Thursday, January 30, 2014

'American Horror Story: Coven' Recap: 'The Seven Wonders'

(courtesy of hypable.com)
BY KARL PFEIFFER

And that's all she wrote.

If there's one thing "American Horror Story" absolutely needs to be consistently good at, it's finales, particularly given that each season wraps its own story in a way no other show on television can boast. Lucky for us, their endings are excellent.

"The Seven Wonders" brought back nearly everything I wanted to see in order to best put a bow on the season. We started the episode with a beautifully filmed Stevie Nicks return, recalling Donnie Darko for me, as we snuck glimpses at the finalists as they prepared for the Seven Wonders. The cinematography was excellent for the entire episode (except for the brief return of Papa L -- Why the hell can't they shoot that guy?). The musical score was back in force. And we even saw some bow-tying on my favorite element: the themes.

(courtesy eonline)

The episode dives headlong into the Triwizard Tourna -- Er. The Seven Wonders Contest. We knock off a few more witches without second glance, with Misty turning Dusty after she gets herself trapped in a Groundhog-Day-esque underworld where she has to relive high school over and over, in her case, killing a frog before restoring it in an endless cycle for eternity.

Zoe has a wonderfully brutal accident when apparating on a spiked fence post, but Madison refuses to save her. Cordelia is persuaded by Myrtle that she's the Coven's only hope for a stable Supreme, given that Madison is being such a, well, such a bitch. Madison flips her shit when her divination OWL comes around and she fails it. Kyle, upset that Madison refused to resurrect Zoe, strangles Madison to death.

Cordelia completes her final task of the Seven Wonders by resurrecting Zoe before passing out and awaking restored and refreshed, her altogether-wickedly-creepy blinded eyes renewed and her hair a luminous blonde.

The episode winds down in classic AHS-denouement fashion. Cordelia goes on television to announce the witches' existence in order to bring awareness for the young witches out there, who arrive in droves. Myrtle confesses that she must burn at the stake because she killed two council-witches earlier in the season, and so the three remaining of the Coven burn her at the stake (as alluded to by Murphy early in the season, when he suggested that the final burning at the end of the title sequence will reflect the end of the season).

Cordelia has a coming to Jesus with Fiona, who'd faked her own death in order to lock down the new Supreme so she could kill her. But given that Cordelia had come into her absolute power, Fiona was frail, mostly bald, and fading fast. The two reconcile though with a thematically-dripping conversation about coming to terms with old age, mortality, the meaning of motherhood and daughterhood and pretty much everything I've been jumping up and down about since like episode three.

Fiona dies and goes to a hellish underworld of her own making, where Papa L laughs in the corner and the axeman cometh (heh, heh) and fishes a lot. Meanwhile, the witches are left in a trio (as witches seem to do), with Queenie, Zoe, and Cordelia welcoming a massive new class of witches.

Finale Love:

What I loved most about this finale was that in many ways it was the high point of the season, bringing together many themes (quite a lot that weren't clear to me until even putting words to this review). We saw the realization of the Mother/Crone dynamic between Fiona and Cordelia. A bit heavy-handed perhaps, but the whole season was driving toward it.

Indeed, the theme of motherhood was huge this season. Promo artwork was heavy on the snake imagery, which only appeared in the premiere, as Cordelia was trying to become pregnant. In many overt ways, this season was about Cordelia coming into motherhood from maidenhood, as she inherited the Coven from her mother, who was struggling with cronehood.

The season finishes in very balanced fashion too. Myrtle and Fiona balanced each other as the two crone-figures of the season, where one has embraced her womanhood, flaming red hair and a wisdom that permeates her scenes, the other fighting tooth and nail to maintain her youth.

The same balance stretches to Madison and Zoe, who are in a similar balance of youth, where one is reckless, selfish and power-hungry, the other is the complete opposite. Notice how it's the exact moment that one dies that the other is resurrected. Same goes for Myrtle, who gives way to the "resurrected" Fiona. Misty balances Cordelia as the free-spirit, family-less mother, while Cordelia is (well, was) married and trying to start a family. Symbolic then, that Misty should die as Cordelia takes up her mantle of true motherhood -- which in its own right becomes crone-ish.

As Fiona dies, she gives way her wise Cronehood to Cordelia, who gives away her motherhood to Queenie and Zoe, who become mothers over the scores of new witch maidens.

This emphasis on cycles even extends to poor Dusty. Er. Misty. As far as we know, she's set to repeat her own hell over and over for the rest of eternity. But I couldn't help but put significance on the frog she was killing before resurrecting again. The process was extremely Eastern: Death, rebirth, death, rebirth, for eternity. The frog itself is an almost-universal symbol of the three stages of the life cycle (egg, tadpole, frog). It's a perfect symbol for teenagers, who are going through a state of transition and growth, and it's often a symbol of fertility. All of these are seamless with the themes of the season, and bode well for Misty, even if her plot was left a bit.... hanging.

The season as a whole had a funny dynamic with death. I can't figure if this was intentional or not (the same way that second season had a very claustrophobic feel because their Asylum set felt like such a soundstage), as death certainly seems, by the end, to have been broken down completely, made meaningless. Characters died right and left before being resurrected right and left. Then other characters were knocked off without care, and more still left to eternity in hellish underworlds of their own making. There seem to be consistent threads in all this, but I'm struggling to put them all together.

Which I think, in the end, is the biggest problem with this season. It was all operating superficially.

Overall:

This show is "American Horror Story." It's a study of Americana (the thematic), Horror (in cinematography) and Story (the Narrative). And unfortunately, this third season only skated through all of these. The themes were there, but not threaded. Too much emphasis on petty, cliché cat fights, not enough emphasis on, for example, how big a deal it was for these witches to come out of hiding and go national. They're women, empowered, a matriarchy gaining footing against discrimination. I mean, that's ripe for a season of gender politics. But they spent barely three minutes on it.

The horror was glazed this season. I've mentioned it before. I know that was the point, but there were moments when it was an oversight to avoid some good, dark, sexy horror moments. That said, it was excellently crafted from a technical standpoint.

And story? There was both too much emphasis on story drama and too little depth. Cordelia and Fiona's dynamic was the heart of the season, and that much was strong. But all supporting conflict felt tacked-on and phony to me.

So:

Was Coven elegant? Was it fun? Was it well-crafted? Generally, for all three: hellz yeah! Absolutely, yes.

Was it deep and fundamentally challenging? I'd say, given the standard set by seasons one and two, no. A common failing for third seasons, but still a disappointment.

A well-done, sexy, so-nearly-excellent season.

I'm a tough critic though. What are your thoughts now that it's all over? Chime in down below in the comments, or drop us a line on Twitter,

@ParaPopCulture and @KarlPfeiffer

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