It’s hard to know where to begin with this season’s American Horror Story, but I know one for thing for sure: Coven is exactly what I wanted it to be. This show is what every supernatural show should be. It is hip, sexy and cryptic, yet it has a winking sense of humor that is daring us to laugh at its mild camp and tongue-in-cheek antics and then answers that dare by scaring the pants off us. Straddling time periods spanning 19 century and modern-day New Orleans, the show tells the story of American witchcraft through the lens of some very powerful and compelling women. Focusing on four young coming-of-age witches, and their mother-daughter team of mentors, the show is telling the story of the power and persecution of witches, old and new. The first few minutes of the premiere will shock the most devoted of fans, and even I had to watch through my fingers for a few moments in the beginning, but this season is promising to be the most intriguing yet.
The series opens in 1834 New Orleans at a party where Kathy Bates’ character, Madame Delphine LaLaurie is introduced to the audience as the fearsome and cruel witch she is. Here begins the onslaught of some of the most disturbing and stunning visual images in contemporary television. We see a slave hauled off to the attic where Madame houses her gruesome collection of humans in various stages of undoing—one has his lips and eyes sewn shut, one has the skin of his face peeled back, but is still able to see and experience, and another is chained, waiting to have his spleen removed and ground into the youth creams Madame uses. Kathy Bates has a way with creep and covert scariness, but when she places a bull’s head on the chained slave while telling the story of the Minotaur, she establishes a complex and daring tone that will inevitably bring up questions concerning power, inherit evil versus goodness, and female relationships.
These questions move with the series to the present as Tarissa Farmiga’s character, Zoe is sent to Mrs. Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, after she accidentally kills her boyfriend during sex (in a brutal and unflinching scene). She is among a group of young women that each suffer from a ‘genetic affliction’ and must seek out the guidance of the headmistress, Delia Fox, played by Sarah Paulson. Delia’s mother, played by the timeless and interminably flawless Jessica Lange, arrives to help with the girls after witches start suffering persecution across the country for their talents. This coven is populated by an interesting and eclectic mix of young actresses including Gabourey Sidibe, Emma Roberts and Jamie Brewer. Each actress plays a witch with a different gift and the collection is so much greater than the individual components that the chemistry crackles among them when they are on screen together. The perceptible contrast these witches strike is so arresting that the blood and gore cannot compete with their cumulative magnetism, and watching each of them come into, and then control their respective talents is what is most auspicious about his new season.
Add to this mix Jessica Lange’s Fiona Goode and you can’t take your eyes off the screen. While she is there to teach them how to be real witches, she acts as a galvanizing element that makes the show feel connected and significant. It is also very woman-centered and treats relevant issues with a deft hand; there is a very hard-to-watch date rape scene that plays out more sinister than any torture scene from last season, yet more poignant than the loss of a baby, like in season one. AHS: Coven hits a different note from seasons past, but it feels more artful and accomplished, and I am hopeful that it will maintain this balance between horror and drama that we have come to expect from this show.