By Drew Taylor | The Playlist November 14, 2013 at 1:12PM
If last week's episode of "American Horror Story: Coven" proved one thing, it's that the tensions between the coven of New Orleans witches and the more soulful practitioners of voodoo are reaching the proverbial boiling point, you know, like in a cauldron. Vengeance was taken for the acid attack on Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) and a small army of zombies (a platoon?) was unleashed on Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies courtesy of Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), an act that resulted in much "Evil Dead" referencing and the potential reveal of our next Supreme, Zoe (Taissa Farmiga). This week's episode, "The Axeman Cometh," deals with the fallout from those events and, in "American Horror Story" terms at least, was altogether quieter. It also showed that the male characters could be just as slippery and evil as the witches.
The episode started, like most, with a flashback. This time it's "New Orleans, 1919," with the introduction of another real-life historical figure: The Axe Man of New Orleans, a notorious serial killer who menaces New Orleans (and the surrounding areas) between May 1918 and October 1919. The sequence is narrated by a real-life letter the Axe Man sent local members of the press, claiming that he would spare those who had a jazz band playing in their home (or jazz on the old timey record player).
Inside the coven, of course, they aren't taking things so seriously. "Why are we going to listen to him?," one witch asks. "Because he kills women with an axe," interjects another witch. Millie (Grace Gummer) who, if not the Supreme, is at least the most outspoken member of this coven, says that, "We are suffragettes … No man can make us cower in our home."
On the night in question, the Axeman (Danny Houston, devilishly in his element) walks down the street, soaking up all the jazz. It's a wonderful tracking shot, one of the more beautiful and subtle moments of the entire season; perfectly atmospheric and spooky. Of course, the Axeman stops at Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, disturbed by the classical music floating from the school and into the street. He sneaks into the house, brandishing his axe, and comes upon Millie, cloaked and looking at some tarot cards. She turns over the "death" card, and as the Axeman draws back to deliver his fateful blow, a number of the witches emerge from the shadows, stabbing him repeatedly (kudos, by the way, to the special effects team; that initial geyser of blood was shocking and effective). Millie leans in: "That … was for you."
Back in modern day, Zoe is flipping through the belongings of one Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), a recently vanished pop star. Eventually she uncovers a stack of old photos and documents detailing the house's witchy past inhabitants, as well as a "spirit board," which is clearly what you call a Ouija board if you can't get the rights from Hasbro. Zoe's plan: to use the spirit board to contact Madison and figure out what happened. "From now on, we watch each other's backs," Zoe demands (with shades of Millie). She pours Nan (Jamie Brewer) and Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) shots of absinthe ("drink of the divine") but Queenie is reluctant; she's been told that the board is a game of "contact and release" and that she's had her fill of evil spirits running around thankyouverymuch.
It's kind of amazing, given the speed with which the show cycles through old horror tropes and lovingly embraces spooky clichés, that they haven’t touched on Ouija boards yet. It seems to be poised in that "American Horror Story" sweet spot, perched between ancient spiritualism and modern day fluff, between horror and comedy, between the very scary and the patently absurd. And it's nice when their attempts to contact Madison take an unexpected turn; it's not her they're chatting with, it's the Axeman.
After that we're back in the hospital, and for a moment there's a sensation of disorientation, like maybe Cordelia needed follow-up appointments or something. But no. It's Fiona (Jessica Lange), receiving chemotherapy treatment. This is one of the biggest shocks of the season so far, in a very human, subtle way, which is sort of amazing for a show that is known for its overflowing outrageousness. Up until now we just thought that Fiona was a vain bitch who wanted to hold on to her power and looks for as long as humanly possible, but this scene reveals that she's actually dying. What's more, in her final moments, she has picked up an extra goodie—the ability to read minds. "Maybe it's the medication?" she wonders. She consoles a dying woman and then says that she wants "one more great love affair in my life."
This line packs a punch but it also tips the show's hat. Fiona wants another great love affair at the exact moment that an old timey serial killer shows up? Maybe co-creator Ryan Murphy's claims that the show would feature a star-crossed romance like the first season's Tate/Violet dalliance was a fake-out, especially considering the Kyle storyline seems to be going nowhere fast (more on that in a minute). Maybe the great romance this season will be between two more seasoned characters—Fiona and the Axeman?
Back at Hogwarts, the girls visit a website devoted to the Axe Man of New Orleans (Zoe: "Is there anyone who doesn’t have a fan site?"); they also figure out that it was the witches who ended the Axe Man's reign of terror. Again, we want to pause and give props to the amazing, John Carpenter-esque score. It's a bold choice, but one that has paid off endlessly. The trio ask the Axeman where Madison is. He spells it out on the spirit board: A-T-T-I-C. Emphasis on ick.
Cordelia is also back at home but balking at the choice of flowers in her room. Fiona put some roses in, while she shoots back "I need chrysanthemums" (for their healing powers. Hank (Josh Hamilton) touches Cordelia and again she sees his indiscretions. "Who is the red head?" Cordelia, of course, after the acid attack has found herself with "a different kind of clarity." She turns to Hank and snaps, "You will be accountable for every betrayal." After Hank leaves, Fiona tries to comfort her, saying that her psychic powers are "the greatest gift to have and the hardest one to live with," but when Fiona touches her, Cordelia sees all the witch-burning insanity that closed out last week's episode. "Auntie Myrtle?" Cordelia asks. Fiona tries to explain but it does little good; Cordelia is going to find out sooner or later what really happened.
Elsewhere in witch manor, the girls are interrogating Spalding, who is tied up. "We ask the questions, you think the answers, she reads your mind," they explain, in what turns out to be one of the most delightful sequences in the entire season. Zoe and Queenie ask the questions, and we hear his answers through Nan's psychic powers. The back-and-forth is hilarious and amazing. After he falsely confesses to murdering Madison, they ask him why. He answers: "I am a man of uniquely developed appetites," while Nan just shouts, "Sex!" The witches let him go, as unconvinced as Cordelia is with Fiona. Their reasoning: he's lived his entire life around witches and probably knows how to avoid detection pretty damn well.
Over in the swamp, Misty Day (Lily Rabe) is lording over what is more or less a way more earthy version of Terrain. We first see her watering Myrtle (Francis Conroy), who is buried under a large mound of dirt. "You like my swamp water, don’t you? You have to have patience. It won't be long now," Misty says. Of course, the tranquility of her swamp-side retreat is broken when Franken-Kyle (Evan Peters) shows up, covered in blood. She says that he needs a shower, but the shower triggers memories of his molestation-prone mother, which makes him stomp around and smash Misty's old school 8-track boom box. "You're just a big ole monster … He broke Stevie," Misty cries. But, of course, Zoe shows up, although she's not that interested in Kyle. She turns to Zoe: "I need your help."
And just before the commercial break we get another big ole shockeroo: Hank walks into Cornrow City. He looks up at Marie on the throne and says, "We've got a problem." Say what?
At the witch house, Zoe has Kyle chained up in the shed/apothecary/armory, and is pleading with Misty to help with Madison. When she asks what Misty can do, Misty coyly answers, "I can help you dig a hole." Zoe isn't budging, seemingly reinforcing her Supremacy. "You have the power of resurgence, you have to bring her back." Again she balks (apparently there's "too much death inside her") but then relents. She instructs Zoe to "put your hands on her stomach and push." Eventually, Madison is back. A cockroach crawls out of her mouth, which we hope to god was a special effect, and she immediately moans, "I need a cigarette."
There's been a lot of discussion about how little death means in "American Horror Story: Coven," particularly as a plot device, but it's not that death means less in the show, we think it just means something different. The cosmic shuffle is skewered in this universe. Death isn't the ultimate end-all, be-all; sometimes it's a minor setback, other times little more than an annoyance. We would be more ruffled by the fact that nobody stays six feet under if not for the sheer abundance of amazing characters. Is there anyone you'd really want to see gone for good? That's what we thought.
Back at Cornrow City, a phrase we never get tired of typing, Hank is blaming Marie for Cordelia's new second sight. "You think I did that? I look like the Taliban to you?" Marie purrs back at him. Then she goes on the attack: "I thought I had hired me a professional witch hunter. Six years in that house—and for what?" Oh, now we get it: Hank is a witch hunter, not just some random serial killer like we originally assumed. We are then treated to a brief flashback with Kaylee (Alexnadra Breckenridge), Hank's redheaded victim. Turns out she is a witch with pyro-kinetic abilities (like "Firestarter!") who interviewed at the school after setting an ex-boyfriend on fire. Kaylee turns down Cordelia's offer for enrollment in the school … and winds up in Hank's hotel room. Hank says that he was responsible for killing nine Salem descendents in 3 years. "What we agreed to was that you would clean house, not play house," Marie bristles. "She made you hard and you went soft … You bring me their heads and you burn that place to the ground."
At Hogwart's, Misty is leaving her newly reinvigorated charge to be dealt with by the other witches. Zoe implores her to stay, saying that she knows Misty is looking for her "tribe." "I was and I am … This ain't it," Misty sighs. Back to the swamp she goes, we assume. The witches have bigger problems, though. The Axeman is back, and he thinks that these witches are the same ones who killed him oh so many years ago. He first sneaks up on Cordelia, who is getting changed. Of course, the girls spring into action. The Axeman wants "release." Zoe, again showing her Supreme abilities, finds is drawn to a book on the shelf and starts reciting. She casts him out of the house, only not in the way she imagined: moments later we see him strolling down the street. And whistling.
The episode ends with Fiona at her favorite dive bar, one that you would think she would avoid after it became the scene of her daughter's horrible burning. While she sits at the bar she runs her hand through her hair; looking down at her palm she sees a large clump of her hair has fallen out. She wads it into a ball and sticks it into her pocket. Seemingly on the prowl, a gentleman approaches. "Hello pretty lady," he says. It's the Axeman.
Overall, the episode was refreshing but didn't exactly move the story along in any profound way. Most damningly, the Kyle storyline seems to have reached the end of its rope. There's really nothing more for him to do. Kyle has been more or less MIA for the past couple of episodes and he hasn't been missed (Kathy Bates and Frances Conroy, who sat out this episode out, were). Where his relationship with Zoe is headed is anybody's guess, and at this point it fails to make any kind of sense within the context of the show—both Kyle and Madison were revived by Misty's magic but Madison is just as snarky as ever while Kyle remains some kind of horrible mongoloid. Not that we're asking "American Horror Story" to be providing realism, just consistency. [B-]