In post-season interviews for American Horror Story’s second season, Ryan Murphy was fond of saying that he wondered if the show hadn’t gotten a little too dark and violent, even if he thought the series had done good work. And, sure, “Asylum” was all sorts of macabre and black-hearted, with horrific violence perpetrated against basically everyone in the cast and the “happy ending” for the main character involving being taken away by aliens after having been driven mad. (Whee!) So “Coven” is supposed to be lighter and more forthrightly comedic. The horrific things that happen are less “this is the sort of thing that actually happened to mental patients in the ‘60s, and isn’t that horrible?” and more “witches are metaphors for lady things!” and there are more obvious jokes and campy moments. But if “The Replacements” is any indication, then Murphy has taken all of the dark horror of season two and has taken the same all or nothing approach to having sex with minotaurs.
See, normally, I watch an episode of this show on screener, then immediately write it up, because it’s the kind of show where the plot and character details have a bad habit of receding into the background of the memory in favor of things like Gabourey Sidibe having sex with a minotaur. But this week, I’m in New York City, and I watched the episode right before I had to go do something else for a bit, meaning that by the time I was done with that, the episode had settled into my memory as a collection of set pieces and weird images, rather than an attempt at a coherent plot. Maybe this is for the best with this show! It certainly seems like the way the majority of its viewership has come to appreciate it, and I also get to write this to you from the beautiful main branch of the New York Public Library (if this were American Horror Story, those lions would come to life). But it also means I’m going to be shit for trying to pluck thematic resonance out of this thing.
“Ha ha!” you say. “Thematic resonance in American Horror Story?!” But I really do think this episode was trying to do something with how difficult it is for women to find a place in society as they age. This is particularly true for actresses, of course, and it’s telling that this season features Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, and Angela Bassett, three actresses who are both aging and finding fewer and fewer film roles in an industry increasingly dominated by movies made for teenage boys. (Not a one of those three will ever hurt for finding work, but finding interesting roles for women over 40 in the film industry is a longtime problem. At least Ryan Murphy occasionally lets Kathy Bates hiss about how Obama is president.) The end of the episode genuinely surprised me. I didn’t expect the show to kill off Madison so quickly, since she’s played by Emma Roberts and in the opening credits and all, but there you had it. Fiona refuses to give way to the new Supreme. Long live the old Supreme. It’s taking the fear of someone younger and hotter taking your place and giving it bloody, metaphorical life.
Of course, the key thing here is that Fiona killed the Supreme who preceded her, and she’s dying of cancer. The fact that it’s harder and harder for those over a certain age to find a place in a youth-obsessed country is tragic, yes, but one also needs to accept that we’re all getting older sooner or later. Fiona’s craven attempt to hang onto her power stands in marked contrast to LaLaurie, who just wants to die, particularly after she’s made Queenie’s personal slave (Mssrs Murphy and Falchuk would like to announce a seminar on race in the American body politic conducted in 13 episodes), and Marie Laveau, who seems like the logical end of Fiona’s quest for immortality: sitting upon her throne and making people pay terrible prices for what they truly want. “Coven” isn’t just scared of death; it’s scared of decay as well. Hell, even Cordelia continues to be unable to conceive, the one bit of access to immortality nearly every human being has available to them.
But this episode was also about more than women getting older and people trying to live forever. It was also about sex. Sexy sex with minotaurs and terrifying, abusive sex with mothers and Patti LuPone being terrified of sex. When I said that Murphy had replaced the darkness of season two with minotaur sex this season, I was only half kidding. Though nothing in “The Replacements” is especially graphic, even by basic cable terms, we still have a mother giving her resurrected son an unwanted hand job and Madison and Nan reversing the male gaze for an attractive neighbor as he mows the lawn. (His mother just happens to be the aforementioned LuPone, because Murphy wants to tease my hopes that she, Lange, Bates, and Bassett do a musical number.) It’s all a little much, particularly when it comes to the story with Kyle and his mother, but it rides that line between horrifying and moving that the show is sometimes capable of handling.
It also makes sense that sex is so vital to an episode about women losing their power as they age, because too often, society only values women for being good looking, leaving sexual energy as their primary source of power. Yet there’s a double standard here as well. Women who are comfortable and confident in their own sex lives are often branded as sluts, and the “ideal” is the virginal teenager, pining away at home for the man who will make her life complete. One needs only look at the fact that Madison is frequently dressed in tiny, black dresses, while Zoe is far more modest (and kills men with her vagina) to realize that the series is playing around with these tropes, too, even if it’s being less skillful with them than it is with the aging stuff.
And, also, seriously, minotaur sex. I mean, what was that supposed to be about? It was like everybody involved took a single course on human sexuality in college, heard that there was a pernicious stereotype of black men being uncontrollable sexual beasts, then thought, hey that might make a good plot point on a TV show I’ll make someday. It’s goofy, yes, but it’s also sort of horrifying in a political sense. And even if you can’t get on board with me on that, at least grant me that Queenie talking about how she’s waiting for the right guy earlier in the episode—and thus setting up that she’ll obviously meet said right guy before the season is up—then immediately meeting the right guy in this episode and he’s a minotaur is sort of ridiculous from a storytelling sense. And maybe we’ll find out they didn’t hook up. The show sure seemed to imply they did, but stranger retcons have happened on Ryan Murphy shows. But even if they didn’t, that one scene seems destined to live on in the memory banks until 20 years from now, you’re drinking with friends, and one of them brings up American Horror Story, and then you say, “Oh, yeah, didn’t Gabourey Sidibe have sex with a minotaur on that show?” Because that is a thing that has been on TV now. Thanks, Ryan Murphy! I think I mean that.
Grade: A+ A A- B+ B B- C+ C C- D+ D D- F M for Man-otaur Sex
- Denis O’Hare continues to get to be creepy and stand around while Jessica Lange orders him around, but that’s just how we want him, isn’t it? I have a feeling he’s going to get more to do in the episodes to come. (My wife thought she heard his voice in the Salem scene in the season premiere, and that would certainly be a fun twist.)
- I’m starting to think that the Misty Day plotline is just a way for Ryan Murphy to work through his massive Fleetwood Mac playlist. Not that this is a bad thing.
- Kyle’s mother knows something isn’t quite right because she knows his body, and now she knows he has a new one. Gross. But him beating her to a bloody pulp seemed a proportionate response to her awfulness.
- I like Taissa Farmiga and all, but she’s not really getting a lot to do this season, despite being on screen for a lot of it. She just sits around and reacts to other people right now.
- I did like that Madison was the new Supreme instead of Zoe, which was a pretty cool twist. Fiona killing her makes sense, but I wouldn’t have minded seeing that dynamic play out for an episode or two.
- Ryan Murphy working out his emotional baggage against conservative Christians makes sense, but it also seems sort of rote by this point (to say nothing of the fact that he seems to have met a conservative Christian once in a dream and based every portrayal of them on that). If he has to go to this well again, I’m totally down with it involving Patti LuPone, however.
- The way Kathy Bates hisses “Lies!” when informed that we’ve had African-American secretaries of state, Supreme Court justices, etc., etc., since her first time around almost entirely justifies the clumsiness of this plot. (Seriously? Queenie’s personal slave?)