Even though each season of American Horror Story is its own standalone story, it’d hard not to compare the three seasons, especially in terms of themes and problems that creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk bring to every new story. American Horror Story’s first season—retroactively titled Murder House—was a slightly distracting blend of parody and camp that didn’t always work. Yet last season’s Asylum was a dark representation of memories and dealing with trauma with good doses of insanity that made the show so popular. But even Murphy has admitted that Asylum was maybe too dark, which brings us to Coven, a season that starts out with the darkness of Asylum, but quickly moves to a lighter Murder House-ian tone.
Considering how wackadoo the pilots for all three seasons have been, with everything from Rubber Man ghost rapes to institutionalizing thanks to alien abductions, “Bitchcraft” is surprisingly tame, even grounded. Of course there’s still weirdness—the first episode does bring a living minotaur and a character who literally screws people to death—but it doesn’t feel quite as blatantly nuts starting off.
In fact “Bitchcraft” makes Coven start off very similarly to the first X-Men movie. Returning to the AHS Repertoire Players is Taissa Farmiga as Zoe, who upon trying to lose her virginity ends up causing her partner to bleed from the face and die of a brain aneurysm. So her parents let her know that her family has a history of witchcraft (a little late, Mom and Dad!) and they ship her off to Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies—a name that both reminds of X-Men and Harry Potter—in New Orleans.
While the school used to be highly populated, attendance is way down. In fact she’s only one of four students, which include Emma Roberts, Gabourey Sidibe and Jamie Brewer, each with different powers. Roberts can use telepathy, Brewer is clairvoyant and is hinted might be the smartest of them all, and Sidibe is basically a human voodoo doll. They’re led by the school’s head mistress, played by Sarah Paulson, who seems to be repressing her talents and has a fear of the problems being a young witch in the viral age could bring about.
But of course there’s also Jessica Lange as Fiona, who is the mother of Paulson and is known as The Supreme, a witch with countless gifts and easily the most powerful witch of her age. It’s through Lange and Paulson that we start to see what the major themes of Coven will likely be, as Lange is seeking vitality and youth from the next generation, and the ideas of the powerless becoming the powerful are present by episode’s end.
Like many Ryan Murphy shows, such as Nip/Tuck, Glee and the awful The New Normal, the biggest problem here is uncertainty of intention and style. “Bitchcraft” starts off actually terrifying, flashing back to Kathy Bates as Madame LaLaurie, a witch who keeps slaves in her attic, sews their eyes and mouthes shut, rips off their skin and uses their pancreases to make a concoction that is supposed to revitalize her skin. It’s incredibly disturbing, and to cap it off, LaLaurie places a bull head on the newest imprisoned slave to create a real-life minotaur.
But then as we head to the school and learn more about these girls and the history of witchcraft in New Orleans, things do get much lighter, with nothing quite matching the horrors of the cold open. Yet later when Farmiga and Roberts go out to a nearby frat party, Roberts is gang-raped and taped during the action, bringing the show back to darkness. It seems a bit all over the place, especially when you consider the consistent style that Asylum took on. Also, American Horror Story has always had a disturbing crutch of utilizing rape as a way of forwarding narrative, which may be one of the most horrifying and unfortunate aspects of the series.
However, the young witches try to reclaim their strength, first by Roberts flipping over the frat’s bus with her powers, killing seven of the nine boys inside. Then Farmiga visits the rape instigator—one of the survivors—at the hospital, and decides to use her vagina’s murder powers to make his head spout blood.
There’s plenty of other crazy stuff that I haven’t even mentioned yet, such as Lange literally sucking the life out of a young scientist or how she also digs up Bates, who has apparently been buried alive for about 180 years. Regardless of odd stylistic choices and weird inconsistencies, the best part of American Horror Story is just how next-level bonkers and unpredictable it can be. Coven definitely presents plenty of promising elements and characters spanning 200 years to have fun with this season, and the possibilities are literally endless.