Thursday, November 14, 2013

'American Horror Story: Coven' Recap: 'The Axeman Cometh'

Courtesy AHS.wikia
BY KARL PFEIFFER

After last week's Halloween flop, I can cheerfully say, "American Horror Story" is BACK!

No real surprises there. The show has a history of hiccupping, and may yet again. But we're back in the saddle this week with "The Axeman Cometh."

And cometh indeed. We're gifted with another brilliant teaser to kick off the episode. It features Danny Huston ("Number 23," "30 Days of Night") -- a casting choice that was pitch-perfect -- as a serial killer from 1919 with a deep love for jazz.

He's not gonna lay a finger on you. Rumor has it he's got a thing for jazz... and you've got rhythm in your soul, Baby. 

The writing and direction was a brilliant blend of noir, New Orleans jazz, class, creeps, and murder. I again find myself praising the music direction as the teaser shifts from snazzy noir for the Axeman's introduction to beat-centric electronica for the 1919 coven ladies to New Orleans Jazz igniting the streets, and finally to opera as he's murdered by the 1919 coven.

Perhaps most intriguing? The "Axeman" was indeed real. He killed many women in 1918 and 1919, and many of those crimes were suggested to be racially motivated. He did indeed write a letter that warned any home not playing live jazz music on a specific night may fall victim to his axe. Many citizens welcomed the threat, arming themselves to take him down. And in October of 1919, he went mysteriously missing.

But it turns out there were still 35 minutes of episode even after the teaser. We're brought in on Zoe as she goes through Madison's old stuff; trying on Madison's sunglasses, perhaps another nod to Zoe taking on the "role" of the next "supreme" as Madison briefly did. Then we have two hints of Deus Ex Machina, first as Zoe discovers a small handgun with Madison's belongings (the rule of theater preventing Deus Ex Machina is that guns introduced in one act must be used by third), and secondly as a shooter bottle rolls Zoe's attention to a secret closet (clunky writing device? or spiritual guidance?).

In the closet, she discovers old photographs and a spirit board. She then uses the board alongside Queenie and Nan to contact the spirit of Madison, to learn both what happened to Madison as well as why the covens' numbers have been dwindling for the past century. Though well-intended, she wound up contacting the spirit of the Axeman instead, who whips their shot-glass planchette around the board, freaking out Queenie and Nan enough that they bail.

Despite Queenie's warnings that they spirit board is a way for spirits to seek release from their trappings and attachments, Zoe continues the session alone, learning that Madison's body is in the attic. There, she finds Spalding's tea party and Madison's defiled corpse. Queenie, Nan, and Zoe tie up Spalding and interrogate him, but he lies through his thoughts, incriminating himself to continue protecting Fiona. Skeptical Zoe remains skeptical though as to whether he was actually to blame.

Meanwhile, Fiona suffers through chemo treatments to be strong for now-blind Cordelia, who, upon returning home from the hospital, confronts her husband about his infidelity, driving him out of the house. But Hank's twist doesn't stop there. He immediately storms over to Marie Laveau, and we discover he's a witch hunter, hired six years ago by Laveau to put a fork in the coven for good. Laveau accuses him of falling in love before she gives him an offer he can't refuse: the heads of everyone in the coven for sparing his life.

Not having anywhere else to go, Frankenstein-Kyle bumbles up to Misty again. She upsets him when she tries to bathe him. I have to say, while these last couple weeks I've been disappointed with Evan Peter's underutilization, I like this play on the Frankenstein story. It's subtle and honest and deals, if briefly, with the idea of perception (his freakouts) with reality (his freakouts having very good reason), and the importance of communication. And Peters does the part well. We get a glimpse of Misty literally growing Myrtle back from the dead in her garden (an image I've never thought of, but find brilliant), before Zoe steals Kyle and Misty back to the coven in order to bring Madison back to life.

Which is a success, by the way. Madison is back and peachy (and a lot better at speaking than FrankenKyle who's now chained up in the coven's Herbology department), which will excite a number of fans, as Madison was a driving force in her first three episodes. While Zoe tries to hook Misty on joining the coven, the ghost of the Axeman, pissed at Zoe for not releasing him, attacks Cordelia before Zoe can conveniently Supreme her way to the right spellbook to release the spirit.

We end as the Axeman saunters into a bar, where he discovers downtrodden Fiona.

Before I go, what's working for me?

Everything. Obviously I love the teaser, and Danny Huston as this season's mid-run serial killer is, well, killer. Madison is back! The Frankenstein theme is brilliant. I really like Hank's new backstory.

And, if totally on a personal note, any episode offering more Alexandra Breckenridge is a sign that God is absolutely alive and still loves us.

"American Horror Story: Coven" airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. EST on FX and continues on Nov. 20 with "The Dead".

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