G-S-T TV: American Horror Story: Coven (3.1, "Bitchcraft")

AHS-Lange-Roberts-Brewer-Farmiga-Sidibe

In one episode, American Horror Story: Coven (“season 3”, in typical television vernacular) has established a keener focus than was seen in the whole stretch of last year’s Asylum. That’s an achievement in and of itself; Asylum, unlike the series’ premiere installment, Murder House, went all over the place and brought the kitchen sink back with it. Aliens, Nazis, the devil, killer Santa clause, evil children, an Ed Gein-alike, Anne Frank (yes, Anne Frank), and all the joys of a clergy-backed nuthouse gave Asylum the sensation of weightless indecision. On first impression, the witchcentric Coven won’t have that problem in the slightest, though there’s always room for clutter.

For now, we can all rest easy: everything of Coven‘s plot appears to have solid cohesion, with characters, places, and events that all wrap back around to each other pretty smoothly. You won’t be wondering, for example, what Kathy Bates’ character, historical serial killer and all around terrible person Delphine LaLaurie, has to do with with Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) and her all-too-literal petite mort, which serves as the event that kicks-off the entire episode in earnest. Oh, sure, we start off meeting Delphine and her magical torture dungeon (attic, really), but it’s the tragic teen sex that occurs afterward that actually moves us forward here.

This season is, as Frank Sinatra would croon, witchcraft; Zoe, it turns out, is a witch, something her mother informs her of too late following some ill-advised premarital whoopie that ends with a dead boyfriend. Mom appears to be well-versed in handling these sorts of situations from reading Harry Potter, and so she immediately has Zoe whisked away (by series regular Frances Conroy and a squad of albinos) to Nola, where she’s enrolled in a school for young ladies boasting magical powers – all the better for them to learn how to control their gifts.

But of course nothing’s so simple as that: the headmistress of Miss Robichaux’s Academy For Exceptional Young Ladies, Cordelia (Sarah Paulson, another AHS alum), happens to be engaged in a bit of a war with her mother, Fiona (Jessica Lange, maybe the show’s MVP for her work in season 2 alone), while each of the girls naturally lock horns over interpersonal drama as teenagers are so wont to do. There’s Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), spoiled celebrity mean girl; Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), tough as nails foster care vet and human voodoo doll (the reveal of her talents may be one of the episode’s most effective moments); and Nan (Jamie Brewer, Adelaide from Murder House), a clairvoyant who gets brushed aside by her schoolmates despite being smarter than all of them put together. So says Fiona, anyhow, but she’s the supreme – the head honcho witch-in-chief – so I’ll take her word for it.

AHS-Bates

Coven, taking a queue from Asylum in the setting department, drops us smack-dab in the middle of New Orleans, straddling timelines as we shuffle back and forth between the 1830s forward and present day. Unlike last year’s American Horror Story, though, Coven treats its backdrop almost as its own character; there’s a sense of flavor and locational mythology here. Asylum, that could have happened just about anywhere. Coven has an identity all its own right off the bat, and that gives it a punch that we haven’t seen in the show to date. There’s real-deal folklore at work here, between the voodoo references, the presence of LaLaurie, and the additional involvement of Marie Laveau (the great Angela Bassett), voodoo queen and a proof that hell truly hath no fury like a woman scorned.

That’s going to be Coven‘s central theme: don’t mess with these ladies. Women have played the hero throughout all of American Horror Story, for the most part, but Coven seems to be continuing with Asylum‘s fascination with female struggle. Don’t expect much out of the male characters, in other words, especially since one of the few cast here – nice guy Evan Peters – buys the farm before “Bitchcraft” even ends. (The sizzle reel tells us this won’t be permanent, but who knows how he’ll figure into the rest of the season?) Men might not even matter as major antagonists, outside of the frat boys who gang-rape Madison in one of the show’s more problematic and most shoddily written developments; expect Coven, then, to be all about hearing its women roar.

Things are already looking pretty spicy. No one’s holding back here, particularly director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, here helming his sixth American Horror Story episode (he’ll be taking the reigns for at least one more); he goes all-out with Dutch angles and frenetic edits, and while it’s nice to see him taking risks and going all-in, here’s hoping the show exhibits a little more restraint from here on out. If not, though, we’ll still be in for a wild ride – Coven looks like it’s going to deliver.