Thursday, January 23, 2014

'American Horror Story: Coven' Recap: 'Go To Hell'

BY KARL PFEIFFER

A bit disjointed, perhaps, but back on track ... mostly.

"Stevie Nicks" was disappointing. "Protect the Coven" gathered some steam, but fell relatively flat. What I've been hoping for these past few weeks was that "American Horror Story" would hit its groove as the pieces fell into place, and I'm happy to say that it's pointing in the right direction.

We follow last week's episode as we gather threads for our final showdown in next week's season finale. Introduced in a flavorful, old-fashioned cold open, we're reminded of what exactly the Seven Wonders are that the Supreme-to-be must perform (Telekinesis, Pyrokinesis, Concilium, Transmutation, Divination, Resurrection and Descensium).

In keeping with the rest of the season, the episode maintains focus on the final of these, Descensium, in which the witch must make a descent into the underworld. More than simply maintaining though, this info finally brings together the previously-Deus-Ex-Machina-esque tradition of bringing everyone who's died quickly back from the grave. To know it's one of the Seven Wonders levels the playing field again and makes every one of these character deaths matter.

The episode quickly takes off with a final focus on Queenie, rounding out the coven as the final applicant for Supreme. Queenie gets her own centric episode as she follows up on last week's episode, using newfound powers to attempt to track down the now-missing Marie Laveau, and winding up in her own personal hellish underworld, working at her old fried chicken fast food joint, a line for miles out the door, and Papa Legba first in line to steal the screen for a few quick minutes.

Somehow Queenie brings herself back from the underworld (which is apparently more difficult than you'd expect, given Papa's reaction, but why Queenie could do it with ease? Well, um, cuz she's a badass witch and that's how they're grown in the 21st century I guess). She schemes with Papa toward Marie's relatively predictable immortal defeat (in which her dismembered body can't be called upon to do Papa's yearly bidding).

We almost seem to jump around in time a bit, in one of the better scenes in the past few weeks, as Queenie confronts Madame LaLaurie, who's taken it upon herself to update the tour of her once-mansion and her once-life. LaLaurie provides an excellent and twisted monologue, bringing the 21st Century back into play by comparing her own pride in her atrocities to the current political scandals and phony apologies. It's dark but has a real ring of truth, and briefly engages with the depth that I know this show is capable of.

Queenie, done with LaLaurie's racism and ingrained stubbornness (a more subtle nod to the difference between nature versus nurture and the more objective argument toward racism, in LaLaurie's own leanings) finally appears to slay LaLaurie once and for all, breaking her immortality by um, I guess being awesome again.

The latter half of the episode is far more coven-oriented, particularly around Fiona. First, though, the coven reunites, with Zoe and Kyle returning from a failed escape to Florida (another dramatic character arc glossed over), and wonderfully-creepy self-mutilated Cordelia finally regaining her second sight to find Misty (another excuse for Queenie to magically catch up in the power department, demonstrating Telekinesis and Resurrection).

But it comes together in a fantastic scene that would do disservice to call a catfight. Misty, back and bitter, goes after Madison, laying into her for what she did. The fight isn't about sexuality the way so many between women are these days, but instead it's about the raw physicality of any tough-guy fight scene in any random cop drama. It's another more subtle reversal of gender dynamics that this season runs on.

Following Cordelia's premonition of Fiona's ultimate devastation of the coven witches in order to maintain supremacy, she visits the Axe Man in order to turn him against Fiona, which she does with relative ease. Fiona is exhausted and physically falling apart as she visits Axe Man for the final time. In his anger at Fiona's betrayal (she was never going to run away with him), he slaughters her in his bachelor pad before going after the witches.

There at the mansion, Kyle steps up with an excellent anti-mindless-Frankenstein quote "Cervantes never met this asshole ..." but Madison, Misty, and the coven step up to rip Axe Man to shreds. "We really don't need a man to protect us," Misty says to Kyle, reversing the momentary Kyle-as-witch role he occasionally occupies.

We, for a moment, flicker to another hellish underworld, in which Papa, lord of the underworld (who welcomes and lords over Hell and punishes sin... glad we're being original in our cultural diversity here) turns undead Marie against undead LaLaurie for (seemingly-but-unlikely) eternity.

We end with the witches gathered around the post-mortem portrait of Fiona, and crescendo with promises of crowning the new Supreme (which could be any of them) in the season finale.

What's working?

Hitting its end-game groove, the cinematography is back in fine form, and the creeps in this episode were better than the last few weeks combined. (And, as usual, Lance Reddick was excellent).

And we got to see a bit more glimmers of theme this week! (About time if you ask me. After such a strong start, too...)

And there were many really strong moments from characters that were also rich in theme.

But what's not working:

Unfortunately, too much for the penultimate episode.

The witches' powers are developing haphazardly, seemingly more to fill plot than exercise much in the way of theme, character, or drama. What feels like the entire second half of the season seems to have been lost in this petty power-quarrel, which, if you ask me, reinforces gender norms rather than reversing them.

The "seven wonders" strike me as arbitrary. Why these powers are any more important than others isn't well explained, and the suggestion that their skillful execution is more art form than craft seems relatively overlooked. There's little finesse when it comes to both discovery and mastery of these powers amongst the current coven. Queenie in this episode is a fine example ... she gains how many powers in one episode? And why? And how? Literally there's no support for this other than plot points, and the same goes for the other witches.

As to whether it's normal that so many of these witches have so many of these powers, it could well be a plot point we've yet to see in the finale next week.

So overall, as we go into the finale? I'm expecting BIG. If prior seasons of "AHS" are any indication, the writers like to put big spins on the story in the final acts. But even if the episode hits a deeply thematic groove, it would have to do some major intellectual work to redeem the relatively dry season we've seen so far.

Only time will tell. One left!

(And I'm absolutely still not counting out Team Nan!)

"American Horror Story" airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. EST on FX and concludes season 3 next Wednesday, Jan. 29, with "Seven Wonders"

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