“AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN, Bitchcraft” (TV Review)
Whatever batshittery the rest of COVEN entails (and the door is left wide open for such), that which is contained in its premiere episode “Bitchcraft”—along with an already stellar ensemble, plus the work of breakout director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon—makes for one of the best, and maybe most definitive, hours AMERICAN HORROR STORY has ever seen.
[Note: Some spoilers ahead, so you may wish to read after you've seen the episode.]
With each season dipping further into the past, COVEN leaves the 60s of ASYLUM behind to split its time between 1830s New Orleans and its modern goings-on. As Ryan Murphy & Co. are wont and seemingly destined to do, the introduction to AMERICAN HORROR STORY’s third season charges past anything that would resemble good taste, much like the bull’s head crowned upon the episode’s first victim. For we open in 1834, and if it wasn’t clear from the title card, Rejon peppers in some old-timey Iris for good measure. Creators and writers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk present their vision of real life southern socialite and serial killer, Delphine LaLaurie (played here with fantastic gusto by Kathy Bates), known for the extensive, graphic torture and murder of slaves. Of course, such is presented in a no-holds barred, EC Comics-esque manner of gruesome that toes a line between wide-eyed sideshow gore and the more unsettling implications of the era.
That straddling is typical of AMERICAN HORROR STORY, but here in the torture attic of Delphine LaLaurie (who also lathers her face in blood as an anti-aging cream, like a Southern Gothic Elizabeth Bathory), with Bates’ insane hold over the proceedings, it feels more significant than shocking. In the scene, LaLaurie chains up a house servant caught sleeping with her daughter. Rejon’s camera makes confrontational, stylistic choices; Bates’ prowess elevates this pulpy insanity and the ghastly corpses of tortured men act as set dressing. Rather than just torment the poor man, she adorns him a bull’s head and recounts her father telling tales of the Minotaur, her favorite mythological creature. AMERICAN HORROR STORY seems to be making a mission statement: to turn America’s darker, horrifying histories into myth, acting as parable and tying it with a present that’s evidently learned nothing.
To wit, the present day side of COVEN picks up with “Murder House” star Taissa Farmiga as unwitting witch Zoe. In an intense coming-of-age that seems to firmly plant COVEN’s more gender-minded ideas, Zoe is sneaking about her house with a young boyfriend, the one who will be her first (as in the 1830s Louisiana, daughters are still trying to hide sexual transgressions from their mothers). “I don’t want to hurt you,” he says, but thanks to Zoe’s genetics, he’s the one who’ll bleed.
This leaves Zoe on her way to Miss Robicheaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, a school for witches. As Rejon’s swirling, sweeping direction roams the halls that envelop young Zoe and she meets her gifted peers (in something of a supernatural mean girls prank) and headmistress, there’s a stark contrast to ASYLUM’s Briarcliff Manor. Both structures house misfits of a kind, but whereas Briarcliff served as a prison that honed in on the time’s moral rigidness and thinking anyone not of a certain heteronormative, monogamous or non-interracial way of life was insane or a problem, Miss Robicheaux’s Academy is a brighter haven that aims to empower. Headmistress Cordelia Foxx (a returning Sarah Paulson), would like to empower her students through awareness. She explains their history and hierarchy, noting each generation has a Supreme, a witch gifted with all-power instead of the particular gifts of those that surround her. For example, Miss Foxx concocts all manner of potions, Emma Roberts’ fierce bitch Madison Montgomery is a telekinetic, Gabourey Sidibe’s Queeney acts as human Voodoo Doll and Nan (Season One’s Jamie Brewer) is a clairvoyant. The Supreme of the late 1800s, who designated the Academy as one for witches is described as an early suffragette, almost immediately paralleling COVEN’S witchcraft with powerful femininity.
Cordelia Foxx’s mother is the current Supreme, setting the stage for grand, vampy entrance from AMERICAN HORROR STORY’s own Supreme, Jessica Lange. More aggressively-minded, Lange’s Fiona Goode thinks the young students should be taking charge of their abilities, weapon-izing their magick. “There’s a storm coming,” as she and almost every character anticipating conflict ever says. And that seems true as both mother and daughter cite the present day tale of a southern woman gifted with the power to resurrect the dead, but is burned at the stake for necromancy. Later, the series continues to draw women and witches ever closer together. “We are under siege ladies,” says Cordelia. Later, as Zoe and Madison attend a frat party and we see it’s not just supernatural women under attack in an upsetting sequence that calls to mind the despicable Steubenville case from 2012.
It wouldn’t be AMERICAN HORROR STORY however, without selfish wants and desires, and Fiona the swinging Supreme hasn’t the overall good of witchkind only in her sights. Her interest in youthful vitality brings about the emergence of AHS’ wonderful brand of WTF. “Bitchcraft’s” final moments and ultimate setup for what’s to come entail at least one great zoom, a cover of the ROSEMARY’S BABY main theme, some sexually violent witch revenge and Fiona leading a character, but most importantly the audience, out into COVEN’s world. We will follow.