‘American Horror Story: Coven’ Review: “The Dead”
On tonight’s all-new episode of ‘American Horror Story: Coven,’ Fiona finds that last, great romance she was looking for, but is it what she wanted? Meanwhile, Cordelia and Zoe make some decisions regarding Fiona and Kyle, and Queenie questions her place in the coven after spending some quality time with Madame LaLaurie.
Early in tonight’s episode, Danny Huston’s Axeman character spouts off this great Faulkner quote from ‘As I Lay Dying,’ that sums things up quite nicely: “The reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.” That makes thematic sense for a lot of our characters in “The Dead,” but the episode is sort of like a knot being tied — all the ends are slowly being threaded together, and right at the end we see them cinched perfectly into place with a solid, confident yank.
Too bad it’s not all that graceful on the way there. I’m thinking particularly of the ‘Red Shoe Diaries’ plot with Fiona and the Axeman, and while Danny Huston sinks his teeth into the campiness of this show beautifully, their arc isn’t quite gelling with the rest of the episode this week. The whole thing with his creepy ghost watching over her, his love for her transforming from fatherly to … sexual with all the delicacy of a V.C. Andrews novel. It’s a bit soapy even for Ryan Murphy. And then there’s the moment when we realize Jessica Lange’s been having sex with a ghost who’s still axe-murdering people we remember that yes, we are still watching ‘American Horror Story.’ Thank goodness.
What is great about this episode is the way it contemplates death as the great motivator of our lives, and for people like Madison and Kyle and LaLaurie, it takes actually dying to get them to try and live or make sense of living. (For Cordelia, it takes going blind to actually see, etc.) Madison gives this great monologue in this episode’s opening that encapsulates millennial culture in such a wonderfully succinct way — the jaded numbness, the entitlement, the way Madison spent her life trying to dull feelings (two days after the gang rape she was like, hey, let’s go to Jamba Juice), and now she’d give anything to feel, well, anything. She finds a kindred spirit in Kyle, which is unfortunate for Zoe because Kyle is probably the one guy she can have sex with without killing him since he’s already dead. But hey, great news: Madison and FrankenKyle are really open to a three-way poly-amorous relationship, and that’s super forward-thinking of them.
We’re also seeing all of the witches break bad this week, and I mean really, really bad. We’ve seen it coming for a while with Cordelia, who’s been slowly nudged toward a ledge by her mother and Hank and this whole infertility business for some time now, and her second sight has basically thrown her over by forcing her to see that Fiona is a murderer. I’m not sure how I feel about Zoe just accepting Cordelia’s decision to help kill Fiona, given that Zoe hasn’t felt like a fully-developed character this whole time, and hasn’t felt nearly as interesting to me as someone like Misty or Madison. When she gives Spalding back his tongue, forces the truth out of him, and stabs him in the heart, it just doesn’t feel earned. (Side note: Spalding’s robe was super fierce and I will miss him horribly.)
Cordelia going bad feels earned. Misty doing something bad would feel earned given that her own town people burned her at the stake, and we learned that in her first two minutes on screen. But Zoe stabbing Spalding in the chest feels like a cheat, and it doesn’t pack a punch because Zoe feels sort of like a blank slate of a character. She’s the audience’s gateway character to the show. We began the show with Zoe, seeing and experiencing the academy for the first time through her eyes, but all we really know about her is that she can kill boys by having sex with them, she has a crush on Kyle, she’s sympathetic, and she has lots of magic powers. She’s a pliable character, and that probably makes her a good central character because she doesn’t cause a lot of conflict and the audience can project themselves onto her. But it also makes her sort of boring because there’s no conflict with her. She doesn’t make any interesting choices, other than selfishly keeping a boy alive just because she thought he was cute and kind of nice at a party that one time and he was the only one who didn’t try to rape her friend. And look how great that’s turned out. This is actually probably the only unsympathetic choice she’s made and it’s not even really an interesting one at all. I hate to say all of this because I’ve really been trying with Zoe, but I am not on Team Zoe at all.
Bring back Misty. Where the hell is Nan?
The racial dynamics are further addressed this week and the camp is finally fully ditched in favor of some really heartbreaking stuff. (I may have even shed a tear.) Can LaLaurie’s atrocities ever really be forgiven? I think ‘AHS’ is putting up a really interesting and impossible hypothetical, and while I don’t think they’re always addressing it as gracefully and tactfully as they could (and I don’t think there will ever be a fully graceful or tactful way to do so), it’s still compelling: here we have a white slaver who committed some of the most heinous crimes against black people whom she kept as slaves, and she is sitting in a house, with a young black woman, who is asking her, “What’s the worst thing you ever did?” But the bigger question is: can this black woman forgive this white woman for what she did? And can these two be friends? And the answer at the end of the episode is no. Not just no, but hell no. And yet you have to give ‘AHS’ credit for making you wish that Queenie would forgive LaLaurie. But most of that credit goes to Kathy Bates for managing to find some tiny grain of humanity in this monstrous woman, for reaching deep down and somehow finding a way to empathize with this person and finding a way to translate that to all of us. I don’t know how the hell she does it. The woman is a damn genius.
And credit where credit’s due to Angela Bassett, too, because you can just hear the venom dripping behind the honey in her voice, and you know that what she offers Queenie isn’t a safe, good home; to her, Queenie is just another pawn in a war, and my heart breaks for the moment when she’ll eventually realize that. But also: Marie Laveau triumphantly smearing LaLaurie’s blood on her face like a badass warrior witch.