If there's a downside to the spin-the-wheel, anything goes anthologized approach Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have taken with "American Horror Story," it's that the first episode of each new season has to cover serious ground. That initial episode has to act as a pilot of sorts to the whole new show that will unfold over the course of the season, burdened by lots of exposition and the introduction of a whole host of characters both human and supernatural. Last week's premiere of "American Horror Story: Coven," the show's new iteration, gave us witches, voodoo priestesses, murderous New Orleans socialites, rape, and a young girl who kills people with her vagina. Now that all of that is out of the way, on episode two, things are allowed to get really weird.
It already feels there's a long list in the writer's room of Southern Gothic clichés that must be dutifully attended to. So at the start of episode two, "Boy Parts" (written by Joss Whedon confederate Tim Minear), they get to check off a few more things: misty swampland, alligators sliding into the murky water, and rednecks out on a gator hunt. After two of the reddest rednecks you've ever seen kill a gator, they head back to their camp and find someone waiting for them. At first they worry that it's someone from Fish & Game, but it's much worse: Misty Day (Lily Rabe), who was introduced in the first episode as a cautionary fable (by Sarah Paulson's goodly headmistress Cordelia), a witch who was recently burned at the stake for her powers of resurrection.
Misty has returned as a kind of vengeful spirit of the swamp, and when she touches the alligators, they spring back to life and chomp on these rednecks, all to the tune of Stevie Nicks’ "Edge of Seventeen." As far as pre-credits teasers go, this one was fucking awesome. The return of Misty Day wasn't that much of a surprise, given that Rabe was announced as a series regular long ago and her power explicitly involves returning things from the grave. But the way in which she reappeared was wonderful, and her look, with the tussled hair and raccoon eyes, is a amazing. She's been reborn alright.
Back at Hogwarts, Supreme witch Fiona (Jessica Lange) questions her newly exhumed hostage Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates). Fiona wants to know how she is "alive after all these years and not some moldering corpse." LaLaurie, of course, blames the voodoo princess that put her there. Because it's always the voodoo princess' fault, right guys? We then get a brief flashback ("Detroit – 2012") to the event that led Queenie to be enrolled in witch school (it involves a deep fryer and unsightly boils). In their group discussion, Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) says that she "Grew up on white girl shit" like "Sabrina the Teenage Cracker," but that when she found out that she was a descendant of a house slave in Salem, the first woman to be accused of witchcraft no less, she felt more empowered. Get it gurl.
Suddenly, a pair of detectives enter the house and interrupt the witches' group chat. They want to know what Madison (Emma Roberts) and Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) were doing at the frat party right before a dozen douchebags were turned into fleshy confetti. At first Zoe goes along with it, although Madison quickly shoots that down (great back-and-forth here: “She’s sober.” “Except vodka.”), but as the detectives keep pushing, particularly about Zoe’s little after-hours visit to one of the survivors, Zoe loses it. She reveals everything, including the gang rape and the fact that the two girls are witches. How are they going to get out of this one, you ask? Enter Fiona. She puts the supernatural whammy on the detectives and then throws both of the girls across the room like they were expertly styled rag dolls. She can take the “youthful exuberance” of a frat house massacre but she’s not going to put up with that kind of blatant recklessness. In one of Lange’s best line deliveries of the entire episode, she looks at the girls and snarls, “The only thing you have to be afraid of is me.”
The next scene is a shockingly pedestrian one: Cordelia is in a fertility clinic with her as-yet-unrevealed husband Hank (Josh Hamilton from “Frances Ha”). They are clearly trying to get pregnant, and in this scene the “big conflict” for this season is revealed. If last season was about sanity, and the conflict between the church and science, then this season is about everlasting life and the conflict between witchcraft and science. (This was obviously made very clear with Fiona’s hormone injections in the first episode but honestly we were a bit too woozy with the thrill of having “American Horror Story” back to look too deeply at its thematic underpinnings. Did you see her hair in that scene?!?!) What makes the capper to this scene so powerful is that it’s Hank who wants Cordelia to use magic to help their baby along and not the other way around. Cordelia is always reserved, saying, “This is about life and death … I don’t want to play god.” Which, to anyone who’s ever read a comic book is like a big neon sign saying SHE WILL GO BAD. Cordelia promises to think about it.
After this relatively mundane sequence we’re rewarded with a whole bunch of crazy in the form of a LaLaurie flashback. It seems that after she was poisoned, she wakes up and stumbles out of her house only to see the rest of her family (including the husband she was slowly killing) hung. A mob led by Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) is waiting outside. Since LaLaurie is narrating, Bates gets to hiss stuff like “That evil bitch … ” which adds an even more delicious aura to the sequence. Laveau tells LaLaurie that “Immortality was in that bottle … for your sins, you are damned to live forever.” This is easily filed under “pretty fucking creepy,” but when we jump back to present day, Fiona is staring at her captive eating fried chicken. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she says with a crunch. “Want a bite?”
Zoe and Madison, not heeding Fiona’s advice at fucking all, are next seen pulling up to the morgue, where the victims of their frat bus massacre are loosely arranged into bags, with body parts piled on top of one another. In terms of unforgettable, singularly “American Horror Story”-ish images, this ranks up there with the rubber man. Madison’s idea is that they create the “perfect boyfriend” out of the disparate parts (including, she suggests, whoever has the biggest penis). She has a dark spell that they can use, so the two go about stitching together the parts, which is pretty disturbing and, sadly, the only time in the episode when the show feels a little bit like it’s repeating itself (remember the Infantata from season 1?). But all of this gives way to a wickedly effective scene where they try to conjure life into their Frankensteinian creation. When Zoe asks Madison if she said the words right, which we hope was Minear’s sly reference to “Evil Dead,” she snaps back, “I’ve been acting since I was five, I know my lines.” The conjuring sequence is eerily effective (we loved the strobe lights and the John Carpenter-esque electronic music) but the spell is less so. After it’s over, the newly mismatched Kyle just lies there, motionless. When a cop shows up and Madison splits the scene, Zoe is left alone with the body, finally giving life to the corpse(s) with a magic kiss that awakens Kyle (who promptly attacks the guard). If it’s not one thing it’s another …
The two most essential scenes in the entire episode follow this batshit crazy sequence: The first is when Fiona goes and visits Marie at her hair salon. Fiona wants to know the secret of her immortality spell, or, as she puts it, “They say good black don’t crack.” (Bassett’s reveal is amazing in this sequence. You kind of wanted to eat it up like a really decadent slice of cake.) Marie isn’t giving it up. Fiona taunts her and suggests that she’s brought her arch-nemesis LaLaurie back from the grave. Every syllable between Bassett and Lange follows through on the promise of this season: of watching these amazing actresses go toe-to-toe with outrageously overripe dialogue. The amount of shade thrown is unquantifiable. At the end of the scene, Fiona sets all of Marie’s wigs and weaves on fire. It’s a small gesture, but one that suggests it’s just the beginning for those two. Shit is going to get really hot, really soon. “Maybe in another century you could have two shit hole salons,” Fiona spits and then walks away.
The scene after this one is even more striking: it’s some kind of weird fertility spell that Cordelia and Hank go through. It’s super dark and super hot, with giant reptilian eggs that spill out snakes and some crazy runes painted onto the wood. It’s a button-pushing “American Horror Story” moment for sure, and in a strange way is the supernatural extreme of a couple trying new things and compromising for one another. Cordelia really didn’t want to do the spell but Hank insisted. Now that she did, odds are that she’s going to regret it.
Meanwhile, Misty has shown up in Zoe’s car, telling her that her resurrection spell drew Misty to her. They go back to Misty’s swamp shack, she promises Zoe that she can make Kyle right, then goes on a Tarantino-esque rant about Stevie Nicks, “the white witch.” “She’s the only witch before you I’ve ever known,” Misty coos. Although this scene kind of peters out instead of actually ending. We’ll have more from those crazy kids next time, although it speaks volumes that Zoe is uneasy about leaving Kyle, even in crazy mutant form, with Misty. (There’s some silly fish-out-of-water sequence between Bates and Lange where Bates complains about her house being turned into a museum but it’s not all that relevant.)
The big kicker, of course, is the episode’s end. We watch Marie fuming over what Fiona has done, both in terms of the promise she made and the damage she inflicted on her shop. Suddenly, a creature emerges. It’s the minotaur that LaLaurie turned her lover into oh so many years ago. Except now he’s not a man wearing a bull’s head—this is an honest-to-god monster. “You’ll never guess who’s back,” Marie says, matter-of-factly. “We got some business to attend to.”
There’s a lot of pressure put on these second episodes of “American Horror Story,” just in terms of being able to see if the nuttiness of the premiere can carry over into the actual season. On those terms, “Boy Parts” is a rousing success. There are even more balls in the air and even more secrets left to be revealed that this season could end up being the series’ very best (and did we mention the minotaur?). We’re particularly excited about how the star-crossed lovers dynamic will play out this season between Zoe and Kyle, and of course any scene with the elder witches is pure gold. Plus the thematic groundwork is being laid nicely, although guessing where this show will go week to week is a fool’s errand. Still, we stay spellbound. [B+]