Thursday, October 24, 2013

'American Horror Story: Coven' Recap: 'The Replacements'

BY KARL PFEIFFER

Well. Get ready for spoilers.

If there was any doubt that the third season of "American Horror Story" would tackle disturbing issues with no character remaining safe until the final moment of the season finale, rest assured.

This week, Zoe goes out of her way to make contact with Kyle's distraught mother, her conscious getting the better of her as she steals the half-healed Kyle from wood-dwelling Misty. I think it's safe to say no one expected Kyle's homecoming to be an easy one, but I don't think any of us saw the incest angle coming.

You heard me right.

Turns out that incest theme wasn't just a rumor. Obviously fed up with the inappropriate touching and kissing, even zombie-Kyle was conscious enough to put an end to it, smashing his mother's face in with an old trophy. I don't think any of us are particularly worried at Zoe's cliffhanger ending, meeting up with dead momma-faceless and her blood-spattered zombie son, but I like the way the surface situation is already at odds with the real one, and it doesn't look like Kyle's gonna be getting speech back very soon.

That alone would be enough shock value for week three of "AHS," but the hits don't stop there.

Meanwhile, we have the results coming from last week's snaky sexy-time spell, and it turns out that didn't work to get Cordelia prego either. She also gets the compounding news that she's biologically incapable of bearing children. Desperate, she turns to Marie Laveau (on her fantastic and creepy hoodoo throne), who, alongside a strange fantasy montage, describes the process of spell-work that would allow her to conceive, including boiling a mason jar of "baby gravy," a fair helping of goat's blood, and a wicked-hot pepper to "get the gods' attention." All this before Marie cuts the bullshit and throws Cordelia out because she's a part of the newly embittered rival coven.

After Madame LaLaurie expresses her distaste toward our black president, Fiona places her in the position of maid to the other girls, in particular as a personal slave to Queenie. This reversal is fun and clever for a while, but before it can become short-sighted, it's distracted by the late-night arrival of the bull-headed minotaur from the first episode. Queenie steps outside to deal with it. Taking the high road to protect despicable LaLaurie? Not so much. Queenie, it seems, has other needs to satisfy, namely removing her status as Coven virgin. Her semi-bestialic act is cut as a cliffhanger as to whether the experience was um, successful.

And it seems love is the theme of the episode, as the remaining Coven-ladies catch sight of the hunky neighbor boy. When Madison and Nan deliver a welcome-to-the-neighborhood cake, hunky neighbor boy's mom (Patti LuPone makes her entraince) spoils all the fun with her Christian, we-hate-witchcraft-and-short-skirts diatribe. She later threatens Fiona, but the whole tiff seems as more of a segue toward Fiona's fresh relationship with Madison.

Which all started with a glance at Fiona's past (she slices up the old "Supreme's" throat in a matter-of-fact coup), while we learn that the up-and-coming Supreme doesn't just take over when the old one dies, but she actually sucks the life-energy from the old one, slowly killing her.

Other forward-looking reviews expect Zoe take the Supreme throne by season's end, but I wasn't as convinced, as that seemed too obvious. At the start of the episode, I began thinking that making Madison the next Supreme would be a clever twist, and one already hinted at in this third episode. That is -- it was my thought until Fiona caught on to the same idea and, after teaching her some skills to confirm that she was the upcoming Supreme, slit Madison's throat.

So holy shit, right? Madison's dead (as longs as these things tend to last anyway), Queenie just lost her virginity to a man-bull, and Kyle's mom was sleeping with her Franken-son until she got her face bashed in.

It's no surprise if people are calling the show tasteless, but I'd suggest what we're watching is sheer, unadulterated brilliance.

I love the way that "Coven"'s lighter tone is thoroughly balanced out by the dark social themes it's exploring alongside. Consider the way that they play a bit of role reversal with Madame LaLaurie becoming black Queenie's food slave. It's fun and it's clever, but not particularly deep or revelatory.

But when it's immediately followed with Queenie offering herself to a man-bull -- presumably the same man-bull that LaLaurie decided was inhuman for sleeping with one of her daughters -- we have our tables turned on our own disgust. Bestiality is enough to turn the strongest of stomachs, but when it's a sympathetic beast, and a beast that is still at essence (at least, in a thematic sense) a man, we have instead a kind of twisted confrontation of such degraded social perspective. Though many cringe at Queenie's offering, it's not without realizing that she's the true heroine of the moment.

"You just wanted love," she says, "And that makes you a beast? They call me that too. But that's not who we are."

That's deeply realized, and in a way you won't see anywhere else but horror.

But it became altogether clear this week (if it wasn't already), how the show's central focus is on the theme of the maid, mother, and crone, which is a triple-goddess honored in Wicca and suggested as a broadly-reaching European archetype. The maid/mother/crone is the cycle of a woman through her lifetime, starting out as a virginal, young, un-awakened woman, moving on to a nurturing, fertile, mother figure, and finally resulting in a wise hag near death.

This is overtly clear in Zoe and her young "sisters", in Cordelia, and ultimately in Fiona. Each of these women have their own fixations, whether that's love, motherhood, wisdom, longevity, or some mixture of these.

What this means for our outlook? Watch the ways that these tropes are turned on their heads. Watch the way each one turns sour (as they already are), as each is forced from the woman. Will we ultimately see these traits become empowering, usually through some kind of acceptance, by season's end? I suspect so. But if there's one to watch, it's Fiona.

To quote from Patti Wigington's About.com article about the Maid/Mother/Crone: "In some forms of feminist spirituality, the Maiden/Mother/Crone is used as an example of society's treatment of women." Shocker, that, given what we've seen from the season so far. Wigington goes on: "While the Maiden is revered and the Mother is honored, the Crone is pushed aside and reviled. Many women are trying to turn that around and reclaim the title of Crone, much like the gay community has reclaimed "queer." Instead of allowing themselves to be "old ladies" at Cronehood, these women are taking back the notion that with age comes wisdom."

Knowing Murphy and Falchuk's penchance for flipping social norms, it's not a far thought to expect a revelation embracing Fiona's age and wisdom to come from Fiona before the end, in a way that subverts -- for many women in general, as well as -- societal expectations of age.

What are you expecting still to come? Seeing any themes that I'm missing? Let me know down below.

"American Horror Story" airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. EST on FX and continues on Oct. 30 with "Fearful Pranks Ensue".

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