American Horror Story: Coven
“The Axeman Cometh”
November 13, 2013
Hell, March 13, 1919
They have never caught me and they never will. They have never seen me, for I am invisible, even as the ether that surrounds your earth. I am not a human being, but a spirit and a demon from the hottest hell. I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the Axeman.
When I see fit, I shall come and claim other victims. I alone know whom they shall be. I shall leave no clue except my bloody axe, besmeared with blood and brains of he whom I have sent below to keep me company.
If you wish you may tell the police to be careful not to rile me. Of course, I am a reasonable spirit. I take no offense at the way they have conducted their investigations in the past. In fact, they have been so utterly stupid as to not only amuse me, but His Satanic Majesty, Francis Josef, etc. But tell them to beware. Let them not try to discover what I am, for it were better that they were never born than to incur the wrath of the Axeman. I don‘t think there is any need of such a warning, for I feel sure the police will always dodge me, as they have in the past. They are wise and know how to keep away from all harm.
Undoubtedly, you Orleanians think of me as a most horrible murderer, which I am, but I could be much worse if I wanted to. If I wished, I could pay a visit to your city every night. At will I could slay thousands of your best citizens, for I am in close relationship with the Angel of Death.
Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night, I am going to pass over New Orleans. In my infinite mercy, I am going to make a little proposition to you people. Here it is:
I am very fond of jazz music, and I swear by all the devils in the nether regions that every person shall be spared in whose home a jazz band is in full swing at the time I have just mentioned. If everyone has a jazz band going, well, then, so much the better for you people. One thing is certain and that is that some of your people who do not jazz it on Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.
Well, as I am cold and crave the warmth of my native Tartarus, and it is about time I leave your earthly home, I will cease my discourse. Hoping that thou wilt publish this, that it may go well with thee, I have been, am and will be the worst spirit that ever existed either in fact or realm of fancy.
So, true fact, this letter was written 3 days after someone attacked a family with an axe in Gretna, Louisiana. The parents survived, somehow, but the 3-year-old child died. This was after 5 other people in the New Orleans area had been attacked by an unknown crazy axe-wielding maniac over the course of the previous 10 months. As you can imagine, when this letter was published in the New Orleans’ newspapers, people FREAKED OUT.
Including, in our fictional witchiverse, the ladies of Miss Robichaux’s Academy. Some of the young witches insist that they, like the rest of New Orleans, play jazz to protect themselves per the Axeman’s request. The bossiest of them, Meryl Streep’s daughter who is bossy because she is MERYL STREEP’S DAUGHTER AND YOU ARE NOT, insists that they are the descendants of the Salem witches and suffragettes (which seems a little irrelevant to the discussion) and they won’t be cowed by some murderous jazz freak. BREAK OUT THE OPERA LPS.
And so, the Axeman who appears to be a saxophone player when he’s not randomly chopping entire families to bits, is lured into the Academy thanks to the opera pouring from it. He follows the music upstairs where he finds Head Witch In Charge playing with her tarot cards. As he villain tropes about fair warnings and blah blah blah going to kill you now, okbai, HWIC flips over the last card, the Death card: she was doing HIS reading the whole time, LOL. And with that bit of unnecessary but dramatic flair, the other witches emerge from the shadows and stab the Axeman to death. Stab, stab, stab.
Zoe is picking through Madison Montgomery’s things (tabloids, sunglasses, tiny gun), when a bottle rolls out and leads Zoe to the closet. Zoe hears something from behind the wall and opens a small door to reveal another box filled with old pictures and FUN! a
Ouija “spirit” board.
And because a spirit board is the Chekov’s Gun of the horror genre, it’s going to get used, trust. Zoe shows Queenie and Nan the photograph of Miss Robichaux’s Academy, Class of 1919, and points out that back then the school was full of witches, but the three of them are all that’s left. They can’t afford to misplace one of their own, and that’s why they should do these absinthe shots and use this spirit board to try to find Madison Montgomery. Queenie is like, NOPE NOT SAFE, before downing a shot and playing along two seconds later.
Are we alone?
Did you die here?
Were you murdered?
Who killed you?
Madison, is that you?
Who are you?
OK, COOL, STOP, says Queenie, the reasonable one, LET’S GOOGLE THIS “AXEMAN” NONSENSE BEFORE WE GO ANY FARTHER BECAUSE HE IS CALLING HIMSELF “AXEMAN,” AND THAT DOES NOT SOUND PROMISING. And so they do, which is where they learn all about the jazz and the threats and the saxophone and come to the conclusion that the Class of 1919 must have murdered Axeman here in the house, which is why he went missing after his famous letter.* And Zoe’s like, “Cool, so now we know who we’re talking to, let’s see if he knows something about Madison.” But Queenie and Nan are not having it because AXE-MURDERING GHOST WHO WAS STABBED TO DEATH BY A BUNCH OF WITCHES, come on now.
So Zoe decides to play with the spirit board by herself which is always an excellent plan, and certainly not something covered in Necromancy 101, Week 3: “The Dead, Should I Contact Them By Myself?” But contact the Axeman she does, and she promises to give him what he wants, release (which, ew, no, Zoe, gross), if he’ll just tell her where Madison Montgomery is. “Cool! Deal! Check the attic!” says the axe-murdering ghost.
Zoe does, and it turns out that the attic is actually Rat’s Nest’s nest, filled with dollies and tea sets and Madison Montgomery’s moldering corpse. Which Zoe finds in her toy chest just as Rat’s Nest finds and grabs Zoe.
But haha, she’s a witch, so it doesn’t take much for Zoe to get the upper hand on him and the next thing poor Rat’s Nest knows, he is being interrogated by the young witches with the assist of a blazing hot spatula. As Zoe applies the spatula, she asks him some questions and allows Nan to hear his answers (which, of course, begs the question why the Council didn’t do the same in their questioning of Rat’s Nest but HEY LOOK OVER THERE ~logic runs away~):
Did you murder Madison Montgomery?
I’m a man of uniquely developed appetites.
Was she your first?
Yes, I had to have her. Madison Montgomery was so beautiful. I knew that only by sliding myself into her cold stiff unyielding mound would I ever feel like a real man again.
(NAN: His first. Yes.)
But then Rat’s Nest threatens them — turning him in would expose the coven, so, what are they going to do? Queenie isn’t amused and applies a hot spatula to her own face to learn him. But Zoe decides that they can’t kill him, not until they’re certain that he’s the one really responsible for killing Madison.
To that end, Zoe pays a visit to Misty Day who is busily tending to her Myrtle garden, and dealing with a returned Frankenkyle. Frankenkyle somehow, remarkably, managed to make his way back to the swamp and between the journey and the whole murdering his incestuous mom thing, he’s looking a hot mess. Misty Day suggests he needs a bath, but that just sets off all sorts of Mommy Touched Me in a Funny Way PTSD, and the next thing Misty Day knows, she has a naked rampaging Frankenkyle in her cabin, breaking her stuff including her 8-track deck.
That’s when Zoe arrives, looking for YET ANOTHER favor, because what’s Misty Day but a freaking favor machine, right? But Misty Day agrees to come to the school with her and take a look at Madison’s body. They chain Frankenkyle to the wall (for the safety of the audio devices if nothing else) and Misty Day argues that he and Zoe belong together, because she’s a Tate/Violet shipper, too. VIOLATE 4 EVA.
As for Madison, Misty Day offers to help Zoe dig a hole in the backyard for her, she’s too far gone and missing an arm. But Zoe insists, so the two of them together push the dead out of Madison until roaches climb out her mouth (gross) and she wakes up with an appropriate Bride of Frankenkyle scream.
On her way out, Misty Day loads up on some fruit roll-ups and Sun Chips and informs the witches that Frankenkyle is their problem now. Zoe asks for the audience why Misty Day doesn’t just hang out, especially after all her bawling about being so lonely. But Misty Day insists that this is not the tribe she is looking for, and, anyway, she’s getting some bad vibes from this place, man. PEACE OUT.
The other witches tend to a rapidly improving Madison Montgomery, who wonders how, exactly, she got into this state. But they dodge her questions, and ask her, instead, the last thing that she remembers. “Red.” Nan asks her if Madison saw a bright light, and she explains that nope, there’s nothing on the other side. Just black. Forever. Oh, cool! Super!
Meanwhile, Fiona receives chemotherapy, which I didn’t realize was a treatment for Diminishing Supremecinoma. While there, she listens in on the other patients’ thoughts about their loved ones and has a sad because she is so very lonely.
Fiona meets Delia and Darrin back at the house, where Delia has an ungrateful that there are ROSES in her ROOM. She wanted CHRYSANTHEMUMS. ALL OF THE CHRYSANTHEMUMS. When Darrin touches his wife’s arm to try to calm her down form her chrysanthemum-induced rage, she gets a glimpse of his sexytimes with the red head again and is like ALRIGHT, WHO’S THE RED HEAD? When Darrin starts backpedaling, Delia launches into a soliloquy about truly being able to see now that her sight has been taken from her (see: last week’s entry), and how he will be accountable for every betrayal. NOW GET OUT. AND GET ME SOME CHRYSANTHEMUMS.
After sending Darrin on his way, Delia touches Fiona’s arm and sees her mother putting Myrtle on the pyre. ET TU, MAMÁ, TAMBIÉN? “Well, see, it’s complicated? How about I go see how Darrin is coming with those chrysanthemums. BYEEEEE,” replies Fiona.
Darrin heads straight for The
Lower Garden District Ninth Ward where, WELL, WOULD YOU LOOK AT THAT, he’s in voodoohoots with Marie Laveau. Darrin snarls at Marie Laveau that she really messed things up by throwing acid in Delia’s face, way to go. But Marie Laveau insists she wasn’t behind it: if she wanted to blind Delia she could do it from the comfort of her own alligator throne. Well, we’ve got a problem now because she’s developed second sight, Darrin explains. But Marie Leveau fires back that actually, she hired him to take care of her problem: to kill all the descendents of the Salem witches, and 6 years later where has he gotten her exactly?
We flashback to Thomas Kinkade girl interviewing with Delia at Miss Robichaux’s; seems she was something of a pyromancer. However, Drew Barrymore wasn’t interested in joining the coven, she just wants to get married and have kids, and thinks she has a pretty good shot since she works out and plays fantasy football and hangs out on Thomas Kinkade fansites all day.
Back in the present and at Marie Laveau’s, Darrin points out that he’s killed 9 witches in the past few years — witches that Delia helped him find. Marie Laveau sneers that they should put Delia on the payroll then, before lambasting Darrin for falling in love with his wife. And now look at this mess! Mme. Lalaurie is back from the grave, and she’s got all these white witches coming into her store sassing her. ENOUGH. ENOUGH OF THE SASSING. BRING MARIE LAVEAU THEIR HEADS. ALL OF THEM. AND THEN BURN THAT SCHOOL TO THE GROUND.
So, in conclusion, Darrin doesn’t have much longer to live. One way or another, Darrin’s a goner.
Back at the house, Delia gets undressed for bed when who should appear in her bedroom, but Axeman, who is REALLY TICKED OFF that Zoe reneged on their deal and didn’t release him. THESE WITCHES OWE HIM HIS FREEDOM. And so to that end he’s going to chase Delia around the room, swinging his axe, generally being a pain in the cauldron.
The younger witches hear Delia screaming but can’t get into her locked room to save her, nor can Delia apparently unlock the door herself, despite not merely a couple of hours earlier using her mind powers to not only fling the door open for Darrin’s departure, but to use the same mind powers to slam it behind him. But a lock? NOPE. TOO COMPLICATED FOR MAGIC.
So, anyway, Zoe decides that what they need is a spell, and so she goes to the very teeny library (but seriously though, I thought witches were into spell books? I’ve got a bigger collection of cookbooks in my kitchen, you guys.) and through her powers or whatever, manages to find just the right book and just the right spell to “release” Axeman, saving Delia. Hooray! But by releasing Axeman, she unleashes him onto New Orleans. GREAT PLAN, ZOE.
And the Axeman’s first stop? At the bar where Fiona happens to be enjoying a cocktail. “Well, hello, pretty lady.”
*Actually, the Axeman went on to attack three more people over in August, September and October of that same year before disappearing altogether. His identity remains a mystery.
To begin with, how about that Death card? I love the use of tarot imagery, personally, because it’s highly symbolic and not ever as literal as you might expect it to be — something that I would expect the Meryl Streep’s Daughter (and the writers, ahem) to know. The Death card’s meanings depends on its position: Upright it represents: endings, beginnings, change, transformation, transition; Upside down it symbolizes: resistance to change, the inability to move on.
So, while Meryl Streep’s Daughter was right in noting that the Death card foretold the Axeman’s future, it wasn’t in the way she might have expected. The Death card represents change, transformation, moving from one point in one’s life to another: which certainly happens when the witches stab him to death. But the Death card also represents the inability to move on — or the trapping of one’s soul, not unlike the Axeman’s spirit’s state within the walls of Miss Robichaux’s.
At the risk of over-thinking things — which is my specialty — let’s talk about that white rose on the Death rider’s banner for a second. There are some readings of the symbolism of the card that suggest the white rose represents immortality. A more nuanced reading suggests that the white rose represents the purification of the soul that comes after death. In the tarot deck, the white rose appears once more, on the Fool’s card, the first card, the card that represents the soul’s entry into the world. As we move on through the deck, the rose appears twice more, but this time it is red, representing the once pure soul having been touched by life and experience. And then, as noted, we have the rose’s last appearance in the deck, on the Death card, where it is white, the soul having been cleansed, changed, and ready for the next passage.
I find all of this very interesting in how it relates to the rose as a symbol of mortality AND I SWEAR I AM GOING SOMEWHERE WITH THIS. When Delia returns home, she freaks out that there are roses in her room. I suppose the larger point of this is that roses have a romantic connotation, and she is DONE with that part of her life, at least with Darrin. But roses also represent mortality, blood, death and rebirth.
Delia demands they be replaced, interestingly, with chrysanthemums. Some sites claim that: “In ancient times Greeks would wear garlands of chrysanthemums to keep away those dreaded ‘evil spirits.’ For the modern Garden Witch, the mum is a fabulous, protective fall flower that wards the home and keeps away wandering ghosts.” Which is certainly interesting considering what happens to Delia and the wandering spirit of the Axeman.
Additionally, in many cultures, chrysanthemums also represent death and grief, including, interestingly enough, New Orleans, in contrast to the rest of the country. And in some Asian countries, the flower has been associated with longevity and immortality (which, considering the way no one ever dies on this show, is an apt symbol). All that said, I think the significance of the flowers (if there is any now that I’ve written four paragraphs on it) is that Delia has been changed, transformed. She is moving from the world of the flesh into something of a higher, more spiritual plane. Old Delia is dead, long live the stronger, fiercer, more powerful New Delia.
Finally, the biggest, most important symbol of the episode was the repeated use of boxes — particularly the image of boxes being opened. Zoe begins the present day part of the episode going through Madison’s box of belongings; she then discovers the box of items from the Class of 1919 in the crawl space (which in and of itself could be considered a box of sorts); Zoe later finds Madison’s body in the chest in Rat’s Nest’s attic room. These three boxes plus the Axeman’s saxophone case are the literal boxes that Zoe opens in the episode, but there’s a metaphoric box that is also opened: the house itself, and the Axeman is released onto the city.
The obvious allusion in all of these instances is Pandora’s Box from Greek mythology. A remedial refresher: Pandora, the first woman on Earth, was presented to the titan Epimetheus to be his bride. Zeus, who was ticked off at Epimetheus’ brother, Prometheus, for giving man the gift of fire, was like, “Hey, Pandora, be sure to take this fancy jar with you to your wedding, BUT WHATEVER YOU DO, DO NOT OPEN THE JAR.” Of course Pandora’s curiosity gets the better of her and she takes a peek inside, only to inadvertently release all the evil onto the world, so well done, Pandora. Pandora does close the jar, just in time to keep hope inside.
And so, like Pandora, Zoe opens multiple boxes: Madison’s belongings, the Class of 1919’s, Madison’s makeshift coffin and, ultimately, the house itself, unleashing the Axeman and his evil (also contained in a box) out onto the world.
But to go back to Madison’s makeshift coffin … did you happen to notice I mentioned Pandora had a jar instead of a box? Yeah, so there was a mistranslation back in the 16th century that’s stuck with us ever since turning Pandora’s jar into a box. In ancient Greece, a “pithos,” or jar like Pandora had, would be “used for storage of wine, oil, grain or other provisions, or, ritually, as a container for a human body for burying.”
Zoe’s entire purpose for opening the Class of 1919’s box and using the spirit board to communicate with a dangerous entity was to find Madison, which she does: dead and trapped in her own box, from which she is removed. I suppose what I’m getting at here is that the end result of opening all of the boxes was to release an axe-wielding maniac onto New Orleans, but that there might also be consequences to removing Madison from her own death box/jar that won’t be positive for Zoe or the coven (and most certainly not for Fiona).
American Horror Story: Coven airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on FX.
This post originally appeared on the Hearst site Chron.com.