Many of the critics of "American Horror Story: Coven" claim that its rococo stylization is both unnecessary and over-the-top. Last night's episode, "The Replacements," certainly won't silence those critics, although it might prove that, at the very least, when the show's runaway outrageousness is corralled by someone like director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, it can be both purposeful on a narrative level and powerful on an emotional one. This was, after all, an hour of the show when a teenage girl masturbated in front of a cow-headed monster. What's more shocking than the moment itself was that it turned out to be the emotional center of the entire hour. Now that's messed up.
The pre-credits teaser started with a camera that floated up above Fiona's bed and then down the hall. The fisheye lens was so wide that it seemed to wrap around time itself, and soon enough we were back in New Orleans, 1971. Fiona, much younger and no longer Jessica Lange, is having a conversation with the past Supreme witch, Anna Lee. Apparently in 'Coven's' supernatural bylaws, a "true born heir to the Supremacy" is a witch who can master the Seven Wonders. Young Fiona seems to be exhibiting these abilities. "They say when a new Supreme begins to flower the old Supreme begins to fade," young Fiona purrs. Then slashes Anna Lee's throat. Credits roll. It's good to be back!
When we return, Fiona, in the present, is lamenting the fact that she used to be a constant sex magnet, but is now being passed up. Gomez-Rejon's roving camera is practically gobbling her up. "It's a dance no one ever had to teach me. It's my dance and I have performed it with finesse and abandon," Fiona explains. "And I never suspected that the time would come when the dance would end." Could this be the end of Fiona's Supremacy?
The next scene is Fiona in the office of a plastic surgeon, begging a surgeon to start his dirty work. "I want to know how the sausage is made," she says. (Mercifully, we don't have to watch.) Meanwhile, another fucked up mother, this time Kyle's suffering mom (played by Mare Winningham), is talking to Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) about what happened. Kyle's mom tells Zoe that she was about to hang herself before Zoe called; Zoe tries to comfort her, saying: "You'll see him again…" The ellipses are all hers.
The other students at Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Witches are eyeballing the sexy new neighbor Luke (Alexander Dreymon) whose prudish mother (Patty LuPone) yells at him to put on his shirt and keep his glistening abs out of the sight of a Downs Syndrome-affected psychic, a human voodoo doll and whatever the hell Madison is. After a brief sequence with Misty (Lily Rabe), complete with another Fleetwood Mac reference, where Zoe is reunited with a mostly healed Kyle, the girls go next door to meet the new neighbors. "What do you expect to get in that dress?" Nan asks. "Laid," Madison snaps back. Zack's mom asks the girls to leave, which sets off Madison, first hurling a knife at the sanctimonious woman and then setting a fire with her mind (a trick even she didn't know she could pull off).
If you weren't getting the sinking suspicion that Madison was the heir apparent to the Supremacy, then the next sequence solidified it, crosscutting between two women in doctor's offices, Fiona with her plastic surgeon and Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) with her fertility doctor, and in both cases the doctors are telling the women something that they don't want to hear. With Cordelia, the doctor says, "You can't have a baby. I wish I had a magic wand I could wave." While on the Fiona side of things, surgery seems out of the question because, in short, she's dying. "Your immune system seems to be in some kind of freefall," Fiona's doctor states gravely. Fiona seems to understand what's happening to her in the next scene, when Luke's mom comes over to lecture her on her quarrelsome students. She runs down a list of things Madison did when she came over, and Fiona lingers on one in particular… "Arson?"
If we have to award one sequence in the episode to being the most fucked up, it was, oddly enough, a scene between Kyle and his mother. After looking at him in the shower and noticing that it was "his" body, she gets into bed with him, first kissing the not-quite-right-Kyle on the lips and then reaching underneath the sheets to jerk him off. While it's too early in the season to tell, this could be an unforgettably outrageous moment on par with Dylan McDermott suckling the breast of a pregnant hooker in last year's "American Horror Story: Asylum." Him pulling away from her breast with a gooey string of milk webbing from his mouth, was an image that was impossible to un-see. The same level of ickiness applied here.
Back at Cornrow City, Cordelia has asked for an audience with the Queen: Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), who is sitting atop a throne of bones, playing solitaire on her iPad. "You want a Coca-Cola?" she asks, without looking up. Cordelia explains that she wants Marie's fertility spell, and Marie happily explains the process, which involves, among other things, a live goat getting slaughtered and "two ounces of your husband's baby gravy in a mason jar" (said gravy soon begins to bubble and hop like the pink slime from "Ghostbusters II"). The sequence, in perfect 'American Horror Story' fashion, is both horrifying and strangely sexy, particularly when Paulson pulls up her dress, revealing lacy underwear, and spreads her leg to welcome an arterial spray of warm goat blood. Of course, this little fantasy comes to an end when Marie tells Cordelia that she's unable to do the ceremony because, "You're the daughter of my sworn enemy." Also we're pretty sure Cordelia's credit rating isn't that great, and Marie wanted $50,000.
We're next treated to some scenes of Fiona and Madison bonding/testing the waters. "Have you always known you were special?" Fiona asks. She starts encouraging Madison to test her powers, like by making a man wander into the middle of the street using her mind. Like the show, the sequence trades on a kind of playful malevolence and Lange, who often gets applauded for her big solo sequences, where the actresses is asked to give a lengthy monologue or, say, sing "The Name Game." But here, as in her scenes with Bassett in the last episode, prove that Lange is actually best when she has someone to bounce off of, even someone less than half her age.
One of the more interesting aspects of last night's episode is the weird bonding that Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) and Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe). Earlier Delphine sat in front of the television crying over the election of Barack Obama. Now she's being ordered around by Queenie, a young African American woman. Times really do change. LaLaurie being turned into a maid continues co-creator Ryan Murphy's obsession with murderous maids, as well as forwarding the season's thematic concerns. If you're different, the show seems to be saying, then you're at least a little witchy (or at least identify with those witchy persons). Queenie goes outside to battle the Minotaur. "She told me what you did to her daughter. You wanted love and that makes you a beast," Queenie says, somewhat haunted. "I wanted that too. We both deserve love…. Don't you want to love me?" Then she starts masturbating and the Minotaur monster fucks her. Or something.
In one of the more shocking moments of the season (at least for the next ten minutes), Kyle is confronted by his mom and, still no more than a loose connection of live wire synapses, promptly bludgeons his mother to death using an old high school trophy (insert "trophy wife" joke here). Blood dots Kyle's face and Zoe doesn’t discover it until later in the episode, obviously horrified. This season seems really concerned with the relationships between mothers and their children, primarily Fiona and Cordelia, although certainly Kyle and his gonzo mother have taken center stage, at least for this episode.
But really the episode was all about the stuff in the back half between Madison and Fiona. At one point they end up at a bar and, as some bar goon passes her path, Fiona envisions Madison as a younger version of herself. That's when she dumps out her drink and decides to do something about Madison. After telling her that she'll be the next Supreme (and that she's dying), Fiona hands her the same knife that he used to off the Supreme before her, she demands "Kill me the for the sake of the coven!" Even though Fiona has no intention of dying that night. She just wants to give herself pretext for the knife and how Madison will meet her untimely maker, once again via a slash to the neck.
Madison's death is shocking, for sure, but maybe not as unexpected as they would have liked. Also, since Emma Roberts is credited as a series regular, our guess is that she will be back very soon, probably as a horrible zombie or maybe a really snuggly werewolf. Denis O'Hare's tongue less butler Spalding looks on, as gone starts to spill out on the floor. "This coven doesn't need a new Supreme. It needs a new rug," Lange grumbles. She is unsure about what the fallout will be from her little murder jag. We're unsure too. [A-]