In the end, American Horror Story: Coven just didn’t have any fucking clue what it wanted to be. It lurched drunkenly from idea to idea, never settling on one long enough to build anything of worth. “But, Todd!” you might say. “That was also true of Murder House and Asylum!” Which is sort of true. Both of those seasons kept adding weird bullshit right up until the very end. But in both cases, the show added items at the periphery, while keeping the core of the show more or less sound. Murder House was about a troubled family that moved into a haunted house, and while it was frequently ridiculous, it kept being about that, no matter how many pigmen hid in Eric Stonestreet’s shower. The even more successful Asylum was about a woman wrongly confined and the woman who confined her, tracing their twin arcs over decades of the country’s history and subjecting both of them to all sorts of traumas that revealed more and more of what they were truly made of, before bringing them to moments of unexpected release.
The problem with Coven, then, is that it kept adding stuff to the core, and it ended up destabilizing everything, so that even the crazy stuff stopped being fun and just got sort of boring. (About the only crazy thing I’ve legitimately enjoyed in the back half of the season has been the two appearances by Stevie Nicks, which were, not coincidentally, about as tangential as tangential can be.) The season started out as a story about a boarding school for witches, with young Zoe as our eyes and ears into a strange world we wouldn’t normally be privy to. At the edges of that world were a mother and daughter who had a relationship filled with emotional violence and a variety of historical figures who’d come along to make mischief and fuck shit up. The problem was that those people were played by all of the top-name stars that viewers ostensibly come to American Horror Story for, so they gradually dragged the show’s core over toward them.
With every week, the core got a little more diluted. Adding Fiona and Cordelia to it made a certain amount of sense, since they, too, were at the school. But the addition of LaLaurie was much more confusing, as she didn’t have pre-established ties to anyone and mostly seemed to be around to let Ryan Murphy give Kathy Bates some ridiculousness to play. And then the other stuff kept crowding into the middle of the merry-go-round, making everything wobbly. Marie Laveau was soon the biggest threat to the school, except also the season’s main villain. Except, no, the witch hunters were. Except they were easily dispatched, and maybe the whole season had really been about searching for the new Supreme among the teenagers at the school. But what if it were about this self-trained witch from the swamp, who possessed astounding powers over life and death? Though, no, for real this time, the story turned out to be about women seizing their inherent power and about a mother and daughter finally having a heart-to-heart after a lifetime of acrimony.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing these stories for existing. Any single one of them would have made a really good center to this season. You could have potentially even piled two or maybe three of them into the center together. But by shoving all of them together at once, everything started to fly off kilter. What’s more, the season didn’t seem to know how to use the few elements it did keep at the periphery. That minotaur from the first few episodes seemed like the season’s big, goofy monster, until he wasn’t, and even then, he was dispatched so quickly that it seemed like nobody remembered he even existed roughly an episode after he left the mortal plane. When I think about the story sold in the premiere, or about a story about a bunch of minority groups metaphorically squabbling while those in power exploit them, or about a story of a mother and daughter falling apart and coming together, all of those things strike me as really good ideas for the show to build a season around. But all of them at once?
We’ve talked at length this season about how the weird use of magic meant that basically nothing had any meaning and that the dramatic stakes ended up being largely irrelevant. Maybe there was a way this could have worked, but it seemed beyond the writers on Coven, who revealed in “The Seven Wonders” that they were similarly incapable of getting us interested in the actual end games of all of these characters. Take, for instance, Misty, who essentially needs to be written out of the story if it’s to be the somebody vs. Madison Supreme showdown it seems to be. For much of the season, Misty was the most interesting character, and Lily Rabe’s work was one of the few things that was consistently working. But then, somewhere around when Stevie Nicks showed up, the show seemed to lose interest in her, as if making the Supreme a largely untrained swamp witch without traditional social grooming possessed no inherent drama or paths for conflict. So she got thrown in a coffin for a few episodes and then, in this one, was confined to Hell in a sequence that was kind of impressive from an editing standpoint but was also just weird, like the show was punishing Misty for being more interesting than most of the other characters. Maybe the message is that American Horror Story, like life, is unfair.
Yet the same applied to characters that actually seemed destined to have some kind of comeuppance or just reward. Kyle’s murder of Madison mostly elicited a shrug. Zoe was dead because of her transmutation (and wasn’t that really just teleportation, not actually transforming one substance into another?) onto a fence post, until she wasn’t, thanks to Cordelia. Fiona returned, and she and Cordelia shared one of the better scenes of the season as they worked out all of their emotional baggage, but it was always hard to escape just how little the season had cared about their relationship in the slightest, beyond thinking it was kind of fun to watch Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson yell at each other. Weirdly, the relationships the show most wanted us to care about were the ones between Zoe and Kyle and the ones between Fiona and the Axeman (who get to spend eternity together), but was anyone terribly invested in either of them? And the latter had Lange and Danny Huston doing all of the heavy lifting, so it should have been transcendent. Instead, it just kind of flopped around for a while, hinging entirely on things like how Huston can say the word “spigot” and make a meal of it.
Appropriately, the competition to perform the Seven Wonders was just as messy and unformed as the rest of the season. It started out feeling like a parody of Top Chef in the telekinesis challenge, but then, it wandered all over the map. It was the most prosaic horror movie ever in the sequence about going to hell and back, and it was something out of that coming-of-age in a house of witches story the season initially seemed to be in the long, probably unnecessary sequence where the girls played teleportation tag with each other. There was no focus and, as such, no drama. The question of who became Supreme ultimately just seemed as if the show threw up its hands and said, “Cordelia!” and that’s with the show tossing in a bunch of foreshadowing about how this was going to happen for a few weeks now (and arguably back to the beginning of the season).
I am not someone who needs every element of a story to click into place to be satisfied. I often love it when TV takes long detours to check out other stuff that any given show finds interesting. But by refusing to decide what it was about, American Horror Story: Coven became a boring tangle of half-hearted storylines somewhere around episode five or six, and it just never found its way through them, no matter how hard it tried. The story would briefly jolt to life—with the introduction of the witch hunters, say—then get distracted by something else, and it seemed at all times to be chasing shiny objects to the detriment of keeping its nose to the grindstone. We all laughed back in season one about how Connie Britton never seemed capable of leaving the house, and it became ludicrous last season how often Sarah Paulson got dragged back to the asylum. But the series found ways of making the constant reassertion of the status quo work for it in both cases, in the horror (and comedy) coming as much from the stasis of television as anything else. Season three lost its way when it tried to be all things to all cast members, and the most it could elicit from me was a minor shrug.
Bring on the Hell Circus.
Grade: C- for Cordelia Now, Cordelia Forever
Season Grade: D+
- I will admit that when the episode opened with a completely impromptu music video from Stevie Nicks—complete with Nicks turning to the Supreme competitors and saying, “Good luck, girls!”—I had the brief hope that this episode would be just crazy enough to make me vaguely fond for the show I had once known. Instead, it immediately collapsed into boring nothingness. Even Myrtle wasn’t terribly interesting here.
- In a lot of horror stories where the central group of “monsters” is held up as a metaphor for some traditionally powerless group or another—or all traditionally powerless groups, in the case of the witches here—some element of the climax will deal with the subculture making itself known to the main culture. This is almost always treated as a wonderful thing, with society just having to deal with it. And while I agree with that when it comes to actual powerless groups, I always have trouble crossing that bridge with, y’know, magical creatures. No matter how good of a Supreme Cordelia might be, the presence of hundreds of thousands of witches who can bend the laws of physics to accomplish anything would be a big fucking deal with major policy implications in this reality. It seems weird to me to suggest that those who inflexibly oppose said witches are somehow bigoted because the witches actually do pose a threat to everyone’s life and livelihood if they decide to take over the world. (I’ve always felt roughly similarly about the vampires on True Blood, who have similar issues.)
- As a final, hearty “fuck you!” to the idea of dramatic stakes, Cordelia’s eyes regenerate because she’s the new Supreme so, sure, why not.
- I did find it appropriate that the wonder that Madison choked when performing was divination. The idea that she couldn’t see beyond herself was a nice bit of ironic justice almost certainly arrived at accidentally.
- Didn’t last week’s teaser promise that the competition to be Supreme would end with somebody on fire? I didn’t see anyone on fire this week.
- As many of us predicted last week, Fiona was still alive, thanks to a scheme hatched with the Axeman. This didn’t result in the deaths of every girl in the house, however. Instead, she just wasted away while watching her daughter take the throne. There was some nice dialogue in there, but… eh.
- As for Myrtle, she is burned at the stake for reasons and for the show to incorporate another Fleetwood Mac song. Everything got repeated this season, endlessly. Maybe that was the point, but it sure was a bore to watch.
- My number one wish for season four? A much smaller ensemble. Season three attracted so many big-name actresses that it had to service all of them one way or another, and that contributed to things feeling like they were going to fly apart at any given moment. By paring down the number of characters, the show will hopefully have more time to let everything from the story to the character arcs to the homegrown wackiness breathe.
- As always, a reminder that I am apparently very much in the minority on this season if outside critical reaction, ratings, and comments sections at other websites are any indication. And that is more than fine! Like what you like! But if you try to argue with me that this season was somehow better than Asylum, you need to accept that your opinions are bad, and you should feel bad.