“The Magical Delights Of Stevie Nicks” is by far the best episode of this season of American Horror Story. Freed from the constraints of its endless circling and with an actual villain to face off with, the show’s characters start actually doing stuff, and the series’ momentum grows exponentially. Also, the episode finally uses its New Orleans setting in a way that feels less like everybody involved read a Lonely Planet guide to the city before filming there and has some actual supernatural weirdness to it. I’m not going to try and figure out why Papa Legba—traditionally just the guy who serves as intermediary between this realm and the spiritual one in voodoo—is now just basically the devil, but, hey, when Lance Reddick first showed up with those bugged-out red eyes and creepy makeup, I was suitably unnerved, which is the first time I can ever say that about this show. This is a step up above the use of, say, the Axeman or even the jazz funeral that Misty and Madison follow around in this episode because the show needed to have a jazz funeral at some point.
Of course, it’s also a completely ridiculous episode of television. I can’t count all of the times I was laughing, whether intentionally or unintentionally. For starters, the whole Steve Nicks thing is basically what happens when you try to update one of those Scooby Doo episodes where the gang ended up solving a mystery with a prominent guest star, like that time they hung out with the Harlem Globetrotters. Stevie Nicks shows up, introduced as a powerful white witch, and her first line of dialogue is, “You must be Misty. I’m Stevie Nicks,” and it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened on television, basically, because everybody is so agreeably self-aware about all of it. But then she just kind of hangs around and plays a few songs on the piano, and the novelty wears off (though I did enjoy her and Misty having a shawl-spin-off). Still, the weirdness of Stevie Nicks being there, constantly referred to with both names, and the show being smart enough to basically treat her as a Love Boat guest star made up for a lot.
Also, I mean, Frances Conroy stood around and played the theremin while Cordelia was doing whatever it is she does with all of those potions and poultices. It’s been a bit disappointing to see Cordelia’s arc this season, particularly when remembering how powerful I found Sarah Paulson’s work in season two, and it almost seems as if the show itself doesn’t know what to do with her. Still, this scene is like an American Horror Story version of Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (which you all need to read—so good!), with Cordelia stewing over how she’s never achieved the greatness she might have been capable of. Only in the book, this might have been expressed elegantly, via internal monologue, and in this episode, it’s expressed via Cordelia throwing things around. But that’s just the way of this show, and so long as it always remembers to have a theremin-playing Myrtle somewhere near the action, I’ll forgive it so much.
Another reason this episode worked so well: So much Angela Bassett! Marie Laveau has been a frustratingly used presence in this season, too often turned into a vague antagonist, the roots of whose anger were too easily obscured. Now that she’s actually got something concrete to be pissed off about and gets to share screentime with Reddick and Jessica Lange, the character finally pops in a way that complements Bassett’s performance. Delphi is kind of a last-ditch effort to give this season an antagonist that will actually work, but the fallout from everyone learning about Hank involves slapping, and the scene where Marie and Fiona somehow cause the downfall of Delphi via mice in a maze is strikingly shot by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, underlining just how trapped the men become when the tables are turned.
Papa Legba, meanwhile, is a character I liked while still not being completely sure how he fits into everything else. If you’re going to have someone play this figure, Lance Reddick is as good as anybody, and I loved the idea of Marie having had to spend this eternal life providing him with innocent babies to take off to Hell, beginning with her own child, because she was so insistent on an immortal life. Deals with the Devil are a great horror trope that AHS hasn’t done much with—if a future season involves somebody meeting Satan at a country crossroads at midnight, I will gladly buy Ryan Murphy a sandwich—and the specifics of what Legba wants and the reason his proposed deal with Fiona utterly falls apart are good enough to knock this one into the plus column for me. On the other hand, I’m not sure this season needs yet another element, and unless this character turns into Coven’s version of the pigman from season one, then there’s every chance this all becomes far too overstuffed.
On the other hand, the show is doing its damnedest to close down some of its other sprawl. Tonight, for instance, Patti LuPone dies, and the rules of immortality and/or resurrection are so haphazard on this show that I’m simply done trying to figure them out. Anyway, Nan and Zoe go over to her house because they learn that she killed Luke, and when they find that Luke has been cremated (meaning Misty can no longer resurrect him), Nan loses it and uses the mind control powers she developed as of late—seriously, did this happen between episodes, or am I forgetting a major revelation from last month’s episodes?—to make Luke’s mom drink a bunch of bleach. It’s another moment that actually skews more toward horror than weird comedy, or it would, at least, if I gave enough of a damn about Zoe to feel her shock more palpably. (That said, both Bassett and Lange get great relish out of talking about how Nan killed “the neighbor lady,” so it’s all good.) Nan’s death at the end, however, felt extraneous. The show only seemed to just now be figuring out how to use the character, and making her a competitor for Supreme was shaping up to be fascinating. The final scene with Legba was haunting, however, and it made for a suitable capper to her story until she’s resurrected five minutes into next week’s episode.
Finally, the race to become the Supreme also bears some fruit, though this remains the important plot I’m the least invested in. Is it weird I sort of hope Madison wins out? Not that I don’t like Misty—she’s great—but she was a more interesting character when ensconced in her swamp hut. The show often seems uncertain of how to use her in the boarding school setting, simply tossing her into storylines at random and hoping for the best. Fortunately, Lily Rabe is good enough to make all of this play, so it’s fitfully fun. In particular, I liked the scene where Madison maneuvered things in order to place Misty in a coffin that’s now locked away in one of those above-ground tombs I know so much about thanks to Gabriel Knight. Now, we know how little of a foe death has been this season, so I can’t imagine a little stone and/or cement stopping Misty’s emergence, but this just made me want Madison to be the Supreme, because that was pretty clever, kid. (Also, I’m starting to become certain again that it’s going to be Zoe, which is going to be so disappointing.)
Finally, a note on grading. Y’all have read these long enough to know the grades are intentionally ridiculous, because trying to pin a qualitative judgment on American Horror Story is like trying to wrestle an elephant, but in my heart of hearts, I know that the grade American Horror Story aspires to is something like the “A/F,” an episode that is simultaneously so good and so bad that it attains both states at once, held in suspension for all to see its glories. Because of the limits of the old design, I was unable to ever give such a grade, except in the text, but thanks to the new design (or, rather, an oversight by the designers that will surely be corrected once I post this review), I have a grade that comes close to what the ideal AHS episode deserves. And that can and must only be…
Grade: F+ for Fleetwood Mac
- Except between me discovering the F+ and me posting this, someone found the bug and fixed it! Curses! I will just give this an A-, which we all know is worse than F+ anyway. F+, to my mind, sits somewhere between A and A-, sneering out at all of us and occasionally mooning everyone. Which is why it's so perfect for a Ryan Murphy show grade!
- This episode was scripted by James Wong, who’s been responsible for the scripts of two of the better episodes this season. That makes me feel better about that Zoe Saldana Rosemary’s Baby/impending train wreck!
- I so hope Stevie Nicks sticks around, so when the witch hunters descend upon the house, she can score it all to an acoustic cover of “Tusk.”
- I frequently will watch AHS right before turning in for the night, but this is the first time it’s ever given me the willies. Granted, probably because my cat had the good timing to jump on the bed at exactly the moment when Legba’s face stared directly into camera for the first time, but that was still a creepy moment. (It was only a cat, Todd. It was only a cat!)
- Marie and Fiona drowning Nan in a bathtub felt like the least efficient possible way to kill her. It also seemed like she died awfully quickly after resurfacing for breath that last time.
- Just in case you were thinking the show had abruptly figured out how to tell a mostly coherent story with forward momentum, the Axeman popped up to remind you of how difficult that is for everybody involved. (Also: Not entirely clear on the terms of Fiona’s deal with Legba being fulfilled by him being offered Nan. I get that Nan is the replacement for the baby, but does this somehow also fulfill Fiona’s deal? Probably not, but I would not put it past this show to reveal next week that not only is Fiona immortal but she’s become a dragon.)
- I probably won’t be around next week, due to TCA, so treat whomever I leave in charge of you hooligans with a modicum of respect, huh? Aw, who am I kidding? I love you guys. C’mere.