Tonight's premiere of American Horror Story: Coven keeps the pace fast and tidy, and the introduction to this witchy universe feels more focused than the premieres of Murder House or Asylum. Over time I've grown very fond of this ridiculous show, and I've suspected since its announcement that Coven would be the best season of the bunch. Tonight's premiere, a strong and nimble hour of storytelling, did nothing to dissuade me of that expectation. The New Orleans setting offers effortless beauty and dread, and generations of witchcraft legends make for a rich narrative well, and it's clear that showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk will be dipping into that well with glee. It's a plug and play scenario - take this premise, this setting and this history, pack it with meaningful characters and a few stylistic flourishes, and you've got yourself quite a brew.
As for stylistic flourishes, AHS MVP director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has got that covered. "Bitchcraft" is a beautiful episode that uses color and light quite playfully. Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies is an airy, alabaster old New Orleans mansion in which I will rather enjoy spending some time after the dark dolor of the Murder House and Briarcliff. I've gotten to where I can recognize Gomez-Rejon's episodes by sight, as he often capers with super wide-angle lenses and unnerving POVs that would feel heavy-handed on another show, but that work perfectly within the overall insanity that is American Horror Story's MO.
I'm already sold on the characters, as well. Taissa Farmiga returns from Murder House as Zoe Benson, a young woman who discovers that she is a witch and is packed by her parents on a train to Sexy Hogwarts. Her wry voice-over wins me over immediately as she muses that not every woman in her family is a witch: "like my cousin Amanda - she's just bulimic." At Miss Robichaux's she meets the erstwhile starlet Madison Montgomery, played with dangerous indifference by Emma Roberts; hot-blooded Queenie, the great Gabourey Sidibe; and wise, clairvoyant Nan, played by Murder House's Jamie Brewer. As these four girls sit around the table bitching at each other with casual teenage malice, I instantly bought their characters separately and as part of a volatile dynamic.
We're also introduced to their gentle headmistress, Sarah Paulson's Cordelia Foxx, and her mother, the Supreme Witch Fiona Goode, played by who else but the majestic Jessica Lange? In flashbacks we meet Kathy Bates as a slave-torturing Bathory-type named Madame Delphine LaLaurie, and Angela Bassett as the woman who bests her, Marie Laveau (god I love these names). And Lily Rabe pops up ever so briefly as a poor Cajun woman named Misty Day, a witch with the power of resurgence who is burned at the stake in a sign of Salem times to come. (According to Zoe's research, the real witches of Salem were too crafty to be burned, so they traveled as far south as they could, ending in New Orleans.)
This is a powerful cast of incredible actresses, and I have very little doubt that they'll be given ample opportunity to demonstrate their tremendous talent by season's end. That alone is a reason to celebrate American Horror Story: Coven. Of course that doesn't keep the show from resorting to the easy shorthand of "feel frightened for this female character" by having Madison gang-raped at a frat party minutes after we meet her character, but it's to the show's credit that it never feels exploitative. And this shorthand is quickly turned on its head when Madison flips the frat bus seconds after her rape, and later Zoe - whose only power thus far appears to be the unfortunate ability to give men aneurysms with their orgasms - faces Madison's unconscious rapist in the hospital and, well, rapes him right back. To death.
I need a little more time to digest how I feel about this plot point, but the fact that I don't immediately despise it says something about its presentation. This feels like a warning to future characters - don't fuck with these women, because they'll fuck with you right back - and I think I like that. The tone of Coven is so different already from Murder House and Asylum, in a way that I think is working for it. It's a little brighter, a little lighter. I don't want the show to be less scary - and true, "Bitchcraft" isn't quite as scary or gory as I want it to be, a few delicious moments and one minotaur aside - but I would like a defter touch than is used on the oppressively heavy previous seasons. "Bitchcraft," at least, seems to have that defter touch, and it leaves me with high expectations and not a little impatience for the rest of the season.
Will Taissa Farmiga and Evan Peters share a romance across the boundaries of this mortal coil once again? It appears he died in the bus crash, the only undeserving death of the victims, and Nan did tell Zoe that she would "find love again - a strange and unexpected love." That sounds like ghost sex to me!
Now that Fiona has resurrected Madame LaLaurie from her centuries' old grave, does that mean we can expect some fish out of water hijinks with Kathy Bates thinking cars are demons and stuff? I would be a-okay with that.
Clearly Fiona has shadier motivations than protecting Cordelia's students from the impending storm, and these motivations are pretty clearly tied to her desire for "an infusion of vitality, of youth." She may be evil, but she certainly can deliver a line: "The world's not gonna miss a bunch of assholes in Ed Hardy shirts." So good.
I straight up cannot wait to meet this "Council."