Next week marks the winter finale for "American Horror Story: Coven," which means that the creative team behind the series will undoubtedly be throwing everything into an episode that will largely be defined by outrageous twists and jaw-dropping cliffhangers. (The show will resume two weeks later for the final four episodes of the season.) For that very reason alone, it was nice that this week's episode, "The Sacred Taking" (written by series co-creator Ryan Murphy and directed by MVP Alfonso Gomez-Rejon), was more of a slow burn episode, one in which we were allowed to simply luxuriate in the awesomeness of these amazing women. A week after Thanksgiving, we have to give thanks to these ladies.
Unlike most episodes, this week started in the here and now, with an amazing, whirligig crane shot that followed Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) visiting some kind of homeless community under one of New Orleans' hulking concrete overpasses. She begins to get harassed by a bum, and she starts using her human voodoo powers, until Madison (Emma Roberts) and Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) show up. They want her back in the coven, but she's staying put with the voodoo queens of Cornrow City. Queenie then murders the bum, something that her fellow witches can't believe, since the man was by all accounts an innocent victim. Not so says Queenie. He's a rapist. "Marie Laveau needs a dark heart," Queenie explains while rooting around in the bum's chest cavity. "Voodoo, witchcraft—this town ain't big enough for the two of us. War is coming. And you're gonna lose." Eep!
Back at the school (by the way, when was the last time anyone was taught anything? Or went to class? When are they going to learn about potions?), Fiona (Jessica Lange) is bemoaning her sickness. We see her throwing up, and tossing in her bed. The feeling, she explains is "as if I had been dipped in the river Styx." We then transition to a postcoital sequence with her in bed with the Axeman. "I'll stay alive, just to spite them," she purrs.
And, as if the show was sensing that it was running low on fucked up mother/son relationships after Mare Winningham jerked off her undead son, we're treated to something that might be even worse: the super-Christian next door neighbor Joan (Patti LuPone) is administering a chemical enema to her son Luke (Alexander Dreymon). "Run clean from the inside out," she says, as the camera mercifully pulls back. Gross.
At the witch house everyone is wondering where the staff is, since Zoe murdered Spalding (Denis O'Hare) and Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) has been taken hostage by Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett). There are a number of jokes to that effect in this episode and they're all pretty funny. This time Zoe goes to answer the door, only to be greeted by Misty. She tells Zoe that, "I tried to disappear into nature, but I have been found." We're then treated to flashback involving an earth-covered Myrtle Snow (Francis Conroy): "There's a man with a gun circling the shack." Apparently Hank (Josh Hamilton) or the organization Hank is working for (a shadowy group Ryan Murphy has referred to as The Corporation) assaulted Misty's magic shack. So she fled to the school, along with Myrtle, who is hiding out in the school's all-purpose greenhouse/armory. There's a great moment when Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) touches Misty and sees her getting burned at the stake, but an even more shocking announcement comes next, when Myrtle suggests that Misty is the next Supreme.
There's some boring nonsense with Kyle, which is proof positive that this character is kind of dead weight, even after last episode's whacked-out threesome. Now the two young witches are bickering about him, with Zoe longing for physical contact with someone she won't accidentally murder and Madison looking to feel anything after her resurrection.
Downstairs the coven has convened. Cordelia explains that being the Supreme is "not a gift—it's a burden." And then Myrtle explains The Sacred Taking, a ritual that involves the old Supreme taking her own life for the good of the coven. The actual ritual is kind of hazily described but it was visualized in amazing, old-time-y black-and-white, and segues to Madison trying to "push" Fiona to kill herself, complete with the young witch dancing around in one of Fiona's old dresses… to "Season of the Witch," no less. "You will die the same way you live your life: alone and disappointed by everyone," Madison says, tossing her a bottle of pills.
One of the most powerful moments of the episode is contained in this sequence, too, as Fiona has a vision of the Axeman leaving her on her deathbed, disgusted by her deteriorating health and the smells that infest the room. Nan (Jamie Brewer), meanwhile, goes next door to rescue Luke (she's tipped off by his psychic screams). Fiona tells Myrtle: "Don't let them store me in the basement with that disgraced Russian witch." Not sure who she's referring to here but maybe we'll find out? She takes the pills. She lies down. Myrtle steals her jewelry. "Wake up," Spalding says.
When we return from the commercial break, a newly ghostly Spalding says: "You're making a martyr of yourself. I won't permit it." After he helps her vomit up her pills, and informs her that young Zoe murdered him, Fiona turns cold blooded: "I'll avenge your murder. Right after I avenge my own."
Over at Cornrow City, Delphine is locked up. Queenie comes and visits her. "All they ever do is bleed me." Queenie and, amazingly, the audience, start to feel bad for her imprisonment. "What'd I ever do to deserve this betrayal? You put me in here, you can get me out," Delphine pleads. After Delphine begs Marie to put her back in the ground (again citing Obama), and mocks her since she can never really die, Marie shoots back, "The mistake you make is from a lack of imagination." Then Marie cuts her hand off.
Next door to the witch house, the Corporation's witch hunters gun down Joan and Luke in front of Nan, presumably. Apparently the witches don't hear the gunfire because Misty is squirming in her seat as they talk about what it's like to become the Supreme. When Fiona makes her regal return, she asks to see "this gifted little swamp witch everyone's been talking about." When the camera pans down to where Misty had been sitting, she's gone. Misty has joined the active crime scene alongside actual law enforcement officials. When she tries to revive Joan, though, something goes wrong and she falls to the floor. The witches realize that someone is hunting them.
Of course, bloodshed is no match for a teenage love triangle, so we finally get Kyle (Evan Peters) speaking! Alone with Zoe, he says, "I want you." To which she replies: "I want you too." The camera pans over to see Madison crying. Downstairs, Fiona says that she is actually proud of Cordelia for trying to stage a coup. It's a lovely little scene and evocative of the episode as a whole: unafraid to plumb emotional depths and allow the action to pause, if only for a moment. Cordelia is resolute: she's not going to let this coven be town apart, my internal or external forces. The bullets that riddled Joan and Luke's bodies (whether or not they're dead remains to be seen) were "blessed," indicating "witch hunters." "We need you now, Fiona. More than ever," Cordelia says. An easy bond seems to have been formed.
There's then another knock at the door, which in "American Horror Story" land is never a good thing. Cue another joke about how the house's staff has all vanished. Fiona goes to answer the door (her head scarf is fabulous). There's a plain cardboard box there. She picks it up and brings it into the dining room. She places it on the table and opens it up: it's Delphine's severed head. "Help me," she croaks. It's a pretty great gag and one that packs a certain amount of gross out punch, but Murphy is so eager to show the world how clever and sick he is that he let the cover of Entertainment Weekly ruin this ending on its front cover a few weeks ago.
Overall, though, it's hard to fault the episode for an ending we had already seen coming (at least for those of us who still get Entertainment Weekly). As an episode it was a solid hour, mostly for the fine performances and ornate direction by Gomez-Rejon, whose work continues to be unparalleled. It's nice that the show let us breathe before the nonstop insanity that begins next week with the Tim Minear-penned "Head." This might have been a smaller episode, but it doesn't mean it isn't any less powerful. [A]