If you’re like me, you’ve spent the last few weeks sweating with filthy glee at the American Horror Story: Coven promo images. There’s a reason this show has been nominated for 24 Creative Arts Emmys. An albino snake, hovering stiletto booties and a live burial do a lot to get a fan’s blood pumping. And so it is with the actual show that AHS: Coven‘s strength lies in its individual flawless images – a bare-faced Kathy Bates painting her face with a blood-soaked makeup brush; a flame-haired Frances Conroy wearing sheer black glove stroking a plaid curtain; Jessica Lange wearing any and all hats – rather than its actual plot. It’s those moments of perfection that can make a viewer forgive a lot. Like for example, the utter distastefulness of scenes in the season premiere featuring slave torture and mutilation.
And oh God, is there a lot of slave torture and mutilation in our future! The season premiere opens in 1834 in the opulent New Orleans Mansion of malevolent witch Madame Delphine LaLaurie. While on the surface LaLaurie’s household is all petticoats and petit fours, up in the attic LaLaurie harvests the organs and blood of her enslaved servants to keep herself young. If you thought the Holocaust references of AHS: Asylum were cringe-worthy (and I sure did!), the season premiere of Coven is going for straight-up vile. There’s a pancreas extraction scene that really hammers home the point that Ryan Murphy is not a man of taste or class. Then again neither are we, or else we wouldn’t be watching a show that features a character listed on IMDB as “Peeled Back Face Slave.” For reasons yet unknown to us, LaLaurie even makes her own minotaur by placing a hollowed-out bull’s head on her manservant Bastian as punishment for sleeping with her daughter. LaLaurie pretty evil, I guess is what I’m saying. In case that wasn’t clear. From all the slave torture and mutilation.
Fast-forward to 2013, where average teenager Zoe Benson and her boyfriend are sneaking up to her room to do it for the first time. (Though is it really 2013 if her boyfriend has a wallet chain? Are kids still doing that nowadays?) Zoe’s boyfriend is sweet and sensitive, so of course it’s only a matter of seconds before he starts hemorrhaging out of all of his orifices. Turns out, Zoe is the latest in a long line of witches, a condition that is passed down genetically. “There is something I should have told you,” Zoe’s mother sighs to her clearly traumatized daughter. Uh, YOU THINK? Are we to understand that everyone in the Benson family waits until their unsuspecting daughters accidentally murder their boyfriends with their persqueeters to tell them about the witch thing? You would think the family would have figured out a better system in the last 180 years, but instead Zoe must watch her beloved die, after which she is dragged out by the Men in Black and sent by train to New Orleans’ preeminent school for young witches, Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies. At least Zoe has her escort Myrtle Snow to comfort her on the way to Louisiana, and by “comfort,” I mean “look so fabulous that Frances Conroy takes my breath away.”
Once Zoe arrives and is almost disemboweled to honor the Dark Father, she meets her classmates: arrogant telekinetic movie star Madison, human voodoo doll Queenie and precog Nan. In case you are a literal moron, Queenie even shouts, “I’m a human voodoo doll” when she stabs herself, causing an aggressive Madison to scream in pain. Headmistress Cordelia Foxx tells her the history of the boarding school, tracing the bloody history of witches from Salem to New Orleans. Witches are a dying breed, Cordelia explains, as witch families often choose not to procreate. The concept of witches as scientific anomalies is an intriguing one, though I doubt the show will get to the bottom of it in any kind of proper, satisfying X-Files way. (For example, did we ever find out why the aliens chose Kit last season? No honestly, I’m asking. I can’t remember.)
Cordelia stresses the importance of learning to develop and control one’s powers, citing the recent burning of local woman Misty Day as a cautionary tale, but the more intriguing angle that emerges is the concept of resurrection. Misty Day might have been murdered, but she possessed the ability to revive the dead, so Lily Rabe fans can rest easy. LaLaurie tried to keep her youthfulness with blood, Countess Bathory-style. When we meet Cordelia’s mother and Reigning Supreme witch Fiona Goode, it’s in the context of her search for an immortality drug.
Frankly, Lange’s fabulous arrival as Fiona is bogged down by her interaction with some scientist we immediately know is going to be dead by the end of the episode, though he did provide the set-up for the episode’s best line. Admiring a test monkey brought back from the edge of death by cutting-edge drugs, Fiona purrs, “I’ll have what she’s having.” It also provides us with the image of Fiona getting her spell on, snorting drugs and writhing around in a sheer black nightie. When the doctor denies her request to for more untested drugs, Fiona, um, sucks out his youth through his mouth? So she didn’t need those drugs? Me no understand, but girl looked good, for about five seconds. Then Fiona’s face fell, her mouth dripping.
That said, the drama between Cordelia and Fiona (and Cordelia’s reticence to let her mother teach her students) seems flat and vague, especially when compared to the problems facing their young charges. Having been tweeted the deets of a frat party, Madison takes Zoe to the rager, where Zoe meets hunky, morally-upright Kyle Spencer. It’s love at first sight through the warped lens of a melting ice sculpture, a surprisingly subtle visual touch that I really appreciated. Despite their obvious chemistry, Zoe brushes him off since, you know, the whole homicidal vagina thing. Meanwhile, Madison is upstairs being ROOFIED, GANG-RAPED AND VIDEOTAPED BY KYLE’S FRAT BUDDIES. Oh boy. If the slave assault didn’t get you! Despite Kyle’s attempt to stop them, the Rape Bros. flee to their waiting party bus, where they punch Kyle out and drive off, phones in hand. Zoe and Madison stagger outside, helpless to stop them – until Madison flips over the bus with her goddamn mind from 500 yards away. Have I been waiting my entire life for Emma Roberts to utterly kill a role? I think I have. I think she will.
Not that everyone agrees. “You were a sloppy, little witch bitch,” Fiona tells Madison the next day, throwing her against the wall and laying the ground for a rocky Fiona/Madison mentorship-turned-rivalry. Fiona takes the ladies on a field trip to Madame LaLaurie’s mansion, where we learn how voodoo priestess Marie Laveau poisoned LaLaurie in retribution for harming Bastian, Laveau’s lover. I would reeeeeeally like a .gif of Kathy Bates making out with that tiny bottle of poison, if someone could make that happen. Discovering the horror in the attic, Madame weeps to find her Bastian dead. Or maybe just turned into an actual minotaur? Oh yeah, probably the latter. “Her body was never was never found,” their tour guide helpfully informs them. After being tipped off by Nan’s ability to see bodies through concrete, Fiona returns in the middle of the night and unburies LaLaurie’s coffin from the courtyard. Seeing as how LaLaurie is straight-up alive inside her grave, looks like Fiona’s wish for immortality is about to come true!
Meanwhile Zoe visits the hospital in the hopes that Kyle might be one of the boys who survived the crash, only to find Madison’s first rapist has survived instead. While we’re supposed to believe that Madison is the power-hungry wildcard witch girl of the bunch, it takes about two seconds for Zoe to climb onto the guy’s hospital bed and FUCK HIM TO DEATH, an image that is a perfect example for what American Horror Story has to offer: jaw-dropping moments of horror genius, threaded along muddled plotlines that may or may not be dropped or left unresolved. (Seriously, why did those aliens pick Kit last season?)
Don’t get me wrong: I love this show. I would smear my face with human blood to stay beautiful if I married American Horror Story, and Coven is no different. Maybe I just felt burned by the ending of AHS: Asylum. Maybe I’m just being too cynical after just one episode. It’s just that this season, with a cast this amazing, costumes and visuals this creepy-gorgeous and potential plotlines this camp and compelling, should be mindblowing. I just don’t know if it will reach the heights I believe it can. Of course, I will obviously stick around to find out. First of all, I’m getting paid to! Secondly, I need more Angela Bassett. The woman was onscreen for like two seconds!