By Drew Taylor | The Playlist October 10, 2013 at 11:01AM
"American Horror Story: Coven," Episode 1, "Bitchcraft"
One of the things that has made the entire "American Horror Story" enterprise so exciting has been the promise of seemingly endless variety. Not only is each season in the spook-filled series a different beast altogether (supposedly one of the ways that co-creator Ryan Murphy got the series greenlit was his pitch to FX that promised at the conclusion of the first season's haunted house arc, "the house wins"), but each moment can play like its own self-contained genre exercise. Witness last season's exemplary "American Horror Story: Asylum," whose horrors included (but were not limited to) demonic possession, Nazi experimentation, alien abduction, and questionable Boston accents. From scene to scene, the tone can shift from slapstick comedy to psychological terror to Grand Guignol horror to high camp to heartfelt melodrama. Which brings us to season three of "American Horror Story," appropriately entitled "Coven."
If you're thinking, bah, witches?!? You're probably not alone. There were witches on "True Blood" not that long ago, and that failed "Witches of Eastwick" series on ABC that aired, ever-so-briefly last season (there's a similarly-titled "Witches of East End" on Lifetime this year, which we imagine is some kind of BBC co-production, or at least should be with that name). But it's hard to fault "American Horror Story" and co-creators Murphy and Brad Falchuk for digging into witches; after all, the Salem witch trials (and their tragic aftermath) are a truly American horror story. Plus, the idea of witches nicely aligns with the series' feminist underpinnings and interest in stories of the oppressed.
One of the drags of the series' variety, of course, is that the first episode of each season has to act like a little pilot, introducing the scenario and new cast of characters all over again (the cast, known informally as "The 'American Horror Story' Players" stays largely unchanged). And this season's introduction is a doozy. The setting is New Orleans, 1834, in the house of real-life historical figure Delphine LaLaurie, a woman of means who had a bad habit of torturing and murdering her slaves. In "American Horror Story: Coven," of course, the legend has been given a wildly over-the-top treatment, with LaLaurie played by Kathy Bates, who relishes every gumbo–ladling syllable of her dialogue. In the opening sequence, LaLaurie gets the impression that her sexy daughter is having an affair with one of the "house boys" (director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, a key member of the 'AHS' creative team, represents their secret love affair in a series of ingeniously old timey iris-ins).
As punishment for their tryst, LaLaurie ties up the boy in her chamber of horrors (slaves have their eyes gouged out and some have their lips sewn shut). While her daughter watches, LaLaurie places a hollowed-out cow's head on top of the boy's own, turning him into a grotesque minotaur. "My great literacy began with Greek mythology," Bates coos, admiring her work. Cue creepy new credits by Kyle Cooper and his company Prologue, a sequence that maintains the scratchy aesthetic from earlier seasons but adds a welcome dose of earthy paganism.
As far as microphone-dropping intros, it doesn't get much better than this. Not only does it fly in the face of general good taste, but it does so in the face of an acute awareness and sensitivity about slavery, especially following both "Django Unchained" and this month's "12 Years a Slave." Like everything else in this twisted alternate universe, it's a serious historical subject treated like a particularly lurid EC Comics funny book. And you know what? That's okay.
The show then flashes forward to the present. We watch a young couple sneak away for a romantic episode. We can't see the girl's face, but when she turns around, we recognize her: it's Taissa Farmiga, the young actress whose Romeo and Juliet-style doomed romance with an emo ghost was the emotional anchor for the first season of "American Horror Story," here playing a young witch named Zoe. When she turns around and looks into the camera, she might as well have winked. "It's a cliché, but like all clichés, it's the truth," her voiceover narration goes.
While engaged in sexual congress, Zoe unwittingly unleashes her powers: blood starts pouring out of her partner's eyes and mouth. The kid dies, and her mother tries to console her: "Your great grandmother had the same affliction." Zoe is shipped off to Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, a kind of Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, except all witches. It's here that she meets her fellow young witches: Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), who says she's a "human voodoo doll"; Emma Roberts as Madison Montgomery, a young starlet with Carrie-style telekinetic powers; and Nan (Jamie Brewer), a young woman with powers of precognition. Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson), a kindly witch, runs the school and teaches the girls how to temper their powers, especially since they regularly suffer from persecution (before the season properly begins, it's revealed that a young woman with the powers of resurrection, played by Lily Rabe, was murdered nearby).
But not everyone sees it that way. We cut to Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange), the "Supreme" witch, who is in Los Angeles talking to some kind of scientist about an injection process that can keep her young. "You can't smoke in here," the scientist warns, while smoke curls out of Lange's upturned mouth. After a series of injections, Lange can't feel the difference, and in a dizzying callback to last season's "Name Game" sequence, Lange snorts coke and flails around to Iron Butterfly's "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vita." When the scientist says that he's leaving the company, she gives him the kiss of death, and sucks the life out of him. In the episode's best special effect, Lange temporarily looks younger. Of course, that fades too.
But of course all of this is just window dressing for the episode's centerpiece: a party that Zoe and Madison attend in the company of a bunch of frat guys (led by Evan Peters, an "American Horror Story" stalwart and heartthrob, as Kyle). Kyle warns the frat guys not to get into trouble, but one particularly aggressive member seems hell bent on breaking the rules. This aggressive frat member slips something into Madison's drink (not unlike Lavreau! Parallels people!) and rapes her. The rape is truly vicious and, as is sometimes the case in "American Horror Story," the non-supernatural stuff that people do to each other is the most scary, fucked up stuff.
Zoe and Kyle flirt and discover what is going on. Kyle stops it and gets everybody back on their party bus. Peters, who was saddled with a super awful Boston accent last season that seemed to come and go with the velocity and impact of a Nor'easter, this time rocks a Cajun accent that is just as iffy. Next season we hope he has a British accent. Or something. Anyway, Madison staggers into the street just as the bus is departing, and in a staggering, 360-degree shot, Madison makes the bus crash, sending it somersaulting through the air. It's a shocking moment and beautifully staged, speaking to the very heart of the show's thematic concerns about female empowerment.
Fiona returns to Los Angeles and shows the new recruits, dressed all in black, the house where LaLaurie did her business (before that she gets to snarl at Madison: "The world's not going to miss a bunch of assholes in Ed Hardy T-shirts"). Cue more super gory flashbacks and old timey film processing. But instead of being horrified the girls are intrigued; like Fiona, LaLaurie thought that the blood from the slaves would keep her eternally young. Fiona tells the girls that Marie Lavreau, another real life historical and supposed voodoo queen, slipped the slave torturer a magical Mickey under the pretenses of a youth serum, ultimately killing LaLaurie (Bates' death scene is great). LaLaurie had been responsible for the murder of Lavreau's lover, so Lavreau took revenge. Pretty delicious.
There's a sequence set in the attic torture chamber that is emblematic of the difference between "American Horror Story" and everything else on television. In the normal human world, where most television, for better or worse, takes place, Bassett would take the horse head off of her mutilated lover before caressing him. (Yes! He's the minotaur!) But in "American Horror Story"-land, she takes the horse head itself in her arms, its frayed edges still dangling with moist gore. It's a gorgeous, surreal image, and one that could have only been conjured forth from this show.
Zoe sneaks into the hospital where Madison's rapist has miraculously survived the bus crash. She reaches into his gown and gets him hard, eventually straddling him. As she rocks back and forth atop his unconscious body, decked all in black in her witchy gear, blood starts to gush out of his eyes and mouth. He wakes up as he drowns in his own wet blood. Icky.
In the closing moments of the episode, Fiona uncovers a coffin. Is this a vampire? A warlock? We didn't even talk about Denis O'Hare, who plays the weirdo butler who Madison mockingly refers to as "Jeeves," and maybe that's where he sleeps. But no. It's actually LaLaurie. She's been chained up and seems to be wearing some kind of magical ring. Lange, of course, gets the last (and best) line of the episode. As Bates is freed, she grumbles, "Come on Mary Todd Lincoln, I'll buy you a drink." Welcome to "American Horror Story: Coven," everybody!
While this season doesn't seem as immediately impressive as last year's "American Horror Story: Asylum," it does seem lighter and more quick on its feet, something that the leaden, oppressively bleak second season could have used. It's still scary and horrific but it looks like the star-crossed lovers element of the first season will be revived, as the girls decide to make "the perfect boy" out of bits and pieces of the slaughtered frat boys (at least according to the glimpses of future episodes seen at the tail end of this one). It's honestly too early to tell. But as an opening salvo, the first episode of "American Horror Story: Coven" is positively bewitching. [A-]