Over the past few weeks, "American Horror Story: Coven" has piled on the craziness, to the point that the show occasionally felt overwhelming, like a giant toppling tower of racist, flesh-eating zombies that are also possessed and on fire. Mercifully, this week's episode, "The Dead," written by co-creator Brad Falchuk, gave us time to pause and catch our breath a little bit before the next round of blood-drenched mayhem.
You could tell that the episode was going to be different from the first few moments, a flashback to just before the first episode's cataclysmic bus crash, where affable frat boy Kyle (Evan Peters) discusses the superlatives of cheesy rock band Toto. He and the rest of the now-quite-dead boys are in a tattoo parlor, getting some fresh ink. There's a nice moment when Kyle backs away from getting a tattoo, saying, "My mom would kill me" (a nod to his incestuous mother), after which he explains that he wants to be an engineer, in part to prevent disasters like the levees breaking during Katrina.
We then snap back to the present, with Zombie Kyle searching around his body and finding the tattoos of his fraternity brothers now a part of his own physicality (a four-leaf clover on his arm, some Chinese gibberish on his ankle). It's a wonderful "now you know you're made up of a bunch of different people" visual shorthand. Of course, the kind of ghoulish romanticism is broken when Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) enters the room with a gun, ready to put Zombie Kyle out of his misery.
After the haunting credit sequence, which is just as powerfully spooky as it was in episode one, we're treated to an amazing monologue by Madison (Emma Roberts) about being a "millennial" ("born sometime between the birth of AIDS and 9/11, give or take"). Madison explains that when she was alive she couldn't feel anything, a void that she filled with sex and drugs and loud techno music (okay, maybe not that last part). She described the gang rape that started the season, saying, "Most people never get over that but I was like 'Let's go get Jamba Juice.' " She explains that she has been trying all of Cordelia's potions, trying to feel something, until she finally found something that made her look less like Marilyn Manson. Her new pallor is only slightly less ghostly, but it's a great look, like one of Tim Burton's stop-motion doodles sprung vibrantly to life.
Back in the atrium/tool shed/whatever of Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, Zoe is wearing leather overalls and looking adorable, telling Kyle that he killed his mother and is kind of a monster and really ought to die. Kyle snatches the small handgun from her and puts it in his mouth. She wrestles the gun away from him and starts to cradle her boyfriend/ragdoll, saying, "I don't want you to die."
In the main house, human voodoo doll Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) and immortal racist Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) are dismayed that the house's food supply has been exhausted, thanks to a ravenous Madison (again: searching for something to fill that void). Their solution: go to the drive-thru! Delphine is puzzled by the talking box, but head over heels for the greasy goodness. "This is the most delicious food I have eaten in my entire life," Delphine swoons. She then offers Queenie some witchy words of wisdom about her coven: "They're never going to see you as their sister … Because you're black. Black as coal." Because, of course, whenever the two of them get too chummy and hilarious we have to be reminded that she is a horrible racist.
Upstairs in Hogwarts, Hank calls Cordelia, and we see a brief glimpse of him in some anonymous hotel room with a small arsenal of high-powered weapons laid out in front of him. The message is clear in that small scene: war is coming to Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies. And none of the young ladies are safe. Outside of her room, Cordelia runs into Madison, literally, glimpsing her mother slicing open the young girl's throat. "Fiona … " she gasps.
Finally we return to the union that was teased at the end of last week's episode: murderous Supreme witch Fiona (Jessica Lange) and charismatic serial killer the Axeman (Danny Huston). We get to see his apartment, which presumably he's had since his last kill crazy rampage in 1919. "I wasn't expecting company," he says. "I wasn't expecting Buckingham Palace," she shoots back. While in the bathroom, Fiona tugs on a strand of hair, only to find it in the palm of her hand. And as the camera cranes up and away from her, it's revealed that there's a decomposing body in the base of the shower.
The Axeman tries to seduce her, but she initially resists. "I'm a wretched human being. I've had three husbands," Fiona says desperately, in a rare moment of vulnerability, even though the only thing we could think was please god let us get flashbacks to those three husbands, or at least whichever one was Cordelia's father. "I've destroyed every relationship I've ever had," Fiona continues, including the one with her daughter. But the Axeman, whose very voice seems to be made of large sheets of velvet, promises "old fashioned great sex" and the two get it on, intercut with his jazz sax playing with every light in the crummy apartment exploding into glittery shards.
While Zoe is trying to get Zombie Kyle to communicate, Madison pads in and says that Cordelia needs to speak to her. Looking down at Kyle, Madison squeaks, "Jesus—who's this?" Apparently there is some kind of missing time or slight amnesia or something; she knows Kyle. Not only was she responsible for, you know, killing him, but she assisted Zoe in bringing him back to life. Madison inspects his body, noticing that she gave him, "all the best parts." Then, a brief moment of emotionality: "I didn't see a light. Did you?"
Over at Cornrow City, where you can get both a spell to turn your cheating husband inside out and the best extensions this side of Atlanta, Georgia, Queenie is lurking. "You gonna stand at the door all day Queenie?" asks Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett, clearly this season's MVP). In an amazing single shot that winds all the way through Cornrow City and out to the back, where Marie is cooking up her Sunday gumbo, the voodoo queen tells Queenie that the witches she's staying with are "the worst." She says that if she brings Delphine back to her, that she will have a home with the voodoo enchantresses of Cornrow City. "Voodoo doll belong in a house of voodoo," Marie coos. Still, Queenie has obviously formed some kind of bizarre attachment to the racist. "What will you do with her?" She asks, which raises an interesting question: if she can't die, what will Marie do to her? Besides torture the shit out of her, of course.
Meanwhile, Cordelia is quizzing her own young witch about her powers. Apparently her ability to both conjure the Axeman and send him packing means, at least to Cordelia, that she is a "hot shit witch." Cordelia knows that Fiona killed Madison, which means trouble for Zoe. In one of the night's very best lines, Cordelia warned, "My mother killed her because she thought she was the next leader of our coven. If she even thinks you're next … you're next." Cordelia's solution? "We're going to kill my mother. Kill her once, kill her good, kill her dead," she says, defiantly, her dead eyes significantly upping the spookiness. As Zoe walks back to her room in a gauzy trance, she walks in on something even more horrifying: Zombie Kyle humping Madison.
In the Axeman's love nest, the amorous affections are wearing off. "That dead body is going to put off noxious odors soon," Fiona spits. But the Axeman has a secret to share. An amazing fucking secret. "I've been watching over you since you were 8 years old," the Axeman explains. We then get to see a very young Fiona at the school, traumatized by an older girl, who is spilling all of the young girls' milk glasses with her powers. Fiona's glass holds firm, and when the older girl challenges her, Fiona throws the milk at her. The older girl fights back but then a large bookcase falls on her. It turns out, that was the Axeman's ghost.
We see young Fiona in bed, with the Axeman saying that at first his affections were paternal. But then he watched her grow and blossom into "the most fearsome thing that ever lived." In one continuous shot we see Fiona grow into her college-age self (when she murdered the Coven's Supreme), then into Jessica Lange, all while the ghostly version of the Axeman watches. It's a truly breathtaking sequence, both in content and form, and another example of why there just isn't anything like "American Horror Story" on television. Fiona is repulsed, momentarily, but intrigued.
Obviously disgusted by Madison and Zombie Kyle doing the worm, Zoe goes upstairs to do some magic, specifically on tongue-less pervert Spalding (Denis O'Hare), who not only witnessed Madison's execution but defiled her body afterwards. "How are you feeling?" she asks. "I feel fine," he answers, and is shocked. Zoe explains that she found his severed tongue while rooting around in the crawlspace where she found last week's spirit board. She knew it was enchanted, since it was all shriveled up and dead, so she did a spell, shoved it back in his mouth, and is now asking some questions. (We love that Madison is reading the spell off a Rolodex card, like it's a recipe for fried chicken.) She asks who killed Madison, and he tells her, somewhat defiantly, that Fiona did the deed. "My family has served this coven for 10 generations," he hisses. "Not anymore. You're done talking," Zoe says. And stabs him to death. Although, since no one ever dies on "American Horror Story: Coven," and the witch house seems to follow the same rules as the house in the first season, Spalding will be back, in otherworldly form, very soon.
Queenie comes to Delphine and asks her "What's the worst thing you ever did?" Queenie says that her mom told her something about knowing the worst about someone so you could be true friends. Delphine's face lights up. "You think we could be true friends?" she asks. Then she tells her a story, told via vivid flashback, about how one of the house girls gave birth to a baby that was fathered by Delphine's itchy husband. So Delphine killed the baby and used its blood as part of her beauty regiment. The slave girl threw herself out of the window.
Killed a slave's baby. After the story was over, Delphine turned to a visibly shocked Queenie and said that everything about this new world is awful, but that she was, "Grateful to have someone to guide me."
Having done her killing of necrophiliacs for the day, Zoe decides to have a post-shower chat with Madison. She's encouraging her to still have sex with Zombie Kyle. "He already died once. It's going to take more than that thing between your legs to kill him," she instructs, reminding us that oh yeah her vagina kills people. Madison also tries to justify her relationship with Kyle. "Being with him is the only thing I felt anything since coming back. I'm not giving him up," she explains. Then she has Zoe take Kyle's hand. And the camera cranes down to underneath the bed, and we see Zoe's towel drop and the three of them get into bed. Kinky!
Like most of the best outros, the final sequence is set at Cornrow City, where Queenie has ostensibly taken Delphine to get her hair done. We know what's coming and her betrayal is oddly heartbreaking. When Marie materializes, Delphine looks to Queenie. "You don't know this woman," she cries. But Queenie does. And Queenie calls her a dumb bitch before Marie hands her a blade and tells her to go to work. The last shot of the episode mirrors one from the first, with Marie applying gobs of gooey red blood to her face. She looks right into the camera. "Beautiful," she says.
"The Dead" was a wonderfully contemplative, beautifully shot breather of an episode that managed to give us a moment of pause before the insanity picks up again in two weeks. The season is now more than halfway through and this episode cemented it as the best of the three iterations (at least so far). We'll see if the home stretch is as peerless as "American Horror Story: Asylum" was, or if things will get bungled towards the end. With this many balls in the air, it's amazing more of them don't drop. [A]