Ryan Murphy loves to champion the powerless. High school misfits, mental patients, spurned housewives — they’re his favorite subjects as the co-showrunner of Glee and American Horror Story. Even so, it feels slightly radical that the latest chapter of AHS, a witch saga subtitled Coven, takes people who don’t have much of a voice in this country — older women, African-Americans, social outcasts — and turns them into almighty creatures, able to prey on the young and entitled, and occasionally kill white boys with their vaginas.
The season opener, ”Bitchcraft,” is a witty critique of our cultural uneasiness with female power, sexual and otherwise. In 1834, a tryst between a society woman and her African-American servant gets the man killed when her mother, Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), slaughters him. A voodoo priestess (Angela Bassett) avenges his death, in Murphy’s riff on Civil War-era fears that the oppressed will rise up against their masters. Centuries later, a boy dies after hooking up with his girlfriend, Zoe (Taissa Farmiga). She’s sent to Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies in New Orleans, where movie star Madison (Emma Roberts), human voodoo doll Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), and clairvoyant Nan (Jamie Brewer) are taught to control their ”gifts” by headmistress Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) and her mom, Fiona (Jessica Lange), a woman so wicked people call her ”Supreme.” (Or maybe she’s just a normal witch, with extra guacamole.)
If the tone weren’t so over-the-top satirical — with the action shot in saturated colors and woozy, Alice in Wonderland camera angles — some of the imagery would be offensive: Queenie wolfs down fried chicken. LaLaurie uses servants’ blood as anti-wrinkle cream. But Murphy is mocking our historical anxieties, playing with exaggerated racial archetypes (it’s no accident that he cast the Precious star as Queenie) and joking that older actresses can only survive by sucking the life from the young, then reapplying the elixir to their faces. His sharp take on a woman’s role is both funny and mordantly serious. And the fact that he’s able to sell this revenge fantasy using Bates, Sidibe, Brewer, and other outsiders who might not have a place in Hollywood? Well, that’s the power of bitchcraft. A-