A group of reporters watched a preview screening of American Horror Story: Coven Thursday. Snap judgement: It’s the best — and most accessible (read: least weird) — first episode of AHS‘s three seasons. After the screening, co-creator Ryan Murphy took questions and gave some rather candid answers. I’m going to weed out any big spoilers, but fair warning that this post does discuss some story elements.
The set-up: Taissa Farmiga plays a teenager who discovers she’s a witch and is sent by her mother to a very special New Orleans boarding school for witches run by the rather wicked “supreme” (Jessica Lange) and her prim daughter (Sarah Paulson). Witches, we’re told, fled to the South during the Salem witch trials 300 years ago and established this school for the protection and education of gifted young women. (Expect a Hogwarts joke within the first hour.) Most of them have a single unique power (such as reading minds or telekinesis). We’re also introduced via flashback to Marie Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), who’s based on a real-life socialite and serial killer who tortured black slaves in the early 1800s.
What’s most striking is that the episode feels lighter and funnier than previous seasons, which Murphy says was entirely by design. “I love this season,” Murphy says. “It’s my favorite season we’ve done so far, largely because I love the comedy of it and I think it’s really scary.” Last season Asylum, Murphy notes, was “dark and grim and hard.” Coven, he says, “was designed to be scary, but more fun. I heard a lot last year, ‘Oh we love it, but it’s hard to sit through.’ So I wanted this year to be not so hard to sit through.” The production also had the opportunity to shoot on location in New Orleans rather than in a studio, which gives the show a less claustrophobic feel.
The most grim content is from a cold open flashback to LaLaurie’s torment of her slaves, who are kept in cramped animal cages and suffer all sorts of abuses. “She’s a real woman who did everything in the show and worse,” Murphy says.
— Murphy has discussed American Horror Story spin-off ideas with FX. He didn’t give any specifics about what a spin-off might involve, but seemed to hint this season is a contender. That would make sense — the school is basically Harry Potter with sex, it’s an idea you can build a regular series around (though X-Men is the more accurate comparison given the way their super-powers are allocated and the way the witches are portrayed as hunted and feared societal outcasts). “[FX chief] John Landgraf and I have always spoken about that this show is ripe to spin something off, to do something different. I don’t know. We’re talking about it. I love this season, I love the cast, I love what it’s about, I love that set more than life itself.”
— Murphy knows the focus of AHS season 4 — but isn’t telling. “We might have the [Coven] finale and then announce at end of the show what next year is by doing some visual thing. I think the last image of the season is what you’re getting next year.”
— This year, the two big mythological arch villains — à la Rubber Man and Bloody Face — are The Minotaur (born, it seems, from LaLaurie’s treatment of her slaves) and “The Axeman” — which is apparently a reference to this serial killer.
— That awesome Coven snake poster is indeed a tease of something significant that will happen on the show. “There is a three-way,” Murphy semi-jokes. “[The posters] are clues in a weird way. That’s one I don’t want to say too much about.”
— On re-uniting Farmiga and Evan Peters, whose characters had a twisted romance in season one: “I loved that relationship, I loved them together, I thought they had a lot of chemistry,” Murphy says. “I wanted to write something for them, a love story, but I wanted it to be different … I think fans like that in some weird way that love story is reincarnated.” The 19-year-old Farmiga also has scenes this season that are more sexually explicit than before. Her character’s power — minor spoiler alert from the show’s opening minutes — is that she kills whoever she has sex with. Adds Murphy: “It’s shocking to me how much Taissa has grown up … she loves working with Evan. It’s odd Evan’s girlfriend [Emma Roberts] is also on the show. But I’ve made that work.”
— The witches’ powers were loosely based on witch trial legend. “Some of these powers were ones the girls back then were prescribed to have had, [like] the ability to f–k someone to death,” Murphy says.
— On missing out on Emmy gold this year: “If you’re doing something with the word ‘horror’ in the title, you probably should not be expecting many little golden statues,” he says. “In the history of the entertainment business, that’s the way it goes. The academy is older. I don’t know. Is the show too rough for them? I can’t complain about it. It’s the show with the most nominations. It’s fair.”
Coven premieres Oct. 9 on FX.