WARNING: “Spoil what thou wilt,” shall be the whole of the law.
American Horror Story is most definitely an acquired taste. But, much like raw oysters, caviar, unsweetened espresso or collecting every known YouTube parody of the bunker scene in Downfall (What? Why are you looking at me like that?), it’s one that promises rich, complex and periodically peculiar delights to those who have learned to embrace it.
In seasons past, viewers have been treated to ghosts, spree-killing teens, famous murders and Frankenbabies in a So Cal Murder House and serial killers, mad doctors, demons, angels, sadistic nuns, Nazis, aliens, insanity and a home improvement center’s worth of kitchen sinks in a Catholic-run, Boston mental asylum.
A rather full horror trope dance card, one would think.
Yet, the weirdly inspired minds behind AHS: Coven Edition have managed to pencil in more freakishness still with this season’s tale of witchcraft, Voodoo, murder, torture, homicidal teen sex, antebellum anti-aging treatments and the promise of enough scenic New Orleans location shots to make the Travel Channel seethe with envy.
Faster than you can say, “Laissez les bon temps rouler,” we are are transported to the tastefully appointed French Quarter parlor of Dixie doyenne, Mme. Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates, looking like Queen Victoria’s evil fairy godmother) as she holds court for a coterie of Southern gents vying for the hands – or any other proffered body parts – of her three daughters. The evening does not go quite as planned when one of said daughters puts the make on the enslaved help, forcing Delphine to interrupt her quiet evening of moisturizing with her Elizabeth Bathory line of sanguinary skin care products to lay down the law and haul the terrified, guiltless slave “upstairs.”
Upstairs is to the LaLaurie abode kind of what the cornfield is to the Twilight Zone. But nothing about the fates of these condemned is left to the imagination. We’re given an almost funhouse mirror-like guided tour of Delphine’s chamber of horrors, filled with caged, chained and shackled slaves, tortured and mutilated in an array of nightmarish ways. With almost childlike glee, she puts the finishing touch on her latest victim, ordering his badly beaten head to be crowned with that of an all-too freshly dead bull, then dubbing him her very own Minotaur.
Back in the present, wide-eyed teen waif, Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga, seen ghosting it up two years ago on American Horror Story: We Had No Subtitle That Season) gets unwillingly packed off to Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies for the typical teen mishap of liquifying her boyfriend’s brains with her va-jay-jay. Or, at least, it’s typical within the witchcraft community. Which actually explains a lot about Darren having to be replaced by a whole new guy halfway through Bewitched. But I digress.
Zoe barely arrives at her new, white-on-white Gone With The McMansion digs before she’s greeted with a psychotic hazing by her three new roomies: Smackable bitch princess and homicidally telekinetic B-movie diva, Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts, Aquamarine, Scream 4), eternally “over this” living Voodoo doll, Queenie (Academy award winner Gabourey Sidibe) and quietly dignified clairvoyant, Nan (Jamie Brewer, familiar to season 1 American Horror Story fans as Jessica Lang’s Murder House-obsessed daughter).
Presiding over all this is kind and reassuring Headmistress Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson, the unsinkable Lana Winters in last season’s American Horror Story: Asylum), who warmly explains the history of Miss Robichaux’s Academy and its now-desperately dwindling student body, while emphasizing the importance of learning to lay low amongst the yokels. And what better example could she give than that of unlucky local gal, Misty Day (three-time AHS alumnus, Lilly Rabe) whose beautiful and selfless power to give life is celebrated by her snake-handling neighbors with a good ol’ fashioned witch burning?
We also get exposited on the important topic of the Supreme, which is neither a citrus slice, a Federal justice or one of Diana Ross’s backup singers, but, rather, an all-powerful superwitch who’s managed to collect the whole set of supernatural ability trading cards, making her the generationally unique big witch on the block. A kind of cappo de witchy capi.
Cue said Supreme, the preternaturally self-possessed Fiona Goode (Jessica Lang, acting like she owns the place ’cause, well, she does) whose little tiff with the head of the youth rejuvenation research team she’s funding leads to gory murder and a magic face lift that only lasts as long as a basic cable TV show’s CGI budget will allow.
The frustration of it all is apparently enough to send Fiona jetting back to the Academy and the not-at-all-waiting arms of her daughter (ten guesses) Cordelia (I knew you’d be surprised), who can’t resist showing her love and affection by mixing mumsy a coma-inducing cocktail. Fiona is just too Goode (hah! I kill me!) to be tricked by that treat, and by the next morning, she’s setting the new ass kicking school curriculum and taking the class on a fashion parade field trip sure to inspire scores of cosplay groups at next year’s ComicCon.
Tucked in between the family reunion and breakfast, Madison drags an indifferent Zoe along with her to a frat party where Zoe meets good humored frat prez, Kyle Spencer (Evan Peters, back again from the great beyonds of both the last seasons), a guy so nice, sensitive, smart, funny and all ’round perfect he almost has a neon “DOOMED” sign flashing over his head. In due course, Madison gets drugged and gang raped by a gang of rapey frat boys, Kyle rescues her from their drunken, dirtbag clutches and gets clocked on the frat bus, Zoe
runs minces hilariously in 5″ heels to try and catch them and Madison pulls herself together long enough to flip the escaping multi-ton bus in the air like an empty, yet amazingly explosive, beer can.
The resultant toll: Seven dead, with two more in the hospital in critical condition. In American Horror Story, this is what’s known as a slow night.
To Zoe’s crushing dismay, neither of the two survivors turns out to be Kyle. Instead, ICU bed #2 is occupied by none other than the scumbag leader of the rapey frat boy pack and Zoe steels herself to honor Kyle’s memory by mounting the kid and humping him ’till his head explodes. Ah, what those crazy kids’ll do for love, huh?
Back on the field trip, Fiona leads her charges to a Katrina-condemned witchy hangout while lecturing them on her motto for living (and, not incidentally, the sledgehammer-subtle metaphor for this season’s “women fighting back against oppression” theme), “When witches don’t fight, we burn.” But before they get to their intended destination, Nan marches off to the beat of a distant docent tour and the coven follows, finding themselves in the museumized LaLaurie manse. A combo plate of docent patter and Nan-eye view flashbacks recount the historical horror show that once played out on the premises daily, climaxing with a graphically icky pancreaectomy on a very live, very unanesthetized, very, very unwilling donor.
Even in the proudly bleak and unfair world of American Horror Story such nastiness demands karmic payback, and it eventually arrives in the majestically turbaned form of Voodoo queen Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett, easily gobbling up the best bits of the scenic buffet) who tricks Delphine into drinking a poisonous mystery potion, then hides her body with Jimmy Hoffa-like thoroughness for the next 180-some years. All to avenge her lover, the hapless, bovine betopped fellow from the pre-credit opener.
With a bit of psychic intel from Nan, Fiona goes errand running, glamoring two random guys to dig up the charming brickwork in an alley garden and haul out a very old, iron chained coffin. After sending them on their mind-wiped way, Fiona breaks the chains and opens the lid to reveal a surprisingly lively, if P.O.’d, Delphine, looking not a minute older than when she was planted during the Van Buren administration.
All in all, a bang-up opening salvo from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. The premiere delivers all the disturbing weirdness and dark humor that we’ve come to expect from an American Horror Story series, only this time with a knowing dose of high camp drizzled like yummy hot caramel on top.
Casting is, of course, key to the fun. Waiting to see which AHS veterans will show up in what roles has become a treat in itself and newcomers to the franchise, like Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett, keep things fresh. Both ladies embrace their loosely historically-based, high octane hellcat roles with mad delight. They’re clearly having a grand old time with the Grand Guignol.
Kudos also to director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon who maintains the off-kilter, hallucinatory mood with skewed camera angles, atmospheric lighting and quirky, old fashioned visual effects, like irises and wipes. He’s aided admirably by great costuming and set design which come together to make American Horror Story: Coven probably the most visually splendid and stylish installment of the series so far. If you haven’t tuned in yet, do yourself a favor and start now. Don’t make me drop a house on you.
For show details and video clips (But no whole episodes! Can you believe it?! Witch, pleeeaaase!), go to http://www.fxnetworks.com/ahs
Got any questions, comments, raves or reservations about the ep? Set a spell and let us know in the Comments.