In the vaccum left behind by Breaking Bad, there is a clear and vacant space in the television listings for a standout show to become compulsive weekly watching. And so here’s a new series of American Horror Story.
Previous seasons have taken us to a haunted house in California (The Murder House), and a brutal New England mental institution (Asylum). Now we’re in a sultry, sweating New Orleans with a host of familiar faces — and some exciting new ones — witching around.
Given that its past incarnations are amongst my favourite shows — even going so far as curing me of my mistaken belief that horror could not work in the TV series format — it’s a truly palpable relief to be able to say that not only does it live up to its predecessors, but it shapes up for Coven to be the best American Horror Story so far.
“Bitchcraft” (which is just the perfect episode title, isn’t it?) opens in 1834, with Kathy Bates deliciously romping it up as Delphine LaLaurie, desperately searching for eternal youth through a mixture of witchcraft, sadism and racism. If you were worried that AHS might have lost any of its edge, an attic full of tortured and mutilated slaves should lay your fears at rest.
The three most important introductions of the season opener are the above Madame LaLaurie, whose quest for eternal youth sets one of the primary themes for the season; Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga; Violet in Murder House), whose lethal vagina (yes, you heard me) sees her carted off to a special New Orleans training school for witches; and star-of-the-show Jessica Lange as arch-witch Fiona, on her own quest for youth.
The pace is unforgiving, moving from character to character and storyline to storyline, and it’s very clear that the writers know what the audience want by now and have no qualms about giving it to them. Fiona’s introduction in particular is so heavy with forboding, using Lange’s considerable gravitas layered over a thumping rock soundtrack as she literally sucks a man’s life out of him.
Sex is going to play a big role in this season, I think. Aside from the sultry, almost erotically charged atmosphere of New Orleans, within the first fifteen minutes we’ve seen a slave mutilated and tortured for getting too…familiar with Madame LaLaurier’s daughter, we’ve seen Zoe’s first time go monstrously wrong, and we’ve seen the aforementioned witchy vampirism.
And as the episode goes on we’re “treated” to a frankly harrowing scene where stuck up witchling Madison (Emma Roberts) is date raped by a gang of frat boys, and her over-the-top vengeance impacts upon the innocent as well as the guilty. In true AHS style they lay up the cliches and stereotypes only to knock them straight down with a gut-clenching crunch.
The first episode of a new series can be overburdened with introductions and scene setting, but from the very beginning of Coven it oozes that dark, sultry feel which I think will make this series. The opening credits — always a treat with AHS — tingle with the sort of malevolent deep south presence which True Blood once tried for, and images of voodoo and klu klux klan simmer with dark promise. And it’s commanding use of music sets the scene perfectly, and atmosphere which sends across your skin like fire and ice.
And the magic matches the rest of the show. Dirty, wincing and messy, this isn’t Hogwarts. An early scene where Madame LaLaurier “creates” her own Minotaur is a lot scarier than it really has any right to be. And with each of the girls at Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies having their own strange and unique powers (witness Precious‘ Gabourey Sidibe plunge a fork into her own hand as human voodoo doll Queenie), there are going to be a lot of interesting boundaries to explore.
Where is this going to go? I’ve not idea at this point. But with the final scenes showing Fiona exhuming a centuries-entombed — but still youthful — LaLaurier and Zoe embracing her power to take a gruesome revenge on one of Madison’s rapists, I’m clear it’s going to be heading to darker places than either of the other two seasons dared.
Its trademark edge is sharper than ever; one episode in and we’ve seen mutilation, slavery, magic, rape and even burning at the stake. AHS takes no prisoners, and doesn’t look set to change that now. It’s gratifying to see Lange and the other returning stars of the franchise supported by such strong additions as Bates, and as the end credits roll a week seems a long, long time to wait for episode two.