“There are no more shadows.”
A spell of darkness, black comedy and torture porn is looming over the newest season of the controversial and much anticipated third season of American Horror Story and it is an intriguing, entertaining mess. With another chapter in America’s horror history book of stories comes what is possibly its most tacky story yet. Set with a star-studded cast led by a powerhouse of elite female actors, Coven happens to be a craft of conflicting enjoyment and twisted camp. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk pen the premiere amply titled, “Bitchcraft” and unlike its first two seasons, it doesn’t impress in the same way that one might think. Some of the saving graces come from certain actresses, but while the first episode moves at a rather rapid pace, the plot fails to do anything exceptional with the story that hooks the viewer undeniably. That said, this one acts as a pilot that lays the pavement for some killer potential. The bitches--ahem--the witches come together in spectacular fashion, sure but only to push forward needed exposition before all of the real horror and New Orleans wickedness comes to a climax. So what does keep this horrific spell from being totally dismissed as a clashing hyper sexualized, hyper violent background noise series? Quite a surprising bit actually…
From the very first frame, Coven’s very atmosphere is of dark and twisted camp and impending violent imagery. Most of what occurs in the cold opening of the premiere sets the stage of the expected sadism and terror AHS has delivered in the past; however, some might argue that this season, the gruesome and ghastly aspects of the series is heightened in a way. Kathy Bates portrays the infamous Delphine LaLaurie, in New Orleans around the 19th century and it’s clear that she is this season’s considerable big terrifying bad. She’s wild-eyed, erratic and tortures her house slaves. In the opening we witness her previous work, but none stand to the devilishness of her latest torturous creation as she attaches a bull’s head to a slave that laid with one of her daughters. Her own minotaur, she elates! Let’s not forget her obsession with using her slave’s pancreas and blood as some sort of youth elixir. Yes, this is quite the new sinister gem of a character AHS has created based of a real New Orleans socialite sadist.
From there, we meet Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) a girl who finds out of her extraordinary power in the worst way possible, especially for a young woman: ending up killing her boyfriend in mid-coitus by giving him a brain aneurysm. The deadly sexual element seems to vaguely speak on aspects of feminine power, but here it’s a little hard to tell what the series wants us to take seriously and what it is just doing for mere black comedy. Or maybe it’s doing both? Take it however you want. Zoe is sent off to a boarding school for exceptional ladies, where her three fellow classmates give her sort of a cliché initiation, followed by a little history lesson from headmistress Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson). The headmistress is all about keeping these special ladies of whom are dwindling, in the shadows. A little cautionary tale of a local witch, named Misty Day (Lily Rabe) who was burned at the stake not even a month before. It just echoes the troubling times of the Salem witch trials, forcing Cordelia to keep these girls in the cover of darkness. Not only that, but the theme also echoes of a time in which women as a whole were prosecuted just for being, well…women.
But there is another half--a more rebellious half to this notion. A half that aches to fight back against the ignorance that is perpetrating them and it comes when we meet the Supreme: Fiona Goode played by none other than the always stellar Jessica Lange. Yes, she chews up the set as usual, but more so here than her previous roles in the series. God forbid the day when Lange decides to split from the series because time and time again she proves to be the most vital piece to this chaotic horror piece. Fiona’s introduction takes up a considerable amount of time and rightly so. It’s clear that Fiona’ struggle involves her search for a Fountain of Youth substitute and she will stop at nothing to acquire it. She isn’t going into the ground without an earth-shattering fight. Being a Supreme, her powers are all encompassing. Yes, Fiona is the baddest witch! But are you surprised. Cordelia just so happens to be Fiona’s daughter and from their interaction and separate wants, one right of the bat notices their strained relationship (cue the mother-daughter theme). Unlike her daughter, Fiona wants to fight back. She notices the lack of shadows there is to hide in now. So why should these exceptional ladies cover in shame. Fiona is all about feminine strength and power, she has a hedonistic quality to her that is electric and magnetic. Who better to encourage these girls than her?
The foursome of young witches we have also includes Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts) an infamous movie star with the power of telekinesis. There is also Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) a human voodoo doll, which is my personal favorite of the bunch. And lastly, Nan (Jamie Brewer) who is exceptionally clairvoyant. The expositional, yet rather entertaining dinner table sequence delightfully reveals some small tidbits concerning each of these characters and one must admit that these four girls have a wicked chemistry that will only continue to grow more enjoyable as their scenes together transpire. When things get nasty as they do at the climactic frat party when one of the girls are sexually assaulted, the feminine themes of unity and strength come at us full-throttle. But of course, we get the reunion of Tate and Violet--Zoe and Kyle (Evan Peters). We already know where this story will go--somewhere dark, twisted and disturbingly romantic. It’s a stressful, angering, and harrowing sequence this frat party scene and it’s not done tastefully--triggering subjects of rape and retaliation can never be--but as exploitative as it is, it certainly begins to dig deeper into the sometimes ugly themes this series will get into…
There are hints of something more complex and pivotal under all this camp and torture and it comes through just barely with small moments of dialogue or images and even how two characters interact with one another for a mere second. Touches on race, slavery, youth, mother-daughter relationships, and female unity & strength. But what this premiere does is cast an atmospheric spell more than anything. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it still needs to dig a little deeper. Of course Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett are the best assets to the series thus far. These three will be the V.P.’s of the season for sure, but we might find ourselves surprised by what the others can do. Emma Roberts’ character has already surprised in a few small ways (that bus flip was awesome!) and there is only a matter of time before the other young girls shine as well, hopefully sooner than later.
As we find out with an expositional tour around the French Quarter, the history involving Delphine LaLaurie comes to a climax with more needed flashbacks that involves voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) who apparently poisoned LaLaurie by indulging her need to have perfect, youthful skin after she defiled Laveau’s lover. But as we soon discover LaLaurie’s horrific escapades are far from over when Fiona unearths the socialite devil. This isn’t Hogwarts for girls anymore. Fiona Goode takes hold of the sloppy boarding school and pulls it into its proper darkness. The twisted fun is only just beginning! Coven has the potential to be the best American Horror Story yet as made very evident by this premiere. There is no doubt that the first hour is only an appetizer of a full course meal brewed up by only the most exceptional witches! Once these shadows are cleared and out of the way, these witches will be free to shine and so will this series! For all of its entertaining, clever, witty, tacky, campy terror and enthralling potential Coven’s pilot, “Bitchcraft” receives 4 out of 5 stars!
Don’t forget to subscribe and leave a comment!
© Patrick Broadnax 2013