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‘American Horror Story: Coven’ Review: “Bitchcraft”

American Horror Story Coven Premiere Photos Bitchcraft
FX

The season premiere of ‘American Horror Story: Coven‘ wastes absolutely zero time getting into the sort of wacky, gruesome, utterly insane stuff we’ve come to know and love from the series. This time around, as the title implies, there’s a whole lot of witchery going on, and we’ve got Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett and Emma Roberts along for the ride. From the opening scenes, “Bitchcraft” lets us know that ‘American Horror Story’ is definitely, definitely back. 

And it’s one hell of a premiere episode. ‘American Horror Story’ is a show that throws in everything but holds back on the kitchen sink, and then tosses it in for good measure. When it works, it’s utterly fantastic, weird, unsettling and totally bonkers. When it doesn’t, it’s still fascinating to watch. Co-creator Ryan Murphy has admitted that he takes a very busy approach, basically making a mental vision board of all the things that interest him at the moment, and then trying to shove them all together in one episode.

“Bitchcraft” has a lot of ideas, but is relatively simple in comparison to some of the episodes of ‘Asylum.’ Sure, it still feels like a nightclub Stefon would talk about on ‘SNL’: with its homemade minotaurs, torture attics, Kathy Bates covering her face in pancreas blood, Jessica Lange snorting coke and being a very fun bad girl, Gabourey Sidibe proclaiming herself a “human voodoo doll,” potions, telekinesis, death by sex, and so much more. And that’s not even half of it. And yet, there’s a simplicity to this first episode that feels sort of elegant. Murphy is classing it up with ‘Coven’ with some incredible actresses, sets and costumes, but he’s still toying with the limits of good taste, and we wouldn’t expect anything less.

The basic setup this year involves a young woman named Zoe, who accidentally kills her boyfriend during her first sexual experience, giving him something akin to the most horrific aneurysm ever. Her mom reveals she’s a witch and trots her off to Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, a secret refuge for young witches to learn and grow with their powers. Sarah Paulson’s Cordelia Foxx is the headmistress, whose mother, Fiona Goode, is the “Supreme” (the most powerful living witch), played with all the gusto we’ve come to expect from Lange. Also attending the school are Madison, a D-list movie star; Queenie, the aforementioned human voodoo doll; and Nan (season 1′s very talented Jamie Brewster, whose scenes with Lange are even more delightful than they were back then), a clairvoyant. There’s also a mute butler played by season 1′s Denis O’Hare, and a side story involving a woman named Misty Day (Lily Rabe), whose powers are discovered by the fundamentalist folk in her small town outside of New Orleans — she’s burned at the stake, but we haven’t seen the last of her yet.

And while this all sounds predictably busy, there are some great, big moments in the opening episode. We travel back in time to meet Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), a sinister woman obsessed with re-capturing her youth, who tortures slaves in her attic in ways that would make Eli Roth shudder. Of course, Madame LaLaurie’s story starts to connect to our modern day witches when Nan wanders into a guided tour of her old home (wherein a tourist charmingly asks, “Wasn’t this house owned by the guy in ‘Face/Off’?”), later tipping Lange’s Fiona off to where LaLaurie was mysteriously buried all those years ago — surprise, she’s still alive and has been kept seemingly immortal by her poisoner, a voodoo priestess named Marie Laveau. Laveau is based on a real-life priestess from New Orleans, whose grave is a big tourist draw. With LaLaurie and the similarly vanity-minded Fiona in cahoots, things are about to get a whole lot darker.

The only thing better than Emma Roberts and Jessica Lange on their own is putting them in the same scenes together, giving us gems like, “You’re a sloppy little witch bitch,” and “It’s too hot. My vagina is sweating” — it’s exactly the kind of nutso dialogue you came to the show for.

But one of the other great moments of the episode is when Madison takes Zoe off to a frat party, where Tumblr ‘shippers of season 1′s Tate and Violet will lose their damn minds when the two are reunited — Evan Peters plays Kyle, a nice frat guy who immediately falls for Zoe, but the two are distracted when his bros date-rape Madison.

And let’s talk about that horrific Steubenville-esque setup. Madison’s character is interesting enough on her own, so the use of the rape scene, which feels like a genuine device to (A) reflect real-world situations that are tragically all-too common, and (B) show us what kind of witches these girls are. Madison seems more in touch with her powers and more accepting of the inherent darkness that comes with them, sort of like Fiona; but Zoe is still naive and not yet ready to act out her vengeful impulses with her powers … until the end of the episode, when she relents and literally bangs a guy to death. It’s a way for Murphy to comment on how women in film and television are often portrayed as powerful based on gender-exclusive abilities — primarily, their sexuality.

But I give Murphy (and co-writer Brad Falchuk) credit in the female department — every season of ‘AHS’ has featured more female characters than males, and there’s always such variety. They are complex, flawed, self-assured, powerful, weak … they are any number of things because women, like all people, are any number of things at any given time. He also respects his female characters and acknowledges their gender while also not making it what defines them. Sure, ‘AHS’ can be a flawed, mixed bag of a show, but it’s a great show for and about women — women who are almost always in danger or the source of danger.

I should also mention that tonight’s episode was directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who directed some of the best episodes of ‘Asylum,’ and really goes all-out here with some dizzying overhead shots and vertiginous takes that elongate hallways and deepen rooms, so we always feel as though something has been artificially toyed with — everything feels enchanted and manipulated. Here’s hoping he directs several more episodes this season.

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