American Horror Story: Coven
October 10, 2013
Hooray, it’s a new season of American Horror Story! Ryan Murphy has promised that this season, which takes place in New Orleans and is about witches — both the voodoo and Salem varietals — will be more glamorous, sexy and fun than last season — which, honestly, it would have to be. (Have I mentioned how much I disliked last season? Because I REALLY DISLIKED LAST SEASON. So dreary and overdone and heavy-handed and aliens? WHY ALIENS? WHAT DO ALIENS HAVE TO DO WITH ANYTHING? What a stupid season.)
Here’s the thing: I know a thing or two about New Orleans. If you hadn’t read in some of my previous entries or over here on Top Chef, I used to live in New Orleans and consider it a second home. You might even describe my enthusiasm for the city as “borderline insufferable,” so I’ll just go ahead and apologize ahead of time for being overly nitpicky about certain details in this season; geographical, cultural, historical, whathaveyou. But here’s the thing: New Orleans is not just the setting of this season, it’s a character. And I have to treat how it is depicted with as much criticism as I would any other part of the series. What I am saying is, it’s going to get pedantic up in here. You’ve been warned.
1834, New Orleans
Meet Mme. Marie Delphine Lalaurie, wife of Dr. Lalaurie and well-bred member of New Orleans society. For our purposes today, Mme. Lalaurie has three daughters from her two previous marriages (technically, she had five daughters, but qui compte?), to whom she is introducing to potential prétendants. While her daughters may not have much in the way of outer beauté, they have other talents, like wrangling the slaves and petit point. As for her youngest daughter, Pauline, Mme. Lalaurie isn’t sure what her talent is, but Pauline knows — it’s in the boudoir, she proudly declares while making boudoir-eyes at one very alarmed slave.
Later, while Mme. Lalaurie is busy at her nightly skin routine, smearing slave blood all over her face (it’s good for the pores), she is informed that there has been a situation during the evening’s dinner party. She heads downstairs to discover her pute of a daughter Pauline has been busily making the sexe with the slave from earlier. After slapping her daughter around, Mme. Lalaurie announces that they’re going to claim that Nameless Slave raped Pauline. Nameless Slave protests that he “belongs to someone else” but too bad, so sad, up to the attic with you.
Mme. Lalaurie personally oversees Nameless Slave’s interment upstairs, greeting the other slaves she had stashed away previously. Here’s Sewed-Up Mouth, and over there is Good Ol’ Flayed Face. So many fun memories! Mme. Lalaurie has Nameless Slave chained to a wall where she plops a hollowed-out bulls head that she just happened to have lying around over his own head and calls him a Minotaur. Now, why Minotaur doesn’t just wait for her to leave the attic and heave the bull’s head off his shoulders is unclear, since Mme. Lalaurie doesn’t seem to have it formally attached in any way, but I suppose the implication is that she gets around to that at a later time.
Some indeterminate time later, Mme. Lalaurie runs out of her supply of facial slave pancreas and concerned that Dr. Lalaurie’s attentions have been diverted by ladies with healthy stores of facial slave pancreas, she sends one of her daughters up to the attic to harvest some more facial slave pancreas. Later, Mme. Lalaurie is visited by the one and only Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen Extraordinaire, who offers Mme. Lalaurie un potion d’amour to ensure Dr. Lalaurie’s fidelity. “MMM! A mysterious potion being offered to me by a stranger who is asking for nothing in return? Sounds on the up-and-en haut! Sure, come on in and let me drink whatever it is in this little voodoo vial of yours, yum!” says Mme. Lalaurie. And then she promptly collapses on the floor in a writhing pile of silk and lace. That bit of business taken care of, Marie Laveau heads up to the attic where she finds her boyfriend, Minotaur and has a sad.
Oh, hey, it’s Violet! Except it’s not Violet, it’s Zoe, who is a lot like Violet, but named Zoe. Zoe brings a boy home for some underage sexytimes while her mom isn’t around, but the loss of her V-card ends abruptly when Boy’s head ruptures all over her bed, gross.
And this is when Zoe learns that she and her family are carriers of the recessive witch gene. As a result, she is being escorted by Myrtle, a ginger witch with a thing for tartan, and that one albino actor
supermodel who was on the “flawsome” (stop it, Tyra Banks) episode of America’s Next Top Model last week, down to New Orleans via train because I guess their brooms are being serviced or something.
On the train ride, Zoe has plenty of time to exposit that during the Salem Witch Trials, a whole lot of innocent girls were put to death. However! There were some real witches who were smart enough to pack up their black cats and eye of newt and head to New Orleans where the locals don’t think twice about a little hoodoo.
>The trio finally arrive at
my former landlord’s Jackson Ave. mansion Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Girls, whose gates and front door open on their own, welcoming Zoe inside. There, she’s chased around the stark white halls by hooded figures wearing carnival masks who eventually catch her, throw her down on a table and are about to turn her into an offering to the “Dark Father” when, Haha! It’s just a joke. The figures are actually Zoe’s fellow students at the academy: Madison Montgomery (movie star), Adelaide from Season One I MEAN Nan and Not Andrea Jackson but “Queenie,” although she is giving off Andrea Jackson realness here. (Careful with that link! Language!)
Zoe also meets her new headmaster, Cordelia Foxx, who is not Lana Winters, Tough Cookie, but played by the amazing Sarah Paulson nonetheless. Ms. Foxx shows Zoe around the place, giving all of us a little history lesson: Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies was established as a finishing school in 1790. During the Civil War, it became a military hospital. In 1868, the school was taken over by an East Coast society matron, suffragette, children’s book author and Supreme Witch, Mariannae Wharton, with the intention of turning it into Hogwarts. The school used to have upwards of 60 witches at a time, but now it’s just the four of them, as the breed is dying out. Ms. Foxx further explains that a Supreme is the one witch of her generation that has All the Powers. Ms. Foxx is not the Supreme; she, like Zoe is just a witch-witch, and she’s here to teach Zoe how to control her ability. Which seems like should be a pretty easy task. “Lesson 1: Keep on your pants. Lesson 2: There is no lesson 2.”
Ms. Foxx explains that there are others like them out there who know nothing of their ancestry. Case in point, one Misty Day of Bopunkville, LA, Somewhere Outside Lafayette. Poor girl had the power of resurgence, but didn’t realize it until in the middle of one of her community’s daily snake-handling services (never mind that snake-handling churches belong to an Appalachian movement, not a Cajun one, but go ahead and make your point about the weirdness of religion being subjective, Ryan Murphy) she spotted a dead bird, felt the compulsion to pick it up, at which point the bird flew away and she got burnt at the stake for her troubles.
So remember, girls: You’re always going to be under siege and hunted down. Kind of like the X-Men!
Speaking of Supremes, which we were a couple of paragraphs ago but shut up whatever, meet Fiona Goode, Head Witch In Charge.
Fiona receives some promising news from a scientist that she has working on an anti-ageing serum: the Capuchin monkey he’s treated with his latest stem cell formula is showing signs of rejuvenation and human studies could be as soon as 2 years away, yippee! Fiona is like, “Yeah, whatever, give me the serum right this instant.” Dr. Nope refuses her, even though his research is completely funded by her late husband’s money and instead offers to recommend a plastic surgeon. What they do here is “not magic,” he explains because who doesn’t love a little dramatic irony, right?
Five days later, Fiona is in her Los Angeles apartment, watching news reports on Misty Day’s violent death and doing sympathy rails of coke. Dr. Nope arrives, irritated that she has called him away from his daughter’s violin recital, but Fiona ain’t got time for that. His miracle drug isn’t working, she’s hopped up on all of the cocaine and crazy disappointed. So to punish him, she’s going to drain the life out of him with a kiss. BYE, DR. NOPE. MAYBE YOU SHOULD HAVE KEPT YOUR LITTLE MONKEY VIDEOS TO YOURSELF, DUDE.
Back at the Academy, the ladies have dinner, tease the mute butler
King Russell Spaulding and snarl at one another. We learn that Nan is clairvoyant (and predicts that Zoe will find love again, but it will be strange and unexpected); Queenie is a human voodoo doll; and Madison has the power of telekinesis which she used to kill a director by dropping a stage light on him. When Queenie and Madison start squabbling about I don’t even know what, they begin using their powers on one another until Nan drags Queenie out of the room, leaving Madison and Zoe alone together. Madison declares Zoe her new BFF, and informs her that they are going to a frat party that night. But if they want to hang out with frat boys, they really should just go to The Boot and do their Cinnamon Toast Crunch Shots there and save themselves some roofie poisoning.
Meanwhile, Ms. Foxx is busy in her potion lab working on potions when her mother, Fiona, sneaks in, surprising her. Family dynamics happen: Fiona is disappointed that Cordelia never reached her full potential as the child of a Supreme; Cordelia is angry that her mother dumped her at the Academy. (I think? It’s vague.) The point is: Mom and Daughter have a strained relationship, and Cordelia asks Fiona to leave. However, Fiona is all worked up about this Misty Day story, how not “50 miles” from where they are, Salem happened again. (Not to get pedantic — except who are we kidding — I’m pedantic, but Lafayette is on the other side of Baton Rouge which itself is some 60 miles from New Orleans, so no? And I’m not trying to make a big deal out of it, except HOW HARD IS IT TO LOOK AT A MAP, WRITERS? NOT THAT HARD, THAT’S HOW HARD.) So Fiona is sticking around to teach Cordelia’s wards how to defend themselves in this age of Twitter and viral videos. And thus we have our plot! Or, one of our plots. This is American Horror Story, after all, so expect there to be roughly 17 or 18 more plots.
Tate Kit Kyle, Frat Bro. Before heading into a frat party, Kyle explains to his brothers what is to be expected of them that night: no public puking or urination or exposure, or he will send them back to the party bus. Deal? DEAL.
Party party party, and Zoe and Madison walk in, where Madison is immediately recognized and fawned over by the other guests, leaving Zoe by herself. Kyle spies Zoe through an ice sculpture, because what frat party doesn’t have an ice sculpture? Also, because Ryan Murphy wanted to recreate this moment:
Kyle brings Zoe a drink and they flirt and he explains that he’s a local boy from the 9th ward which seems a little, um, unlikely, but I do give him credit for doing a plausible accent and not devolving into some sort of Georgia/Carolina mashup that most actors mistakenly do when trying to portray New Orleanians, and Kyle speculates that she must have a boyfriend but she explains that while she doesn’t have a boyfriend and while she does like Kyle, it’s never going to happen (lest his face explode).
And while Kyle and Zoe have their little fated meet-cute (because ain’t no way Ryan Murphy wasn’t going to reunite Tate and Violet), Madison is upstairs being gang raped by Kyle’s roofie-ing frat brothers. After all, Kyle didn’t say anything about “no raping” in his pre-party address. With frat boys, you have to be pretty specific.
Zoe soon realizes she hasn’t seen Madison for a while and with Kyle’s help they find her mid-rape. Kyle chases his frat brothers back onto the bus, where his brothers knock him unconscious, kick the driver out and drive away. Super cool frat, Kyle! Zoe runs screaming after the bus and is joined by Madison who calmly points in the bus’ direction, flipping it and setting it on fire. Don’t mess with Carrie, yo.
The next morning, Queenie and Nan are watching a news report on the bus crash which apparently killed 7 of the frat bros on the scene, leaving two in critical condition at the hospital. BUT WHICH TWO? Madison storms in, turns off the television and tries to ignore the entire situation. Which is when Fiona arrives and dismisses the incident, “Football season is over, Veronica. Kurt and Ram had nothing left to offer the school except date rapes and AIDS jokes,” before chastising Madison for being a sloppy “little witch bitch.” Madison sneers that Fiona is an old hag, and with one flick of her wrist, Fiona puts Madison in her place, slamming her into a wall. Alright! Field trip time, ladies! Put on something black.
And so the ladies march through the French Quarter on their way to Popp Fountain, which is in City Park and nowhere near the French Quarter, and you certainly wouldn’t want to walk there in your Louboutins. But Fiona describes the fountain as a holy spot for their order, so let’s just call it a pilgrimage. Fiona explains that back in the 70s, a witch by the name of Toups (which, according to the closed captioning is not the same name as the hospital which was Troost, although this just makes me question the closed captioning as the names seem awfully similar and deliberate), used to openly practice there with her coven, but the authorities closed it down after Katrina, calling it a safety hazard. Fiona intends to tear the wall down, because if witches don’t fight back, they burn. Fiona then explains that while each of the girls has a gift, that’s not enough to be a real witch. When Madison questions if Fiona is a real witch, Nan declares that Fiona is the Supreme. YES, SHE IS. DO NOT STEP TO HER, GIRLS.
Nan then stops in her tracks in front of a building that is MOST DECIDEDLY NOT the Lalaurie Mansion, and goes inside, where a tour is taking place even though NO TOURS ARE GIVEN IN THE LALAURIE MANSION.
Fiona and the others follow inside where Fiona Obi-Wan Kenobis the tour guide into allowing them to join the tour for free. The guide gives some important true facts about the Lalaurie Mansion: Mme. Lalaurie tortured her slaves horribly in the attic; the house is reputedly haunted to this day, some 179 years later; Nicholas Cage recently owned it (until he had to sell it as part of his bankruptcy case).
Completely made-up nonsense about the Lalaurie Mansion that the tour guide shares: Marie Laveau sought revenge on Mme. Lalaurie, Mme. Lalaurie died in the attic. But the tour guide does end with an actual, historic fact: To this day, no one knows where Mme. Lalaurie is buried.
The actual story goes that during one of her famous dinner parties, one of Mme. Lalaurie’s kitchen slaves had HAD ENOUGH and started a fire. When the firemen came, they discovered the tortured and mutilated slaves up in the attic and all of New Orleans society was OUTRAGED! However, before the lynch mob could grab any of the Lalauries, they escaped into the night in a carriage, never to be seen again.
But for Ryan Murphy’s purposes, Marie Laveau gets involved.
Moving on: so after their tour, Nan leads Fiona into a bricked garden where she stares intently at the ground where “the lady of the house is buried.”
I suppose the field trip is over because Zoe is suddenly marching through a hospital looking totally conspicuous. There she discovers that, in fact, new boyfriend Kyle is now dead boyfriend Kyle, as the rapey ringleader is the one that survived the crash. So, while narrating something about trust and the witches needing each other and how the world isn’t safe for her but maybe she’s not so safe for the world either, Zoe climbs on top of Rapey Bro’s comatosed body and does her head-splodey thing.
That night, Fiona oversees two burly men as they excavate Mme. Lalaurie’s coffin before Men in Blacking them and sending them on their way. And upon opening the coffin, Fiona finds a very much alive Mme. Lalaurie whom she frees from her bonds and gag and offers to buy a drink because you’d be thirsty, too, after being trapped in a coffin for 179 years.
So, I LOVED this episode — loveloveloved it — and am so optimistic about where the season is going. I know, I picked at some of the details, but I want to make clear that I understand that for atmosphere and storytelling purposes, they are going to take some liberties with locations and history. I get it and I dig the general direction they are going with their own Lalaurie/Laveau mythology. Very fun, very sexy, very very. VERY VERY!
But my enthusiasm stems not just from the location or the fun writing or the return of Jessica Lange as HBIC — although those things all help — but I’m thrilled by the material and the themes of this season. There is so much here for me to work with! Hero’s Journey, feminism, mythology, symbolism, racism, religion and history: it’s a jackpot. And while a series like American Horror Story doesn’t necessarily require the same sort of dissection as a show like Lost to be understood, the writers did include these things, and we should at least discuss them a little (or a terribly lot as the case may be).
To begin with, I found the recurring use of fountains to be fascinating. When we are introduced to Fiona, she is actively searching for the proverbial Fountain of Youth, only to fail through scientific means. Later, she explains to the girls that they are going on a field trip to Popp Fountain, a place of great spiritual significance to their order — except they never make it there. Instead, through Nan’s powers, they are sidetracked to the Lalaurie Mansion which ultimately leads Fiona to what she has been looking for all this time: the secret to eternal life. While they might not have made it to the fountain, she might have found her way to the Fountain. A quick note about fountains symbolically: springs and fountains often serve as holy spots because of the fresh water they produce. As such, they represent a life-giving force and are often associated with maternal symbolism. The most famous fountain is, of course, the mythical Fountain of Youth. From my trusty Penguin Dictionary of Symbols:
The tradition persists that the Fountain of Youth springs from the foot of a tree. Because its water are ever changing, the FOUNTAIN symbolizes constant rejuvenation rather than immortality. Such divine or sacrificial beverages as ambrosia, soma or mead were all ‘Fountains of Youth.’ Whoever drank from them broke through the limitations of the temporal state to acquire longevity through youthfulness perpetually renewed…. [p.910]
I’m not sure what to add or take away from that, but I’m guessing it will be significant as the season goes on, so I’ll just leave it there.
In her minor interlude, Misty Day picks up a dead (or dying) bird, revives it, it flies away and she is promptly dragged onto the pyre. So, birds represent a number of things, including chaos and fertility and whathaveyou. For our purposes here, we will consider the bird using one of its oldest symbolic meanings: the soul — specifically the departing soul lifting up towards the heavens or afterlife. Birds represent freedom, freedom specifically of the spirit from the physical body. And so when Misty Day released that bird back into the world of the living, it foreshadowed her own separation from this life, but also the freeing of her true self, a realizing of her full potential as a witch.
Which is to say that I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Misty Day. Though she was set on fire and presumed dead by her community, the media and our Supreme, she does have the power of regeneration. Not to mention the fact that she is portrayed by Lily Rabe, one of the American Horror Story Players, and I doubt Ryan Murphy would only use her for such a minor part.
But aside from the obvious, I’m struck by the use of a combination of symbols for Misty: birds and fire. Fire is a hugely important symbol — and I suspect it will be a significant theme this season. It represents the torments of Hell, destruction, consumption. But fire also represents purification and regeneration. And if you combine fire with a bird, you have a phoenix, a bird that dies in a burst of flames, only to be reborn from its own ashes. The phoenix represents “the cycle of regeneration, resurrection and immortality,” [p. 752] i.e.: Misty Day, who, having been set on fire will (presumably) rise from the ashes, purified of her former life, reborn as a powerful witch.
One last note about fire: I don’t think it’s just a quirky character trait of Fiona’s that she’s shown almost constantly smoking. Instead, I think it’s supposed to be a psychological quirk of hers: that she is subverting, consuming and controlling the means by which others might attempt to control her.
The most cryptic symbol of the episode, however, has to be the Minotaur. So the story goes, Minos, the king of Crete asked Poseidon to send him a perfect white bull to sacrifice in his honor. Poseidon is like, “cool, sure whatever,” and sends the sacrifice. But then Minos, upon seeing the bull, decides this bull is way too nice to just sacrifice, so he offers a different, lesser bull instead. Aphrodite gets her toga in a bunch about this for some reason and to punish Minos, makes his wife, Pasiphae, fall in love with the white bull. Pasiphae contrives to have sex with the bull, because Classical Mythology, and gives birth to a half-bull, half-man creature that is so violent and dangerous that they have to lock it up in a custom-built maze, the labyrinth. For some reason, Minos decides to continue taking care of this creature, and demands that the Athenians send over 7 young men and 7 young women to be eaten by his stepbull or … else. So they do, until one day Theseus, the son of the King of Athens is like, ENOUGH.
And he goes over himself to get rid of this mothermounting bull in this motherconfusing labyrinth. With the Minotaur’s sister’s help and a ball of twine, he goes into the labyrinth, kills the Minotaur and frees the Athenian sacrifices who hadn’t yet been eaten. Yay! But then he forgets to signal to his dad that he’s OK and his father who is apparently rather dramatic, throws himself into the ocean, giving it its name: The Aegean Sea.
But what does it all mean? What is interesting is that Mme. Lalaurie chooses to create this monstrosity after she finds her daughter having sex with this slave, a man she does not recognize as human and whom she regards to be no more than a beast. By turning the slave into a Minotaur, she is metaphorically recreating Pasiphae’s union with the sacrificial bull.
On a deeper level, the Minotaur, lurking in the center of a complicated maze, has long been understood to be a symbol of the unconscious, of the unknown, and our darkest, most beastly impulses. To journey through the labyrinth and confront the Minotaur is to confront the truth of ourselves, however terrifying it might be. In this instance, the Minotaur is not the slave himself, but instead a reflection of the monstrosity of who Mme. Lalaurie is. She makes manifest what lies inside her own sick heart and unleashes it unto the world.
And while we’re on the subject of the Minotaur, we should discuss other bulls in the Classical World. Those of you who are True Blood fans might remember the Maryann season, wherein a mysterious woman comes to town, makes trouble and is finally revealed to be a Maenad. Maenads were the female followers of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and rebirth. In wine-fueled ceremonies worshipping the god, Maenads would work themselves up into frenzies that would supposedly end with them tearing a bull apart with their hands as a symbolic recreation of Dionysus’s death. While Maenads and witches are not the same thing, there’s something to be said about the similar way these women and the power they possess inspire terror and loathing. It might not be a perfect connection, but there is one.
Which brings me, FINALLY (and kudos to you if you’ve read this far, because dude, TL:DR), to the feminist themes that will clearly be running over the course of this series and which we will get more into as we go along, trust. Entire doctoral thesis could be written about the relationship between witchcraft and feminism (and I’m sure many have been), but the short version is throughout history, feminine power, be it intellectual or sexual, has been largely regarded with fear and suspicion by patriarchal authorities and literally demonized. Women who were viewed as threats to the system or order itself were accused of witchcraft and demonology as a means to control and destroy them. (Of course, witchcraft is a real religion, and we can discuss that more in later entries, because seriously, this is waaay too long already.)
In this series, the women really do have these supernatural powers that make them potential threats — and they’re willing to use them. Zoe’s deadly gift is not a subtle allusion to the vagina dentata, nor is it a coincidence that in
both of her second, deliberately murderous sexual experience she is on top of her partner, exerting power and control. Her positioning represents female sexual dominance as a literal threat — but for Zoe, it’s also a way to be in control of her world, one that wants to destroy her and those like her. The question is, as she embarks in this journey into the unknown — not only of this secret universes of witches, but of her own potential — will Zoe take control of her power, or will it consume her?
American Horror Story: Coven airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on FX.
This post originally appeared on the Hearst site Chron.com.
Edited to reflect the correction by neona. Thanks!