Note. Do not read on unless you've seen "American Horror Story: Coven," Episode 1, titled "Bitchcraft."
We're most definitely not at Briarcliff anymore. Unlike its faster-paced, frenetic predecessor "American Horror Story: Asylum," "American Horror Story: Coven" is a slow burn. In the first episode of "Asylum," we were thrust quickly into the narrow, filthy corridors of Briarcliff, surrounded by lunacy and patients scratching at the walls. There were screams, moans and wails, and a certain oppression laid over "Asylum" like a shadow. Not so with "Coven," whose strange, deceptive peace and meandering pace seem to mask something big and ugly, lurking below the surface.
The first scene, which takes place in 1834 New Orleans, is classic "AHS." An horrific, frightening visage (in this case, a stone-faced Kathy Bates as Madame LaLaurie) slathers human blood on her skin, a supposed anti-aging technique to keep the wrinkles at bay. Bates does disturbing so well, it's a torture toss-up between her character here and the obsessed Annie Wilkes of "Misery." Ankles broken with a sledgehammer, or abdomen sliced open with a curved knife? Tough choice.
As we're led into her torture chamber filled with slaves, each with a more disgusting mutilation than the last, and we see her create The Minotaur (the freshly severed head of a bull put on one of her slaves), it's very clear that there is no redemption for Madame LaLaurie -- this woman is evil incarnate. (Interestingly, she's based on a real-life killer, who really did murder and torture slaves.) As with Jessica Lange's Sister Jude in "Asylum," expect big punishment for LaLaurie somewhere down the line.
Next we meet Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga), who has the ability to kill men by having sex with them. Think Rogue from "X-Men," except bloodier. A few seconds into intercourse with a boyfriend, blood starts streaming out his orifices and he dies; Zoe's shuttled off by her mother and escorted by Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy, living an actor's dream in her third amazing role on "AHS"), along with her albino henchmen, to Miss Robichaux's Academy For Exceptional Young Ladies. Again, this is reminiscent of "X-Men" and its Xavier Institute For Higher Learning, with the creepy quotient upped by a million.
As with other incarnations of "AHS," the central house/building is often one of the most important members of the cast. Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and their artistic creators have really outdone themselves this time around. Via numerous sweeping shots and angles, we get a great view of the Academy, which is symmetrical, streamlined, and suspiciously clean. As we've seen before, there is a lot of black, white and red, the central colors (or non-colors, as the case may be) of the show. Even the main foyer of the house is like a womb, with fallopian tubes stretching up and around the uterine center. What evils have been born in this house? I'm sure we haven't even begun to experience them.
After a brief introduction to the other girls at the Academy (Emma Roberts as promiscuous, telekinetic Madison Montgomery, a debatable "movie star," Gabourey Sidibe as the human voodoo doll Queenie, and Jamie Brewer as clairvoyant Nan) and a deliciously restrained headmistress Cordelia (Sarah Paulson), Zoe is brought into the fold as the newest witch in the ranks. As for Cordelia's restraint, we're not quite sure of her powers yet, but they'll be amazing and explosive when they're coaxed out. Can't wait for that, but for now, we'll just have to be patient and satisfied with the pretty cool powers the girls have -- the triad of magic: the ability to move things with your mind, the ability to know what others are thinking, and the ability to physically harm another.
Then finally, finally, we meet Jessica Lange's character, the acting Supreme of witches, Fiona Goode. Is there another woman on TV right now who can deliver lines like Lange, or who can so very easily own the scene just by walking around in heels? Fiona is on the hunt for an age-defying solution (just like Madame LaLaurie), and literally sucks the life out of the attractive and fit biochemist who offers to help her illegally. Newly "invigorated" (but no more youthful) Fiona visits the Academy and surprise, surprise, her daughter is Paulson's character, Cordelia (which we all knew going into this). Fiona takes over the Academy as only she can, by waltzing in with a cigarette and putting everyone to shame. The girls quickly realize this woman doesn't take any shit as Fiona flings Madison across the room with a flick of her finger, simply for calling Fiona a "hag." Just imagine what's to come.
When Madison coaxes Zoe to attend a frat party, you know things are going to go badly, especially when one of the jocks from the frat makes the "roofie" motion above Madison's drink. While Kyle (a blond, letter-jacketed, frat boy Evan Peters) and Zoe make googly eyes at each other through a random ice sculpture, Madison is upstairs getting gang-raped by Kyle's frat brothers. After Kyle breaks it up and the brothers all rush back to their bus and speed away, Madison simply walks out into the street and flips the bus over with a slight swipe of her hand. She kills all but two of the boys, including precious Kyle -- though I'd bet a million dollars that's not the last we've seen of him. Zoe uses her "kill sex" (which is what I'm going to call it) to do away with Madison's gang-rape instigator in his hospital bed.
And then we jump to -- holy hell, Angela Bassett, have you aged at all in 20 years?! (Maybe she really is a witch!)
(Here's Bassett in 1992's "Malcolm X," and in this episode of "Coven." Not much of a difference, is there?)
Via another quickie 1834 flashback, we discover her character, Marie Laveau, is the lover of the newly created Minotaur. Once Marie figures out that Madame LaLaurie did that to him, she finagles her way into the house with the promise of a love potion. LaLaurie stupidly drinks it, which seems a bit out-of-character -- would a racist woman who tortures slaves be that willing to drink a mysterious little vial that an African-American stranger gives to her? Regardless, she does, and croaks.
Flash-forward and we witness Fiona ordering the back yard of Madame LaLaurie's house dug up, based on Nan's clairvoyant instincts. Under the dirt we see Madame LaLaurie herself, still alive, almost 200 years later. As she walks away with Fiona, all I can think is "Those two? Together?!" I absolutely cannot wait to see what mischief the two are going to make.
Witch, Please: (every week I'm going to award the witchiest witch of them all) The obvious winner this week is Fiona. From the life-sucking to the catty comments to the flinging Madison across the room, she has this week down. Not to mention her penchant for brainwashing civilians for free museum tours.
Other Random Thoughts:
- Kathy Bates' French is impeccable. Her accent, her pronunciation. Impressive. And I'm Canadian!
- Jammed into the episode is the unfortunate fate of Lily Rabe's character, Misty Day, whose witchy power is to resurrect the dead (methinks this is how Kyle will come back to life). We see her get burned by some crazy locals, but we never see her die. So, as with Evan Peters' character, the premature deaths are probably not deaths at all.
- I really hope Taissa Farmiga either stops narrating or gets better at it. She recites passages like she's reading the side of a cereal box.
- I worry about this hour's tendency to feel a bit soapy, despite all the horror. It is only the premiere, so my fingers are crossed that this was just for the sake of character establishment and things are going to get more insane from here.
- The trend of strong and interesting women on TV continues -- "Orphan Black," "Orange Is The New Black," and now this. What a wonderful development.
- Jessica Lange. In A Gadda Da Vida. That is all.
"American Horror Story: Coven" airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX and FX Canada.
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