing itself into a corner by design—indeed, ending up in a horrific little corner is exactly what it wants to do—and that’s one of the strengths of its “every season is a story” approach. But that also means the safety net of the audience’s full faith and credit is never extended to it when a new season begins. Yes, we know vaguely what the show’s approach is going to be, and yes, we can expect that when Lange and Paulson are on screen, things will be pretty good. But we’re also left wondering whether that minotaur is meant to be a campy joke or a very real horror and whether anyone involved understands what the divergence point is between those two things.
Grade: C+ for Cocks are not magical; sorry, guys
- The American Horror Story crazy-o-meter: It has come to my attention that some of you—like myself—can appreciate this program solely as a collection of crazy things, and, thus, I will launch the American Horror Story crazy-o-meter, which runs from 0 (NCIS) to “Connie Britton Eats A Brain.” This episode ranks about a 5 on the scale, I would say. Yes, you have Zoe being able to kill boys with her magic vagina of death, but you also have so much endless exposition. On the other hand, Jessica Lange unearthing a deathless Kathy Bates from underneath a New Orleans pathway has to count for something, so I’ll bump this up to a 6.
- Of the new cast members, I’d say Angela Bassett—who’s having marvelous fun as Marie Laveau (and if you don’t know who that is, you’ve obviously never played Gabriel Knight: Sins Of The Father and for shame)—and Bates are acquitting themselves best at finding the show’s “unique” tone. Sibide has her moments, but she also seems a little at sea. Roberts… I don’t know what she’s doing just yet.
- Taissa Farmiga seems weirdly relieved to be back on this show, which is amusing to me. Also, I like how she appears to be Veronica Mars, what with her occasional voiceovers.
- The little speech Evan Peters delivers in the party bus before the frat brothers go into the party feels like it was cobbled together from dozens of different similar speeches from dozens of movies. Maybe that’s the point.
- Lily Rabe is also back, playing some sort of witch who can resurrect the dead. Except she, herself, is dead. Oops. Her name is Misty Day, and I hope she comes back to life quickly, because Rabe is another actress who knows her way around a Murphy/Falchuk bon mot.
- Denis O’Hare is also back, and he looks like he’s playing the missing link between an Edgar Winter tribute band and Argus Filch.
- Madame LaLaurie made her revivifying poultice out of human pancreas. Look it up!