Thursday, October 31, 2013

'American Horror Story: Coven' Recap: 'Fearful Pranks Ensue'

Courtesy FX
BY KARL PFEIFFER

Oh, "American Horror Story," what do we do with you?

In keeping with the overall tone of the season, this week's episode of "AHS" lightened the tone after last week's jaw-dropper.

The episode kicks off with Fiona dealing with the aftermath of last week's carnage. She cuts the still-living head from the minotaur and sends it back to a now-enraged Marie Laveau, and breathes life into a freshly-dead Queenie. Meanwhile, Zoe loses track of her zombie boyfriend, Kyle, just before her attempt to euthanize the poor bastard. Peters is around this episode just long enough to bang his head bloody against the bathtub with guilt and frustration (which automatically gives that zombie more of a soul than half the "Coven"). And we learn that Cordelia's husband isn't so sweet and charming as we might've thought, hooking up with a familiar-looking Internet-found redhead, Kayleigh, before putting a bullet through her melon.

But the primary plot of the episode centered around the arrival of the Ministry of Magic -- er, the "Council," featuring the more predominant return of Frances Conroy as Myrtle Snow, head Council member, who, as is slowly revealed in flashbacks, has been onto Fiona's murderous hijinks for some 40 years now. Following up on the apparent death of Madison, the council drills all members of the Academy to get to the bottom of the disappearance. The interviews come down to the written testimony of heretofore-underused Denis O'Hare as lurking, Lurch-like Spalding, who keeps mum both literally and figuratively (he cut his tongue out to protect Fiona's first Supreme-murder). The inquiry fizzles as we learn, unsurprisingly, that Madison was not the next supreme.

We wrap the episode as Cordelia, drunk, is splashed in the face with some sort of potion by a masked somebody, and Marie Laveau launches a fresh attack on Madame LaLaurie and the rest of the Coven, breaking (or, at least, perpetuating the break of) a 50-year truce. Her attack? A zombie army surrounding the Academy before we cut to credits.

What was working for the episode? A lot.

It was excellent to see more of Denis O'Hare's Spalding and his creepy obsession with dolls, tea parties, and dead Madisons. I liked the brutal-if-quickly-forgotten, racism-loaded opening teaser. Obviously racism plays a big role in the season, and I'm glad to see the writers reminding us that they haven't forgotten it... even if for the rest of the episode, they, well, forgot it). And, I keep harping, but I love the driving force of the musical score this season. That and the hyper-stylized direction saved the potentially too-campy inquiry scenes. Speaking of, Frances Conroy was magnificent. Her crazy, orange-haired, wild-eyeglass-wearing witch seems a role she's been waiting to play since Season One (even despite Chip Coffey-esque Leslie Jordan maintaining his reputation as a scene stealer). And I always have to give "AHS" props for the onion-layering nature of their characters. Seeing a more twisted side to both Spalding and Cordelia's husband was savory, and we know the eventual unraveling will be excellent.

What am I not liking so much?

Well, I have to say, this episode was the weakest of the season, despite everything that I loved. I still want to see way more of Marie Laveau, who's by far one of the more compelling and stylistically sexy elements of the show. Though dealing intensely with racial issues this season, the underuse of Angela Bassett is borderline objectifying at the moment. I know she'll have a more devoted episode -- likely soon -- but at the moment she feels like a plot device for "Coven" drama. I frakking loved Fiona rocking the witch hat for Halloween ("Tonight I'm gonna let the whole world in. Get a good look at me. Who's the baddest witch in town?") which was.... oddly forgotten about. The driving tension between the "Coven" and the voodoo ladies (punctuated with the whipcrack score by James Levine) was lost in the inquiry plot, and when the tension did finally (and literally) rise from the grave, it was... well. I wanted some American Horror Story, not a Thriller video.

But before I go this week, I have to ask: Is it just me or did this episode bring a number of Collective Unconscious-type flashbacks from first season? We see Denis O'Hare again mutilated after maintaining his unrequited love for Jessica Lange against all odds. As Taissa Farmiga searches for her missing zombie boytoy Evan Peters, we get a lingering glimpse of a skeleton-masked boy cruising the house. It is Halloween of course, but the nod to skeleton-tattooed Evan Peters of first-season's murder-fantasy-repressed-memory-Evan-Peters felt appropriate. Even the ill-fated Internet hookup Kayleigh was a dead lookalike for Alexandra Breckenridge's Young Moira in first season, if it wasn't actually an oddly un-credited cameo.

Though showrunners Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy plan on as many as 12 seasons (an unsustainable number in my humble opinion), these subtle nods to earlier seasons of "AHS" does provoke one to wonder about what kind of endgame they might have in mind. Was the antichrist/apocalypse plot of first season an overall direction for the show, or simply a trope to be toyed with? Or do these seasons exist in some kind of odd Jungian harmony with each other, where each season echoes manifestations in the others, from recurring actors to hidden Easter Eggs? Time will tell.

"American Horror Story" airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. EST on FX and continues on Nov. 6 with "Burn Witch Burn".

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