One of the characteristics I find most heroic in a show, is the ability to kill off its main characters without sentimentality, and in that vein, AHS: Coven never disappoints. This week’s episode, “The Replacements” was an example of fearless television, playing heavily on our expectations of the title, while offering the audience scenes of the unspeakable and absurd. Although the episode is flanked with scenes of possible replacement among the female characters; it most importantly speaks to the idea of motherhood as a metaphor for change – that inheritance is often a dangerous and deadly sin. This episode is rife with messages about mothers and what it means to leave a legacy to their children.
It opens on a sleepless Fiona, searching for something to calm her insomnia. She looks to an empty pill bottle, then gets up to make herself a drink in the parlor. As she sips her glass, she flashes back to a scene that took place in the same room in 1971, in which she is speaking with the previous Supreme, Annalee. We learn how the title is passed on – as soon as a young Supreme “starts to flower, the old Supreme begin to fade.” This is so on-the-nose we can’t help but to begin to scheme who the new Supreme will be. In light of Fiona’s battle with her age, we know she perceives her dance to be over, so this obvious foreshadowing sets the scene in which the doctor tells her she has cancer. What is not so obvious; however, is how ruthless and conniving a witch she really is. In order to usurp the role as Supreme, Fiona slits Annalee’s throat and leaves her to die on the carpet. Annalee acts as symbolic mother to Fiona’s craven, younger self, and it makes the act of violence so much more shocking because Fiona is seen to have stolen what was already hers, at the cost of a woman who probably loved her.
But love is such a subjective concept in this show, as evidenced by Kyle’s strange, untoward relationship with his mother, played by Mare Winningham. Zoe buckles under the pressure of her self-blame and visits Kyle’s mother after retrieving him from Misty Day’s cabin, and he is mostly (physically) healed. She is so proud to show Zoe her efforts, and so heart-stricken when she won’t stay, we see a paradoxical shift in the mother-child dynamic here. Misty is so lonely and sad (and possibly super crazy) that she looks to Zoe for motherly nurturing, and Zoe performs this for her, to an extent; although her motherly instincts go terrible awry when she returns Kyle to his mother. Here is where the meanings about mothers and children get very Oedipal, very fast. We learn that Kyle and his mother have a sexual relationship, but that gets even creepier still, as Kyle is not functioning as a full person yet; he exists in a primitive state and relies on his most basic instincts to move through the episode. It is these instincts that lead him to bash her face in with a sports trophy; a startling symbol of family pride.
This scene of motherly incest, coupled with Queenie’s bestial tryst with the Minotaur, and Delia’s exchange with Marie Laveau all speak to the perils of the mother-child relationship. Delphine is assigned to Queenie to be her slave as punishment for her hateful racism, and her contempt quickly turns maternal as she tells her what she would do to her if she was her own daughter. As a result, Queenie protects her from the Minotaur, leading him away from the house to the shed, where she rebels against Delphine in a scene reminiscent of Delphine’s daughter’s indiscretion with the houseboy from the pilot. Somehow, Queenie sees herself in the beast and says over and over, “We both deserve love,” until the encounter turns violent (we’ll have to watch next week to see just how violent).
As the hour ticks down, Fiona begins to realize that Madison is discovering more and more powers. Madison surprises herself by setting the hunky neighbor’s drapes on fire and hurling a knife at his severe, evangelical mother; another perverted version of the mother-child connection. As Fiona realizes her time as Supreme is almost up, she takes Madison under her wing, and it almost seems she is stepping in as surrogate mother, atoning for her maternal mistakes with Delia, but as the episode draws to an end, we see the symmetry start to take shape. In a scene that reveals Fiona’s darkest fears and insecurities, she admits to Madison that she wasted her gifts, the regret is palpable as she admits she is passing on her life forsce. She begs her to slit her throat, and we hold our breath to see how that plays out, but that doesn’t ring true with what we know about Fiona. She slits the younger witch’s throat in a scene that mimics the cliché about a mother eating her own young. We are meant to see Fiona as the only real authority to this coven, and the cost of maintaining her legacy. As she steps over Madison’s bleeding body, she reminds us they don’t need a new Supreme, they “need a new rug.”