American Horror Story: Coven is authentically, genuinely bad television. I don’t say this lightly. I don’t want any show to be bad, particularly one that I’m reviewing. And I enjoyed the loopiness of season one, once I got into its spirit, while finding season two to be genuinely bold, fascinating television. And, of course, this season is still only about half over and could find its way to an ending that makes me eat my words. But “The Sacred Taking” is just good enough to make me realize how much this season has been lacking, in ways both major and minor, and it’s outlined, at least for me, five different ways that the season has fallen short. Any one of these flaws in isolation wouldn’t be such a problem, but the combination of all five of them has created a swirling maelstrom of suck the show hasn’t been able to escape.
1.) The show has trouble extending its sympathy to anyone but white people. In fact, I’d say the show has trouble understanding anybody but white people. I don’t particularly understand why LaLaurie is on the show—what about her presence has been needed for the plot, other than the show getting to boast about having Kathy Bates on its payroll?—but the show and Bates have given the character a surprisingly vivid arc about a woman who was evil in her first life trying—and usually failing because of her own ingrown prejudices—to better herself in this one. Along the way, she’s had to adjust to the world she now lives in (though the series has made surprisingly little of this), and viewers have been invited to not just sympathize with her, not just to ask themselves how they might feel if they were transported from the 1800s, racial prejudices intact, to an America where Barack Obama is president—but to also feel sorry for her, despite the fact that she’s a racist torturer and murderer. Now, she’s just a head in a box, sort of the logical endpoint of all of that darkness she foisted on the world, and, yes, it’s a big, goofy image to end the image on, but it’s also tinged with pity.
In and of itself, there’s no problem with this. Challenging art can make us sympathize with or feel pity for all manner of awful people. The film Downfall, for instance, doesn’t make you like Hitler, but it certainly puts you in his mindset as the end approaches, and I find that a remarkable movie. The problem with Coven is that it’s almost without exclusion able to extend this kind of sympathy to the white characters—to Fiona and Kyle and Zoe and Cordelia and Myrtle and LaLaurie and Nan and Madison and on and on—while being almost completely unable to extend any sympathy to its black characters. (The possible exception here is Queenie, but I dealt last episode with her problematic character arc.) LaLaurie gets to have multiple shades of grey to her character. She’s a racist, but she’s a good maid! She’s a murderer, but she doesn’t understand fast food drive-thrus! Her counterpart Marie Laveau, however, gets to be either a figure of vengeance or a figure to be feared. That’s it. The other black characters range from collections of stereotypes—Queenie—to literal window dressing, with no other compelling figures otherwise.
It’s possible I’m being too sensitive to this because, as a good white liberal trying to be aware of my own privilege, who finally got around to seeing 12 Years A Slave last night and has it very much on the mind, I am going looking for outrage where outrage isn’t meant to exist. But the whole thing makes me feel bummed out on story principle, too. If Marie is going to be one of the season’s main antagonists, we should probably know a little bit more about her and her feud with Fiona and the Coven than we do. We get some vague intimations of a historical backdrop for all of this, and then it’s on to the characters endlessly circling each other (as I’ve talked about before). Stories like this don’t just need good antagonists; they all but require them. And because the show is unable to extend its sympathies to Marie, she falls flat as a character, no matter how much vitriol Angela Bassett imbues her with. A couple of weeks ago, I thought the show’s racial politics merely clumsy. Now, I think they’re actually detracting from my enjoyment of the show.
2.) The rules of the show’s universe are far from clear. Kyle comes back, but he can’t talk or think straight, even as all of the other resurrected characters are able to, except for Marie Laveau’s zombies, who seem another breed of undead altogether. Why? What, precisely, is the process for anointing the new Supreme, and what, exactly, does she do, outside of being the most powerful witch in the coven? This episode delves a little bit into answers to both of those questions, but it still seems to be leaving things purposefully vague in case it needs to change them up later on. Why, precisely, are some figures in the show able to remain with the house as corporeal spirits, to the degree that Spalding can help Fiona drink her ipecac after she gulps down those sleeping pills? Along those lines, how do witch hunters operate? What’s their relationship to the proceedings, and how did Cordelia end up married to one? How does Misty bring someone back from the dead? Why do witches seem to be merely X-Men? And I could think of 10 or 11 more questions about the rules governing the show’s universe.
I can come up with a reasonable answer for any of the questions above, one that’s largely backed up by the show. But by leaving everything about the show’s rules of how witchcraft operates so vague, presumably so it can switch them up at any time, in order to have a crazy twist, the show shoots itself in the foot. Horror, above all other genres, falls apart in the face of chaos. (Well, most of the time. You can make horror out of chaos work, but it requires a stronger hand than I think Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have.) It needs rigid order and laws to operate, and Coven lacks those elements. It has suggestions written in pencil, to be altered later. (Both Murder House and Asylum, for all their faults, had very concrete rules for how their horrors operated, outside of maybe Asylum’s aliens.) The rules can be implicit—Jason Voorhees will strike at teenagers who have sex—or explicit—don’t feed a mogwai after midnight. But they need to be there, and Coven just doesn’t have them in the slightest. Indeed, one of the reasons this episode mostly worked, at least in its more compelling center section, was because the rules of the Sacred Taking were concrete, spelled-out, and understandable. When the characters were trying to get Fiona to kill herself, I understood why, and that made it easier to let go and enjoy the ridiculous ride. But all of those other vagaries feed into…
3.) The show’s plot is ridiculously abstract, to the point where it has little to no meaning. The season is built around two climaxes it can’t get to until the finale, most likely, so it has to keep stalling. One of those climaxes is Fiona’s death and the rise of the new Supreme, but the show isn’t going to write Jessica Lange out before the last handful of episodes, and the role of the Supreme is so nebulous at this point that it doesn’t much matter whether it’s Madison or Zoe or Misty. (I’d like to say this episode makes it crystal clear that it’s Misty, since she resurrected herself and all, but I’m sure the rules will change on me next week.) When the season began, Fiona was returning from a long time away, so clearly, the coven can handle itself without the Supreme, which makes it all the more pointless to worry so much about who the new one will be, outside of the fact that the show doesn’t seem to know how to handle teen girls this season outside of giving them power fantasies.
The other climax is the all-out war between the coven and Marie Laveau’s voodoo cabal, and that, similarly, is struck down by vagueness all around. I think the reason for this might be that if we knew too much about why Marie was so pissed at the coven, we might agree with her (since, after all, at least part of her resentment has to do with slavery), and the series desperately needs us on the side of everybody at the school. But stretching out the buildup to the war while giving us none of the reasons both parties are mad at each other historically is making everything hilariously obfuscated. This means that we keep getting distracted by other things, like, say, whatever’s up with Patti LuPone or the Kyle and Zoe relationship or LaLaurie (which, why was she dug up, exactly?), but none of those things are the sorts of proper stories that would give this season forward thrust and meaning. All of which means that Coven just ends up feeling like a collection of incidents, rather than anything resembling a coherent story. You might say that AHS, above all shows, need not pursue coherency, and I might agree with that, but…
4.) The emphasis on a lighter tone is killing the show’s comedy. There are a few good lines per episode, but the overall tone of Coven is far wackier than the previous two seasons, and that means that the series feels as if nothing has any consequence whatsoever. In fact, it feels like the show is trying too hard, as in moments like Cordelia complaining about Fiona’s stuffing or Myrtle robbing Fiona as she lay dying. I know that the commenters who follow the show for other publications hated Asylum, and the ratings resurgence of the series this season suggests that lots of people like this new tone in comparison to the old one. But I thought Asylum worked because it blended some stronger comedy and what-the-fuck moments with genuine, existential horror at the things people are capable of doing to each other. Without that sort of grounding, AHS simply becomes camp for the sake of having camp, and that leaves everybody flailing around, with more time for people like me to focus on how the season’s central themes don’t actually exist, because…
5.) Coven says it’s all about empowerment, but nothing that happens in it is actually empowering. This season wants so desperately to be about women and black people and the living dead taking back their power from their oppressors, but it’s, instead, mostly about a bunch of minorities doing battle with each other, rather than actually striking back at their oppressors. And I might think that that was some vicious social commentary on the part of the show’s writers, social commentary about how far too often, we let out own pet interests defeat our relationships with natural political allies, but I really think that they just think it will be funny to have great actresses hiss at each other for a while. There’s no greater level to the satire or political commentary. It simply extends to “If you give women powers, that’s feminism!” without understanding that empowering a character requires, necessarily, taking that power from someone who would traditionally have it. It’s as simple as George McFly punching Biff Tannen in the face, to use an example that has absolutely no overtones of gender or racial studies. Coven is all about people who usually get punched punching each other with magic, and that’s why it never has the pathos it so desperately longs for. Look at how much Asylum packed into one bullet in its season finale, one bullet from a woman who had suffered so much and wanted to suffer no longer, and Coven feels all the emptier. It’s a collection of scenes, some of them good, some of them crappy, with no greater purpose beyond, “Hey, wouldn’t it be crazy if…” and I hope, at least for my sake, that something gives and soon.
Grade: B for Blood Magic, because that seems safe
Season grade so far (for serious): D
- Remember Cordelia and Hank trying to get pregnant? Didn’t that seem like it was going to be a whole thing? Even when the season wants to tell a coherent story, it keeps getting in its own way.
- Every time the show dropped in on Kyle using a tablet to learn to talk, it felt like something from what should have been the fourth or fifth season of the show, except Evan Peters had to be in there somehow.
- Danny Huston is another element that feels simply stranded out on the edges of some other story entirely, and that’s too bad, because the Axeman deserves better.
- I rewound that scene with Patti LuPone and her son a number of times to try to figure out what the fuck was going on and never did. Now, I’m a very sheltered young man, so it’s possible I’m just missing some ultra-kinky possibility, but please illuminate me. (Also: How bizarre was it to suddenly have these two back near the center of the story again after they sat out so many episodes? And then I thought Patti LuPone was dead, which was a waste of a great actress but at least something happening until, nope, resurrection just because.)
- It’s at least a joy to have Frances Conroy back and wandering around. I like how the makeup department made her undead skin look like crumpled wax paper.
- Zoe talks about being all nervous and stressed out, and she doesn’t sound either in the slightest.
- Next week is the big midseason finale. Sadly, we won’t have a murder Santa to entertain us. I don’t know what I’m going to do.