“Go To Hell” kills off Coven’s older generation in its entirety, turning things over to the next generation, and I could not give two shits about it. (Well, I’m not convinced Fiona is dead, but we’ll get to that in a bit.) For an episode that ends with a hail of murders, it’s depressingly boring, and it underlines almost all of the problems with this season that I outlined last month. To a degree, this is just an extension of last week’s episode, which Dennis so wonderfully covered for me. When Queenie and Delphine turned up at the beginning of the episode, more or less fine, and when Fiona and Marie destroyed the witch hunters, it was like all of the problems with the season in a nutshell: The dramatic stakes were largely non-existent, and the few times that the show actually had stakes, it rushed right past them. Asylum felt like being driven along a mountain road in a blizzard by a drunk driver who miraculously avoided every single moose that kept leaping out in front of him. Coven is like that same drunk driver going 15 miles per hour down a sleepy suburban street and hitting every mailbox he sees. I cannot wait for American Horror Story, season four, “Probably About Aliens Or Werewolves And Also Communism Or Something.”
Almost all great horror is about death at some level (the stuff that’s not about death is usually about sex), whether it’s about the presence or the absence of said death. All of our most famous monsters are death made incarnate or creatures that can seemingly deal death at will, and if there’s been a single problem that’s ultimately destroyed this season (though there have been many), it’s the fact that no important characters ever die for good (at least until this episode). The show kept raising interesting ideas for the season, like Fiona making her way through the candidates for the new Supreme with wanton bloodlust, or the witch hunters taking out even the most powerful of witches with silver bullets, then utterly neutering those ideas of their power by resurrecting characters or dispatching with them too quickly. (Another example from this episode: Zoe and Kyle went to Florida, but they’re back!) I don’t require much in the way of traditional narrative structure from this show, but I need the underpinnings to more or less make sense, and Coven hasn’t bothered with this at all. Whatever interesting ideas the season had have been buried underneath its inability to push through this lethargy.
By far the worst thing any TV show can be is boring, and that goes doubly for a Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk show. But in “Go To Hell,” even the outrageous stuff feels rote. Legba making Marie run a red-hot poker down the throat or up the ass of LaLaurie’s daughter for eternity? Whatever. The witches killing the Axeman like they’re characters in a slasher film? Yawn. Cordelia’s vision of Fiona having killed everyone in the house? Bluh. Everything this season feels too calculated by half, like very deliberate attempts to mimic the craziness of previous seasons, without realizing that that kind of crazy is sui generis. There are things this season that have come close to reaching something out of Murder House or Asylum (mostly involving Frances Conroy), but for the most part, everything here feels like it’s trying too hard, insisting that we be impressed with just how wacky it all is.
Obviously, not everybody feels this way. In terms of mainstream critical praise, Coven has probably been the most celebrated season of the show. So maybe I’m just not connecting with something at its core that will never work for me as a white, straight guy. (Hey, it’s happened before.) But “Go To Hell” feels even more to me like the show is just sort of throwing up its hands and trying to tie up as many loose ends as it possibly can before the season ends next week. More than anything else, it feels like the season is running out of time, which is absolutely crazy, because the conflicts that are going right now are basically the same as the ones in the first episode. The episode ends with the reveal that it’s time to choose the new Supreme, and… isn’t that basically where we were in the first few episodes? Fiona is on her way out, and there needs to be a new Supreme. Done. The only difference now is that we have a bunch of different candidates who could be the Supreme, instead of just assuming it will be Zoe or Madison, like we did in the first few episodes of the season. We also have a slightly better understanding of the Seven Wonders, thanks to an opening sequence filmed in the style of a silent film (which is really quite nifty and my favorite thing about the episode).
But does anybody really give a good goddamn about the new Supreme? No! Of course not! In fact, I asked around about this question at the TCA press tour, where I’m writing this from, and I could only find a couple of people who had strong feelings on the subject. (Both of them were pulling for Madison. I’m right there with you, folks.) The others either felt like me that this season has been a tedious bore or didn’t care, because they were primarily in it for the one-liners. (This is fine, but I’d say the one-liners have been a cut below this season, too.) As a framing structure for the season, the Supreme has been a poor choice, because if Murphy and Falchuk have a weakness, it’s anything that requires structural rigor. A ritualistic succession of power more or less defines the concept of structural rigor. I’m not saying that we needed to know everything about the hunt for the new Supreme thanks to a monologue from Cate Blanchett in the first episode. But tossing everything into a prologue in the penultimate episode is a desperation move, no matter how stylishly filmed the prologue is.
At this point, I’ve just run out of things to say about this season of American Horror Story. I can’t even fall back on plot recap, because largely the same things happen every week. I’ve run out of ways to talk about Fiona evilly scheming or Cordelia losing her eyesight (which has happened twice this season—twice!). I’m not asking for the show to have the world’s most finely wrought narrative or character arcs, but it would be nice if there were some nods toward some sort of consistency or development or build. If it felt like something was happening this season, I’d be fine. Instead, it feels like the show’s writers keep trotting out the characters like dolls, to say the same lines and worry about the same things and never move forward in any way. And so a season that began with a lot of promise makes me wonder if I ever want to see another season of this show again.
Grade: M for Misty May Mashing the Muck outta Madison
- So Fiona’s not dead, right? If I’ve learned one thing from television, it’s that when you don’t see the body, then the character will be back, and as much as I’d like to believe the show would do something as interesting as kill off Fiona the episode before the end, I really don’t think it would rid itself of Jessica Lange. More likely is that she and the Axeman hatched this plan so she can kill off all of the other characters next week, as Cordelia saw in her vision.
- I did like the edit from Queenie trying to summon Legba to ending up back in that fried chicken restaurant. It’s not like the show’s portrayal of Hell was particularly original, but that, at least, was sort of interesting.
- To illustrate the problems with the season, let’s take on LaLaurie’s character arc: Historical serial killer. Made immortal and buried beneath the Earth for centuries. Dug up by Fiona. Made a maid for some reason. Daughter resurrected as a zombie. (Actually, up until this point, it sort of works.) Becomes sympathetic to Queenie. Sold out by Queenie. Becomes an animated head. Goes back to being a serial killer after being reassembled. Takes over her former home. Made mortal again and killed. There’s nothing even approaching a coherent throughline there, and you can extend that to everybody else on the show.
- At least Kathy Bates seems to be having fun, right? Lance Reddick, too. He’s having the time of his life, and who can blame him? And Lily Rabe is really good at stage combat, so that’s something!
- I guess if everybody escapes from Hell next week to join in the competition over the seven wonders, I can just laugh this whole season off as an elaborate joke on coherent story structure. (Seriously, I might prefer that at this point.)
- So the “hint” about next season’s theme in last week’s episode has to be McCarthyism, right? And the fact that Jessica Lange wants to film in New Mexico and some of the other stuff going on next season has me thinking there will be something more rural as a theme, and it will probably involve aliens. But maybe you feel differently!
- God bless Frances Conroy, because she is pretty much the only thing completely working this season, and Myrtle at the theremin remains one of the year’s weirdest non-sequiturs. Come back for season four, Frances!