Old threats and new ones torment the Salem witches, while Zoe tries to discover what happened to Madison

By Darren Franich
Updated November 14, 2013 at 04:05 AM EST
Craig Sjodin

So the sixth episode of Coven kicked off with a slasher-noir prologue featuring the son of John Huston as a maniacal jazz-obsessed serial killer and the daughter of Meryl Streep as a suffragette witch, plus homages to Jack the Ripper, The Exorcist, the death of Julius Caesar, and the tenth plague of Egypt. Some of this was intentional and some of it might have been accidental. (At one point, Danny Huston’s Axeman said, “I am invisible, even as the Ether which surrounds your earth.” For a second, I thought he said “Aether,” which would mean Coven is set in the same universe as Thor: The Dark World.) To me it felt like high-level mythmaking. Every iteration of American Horror Story has used flashbacks, but Coven deploys them ambitiously, cycling back around to pivotal points in our nation’s history — this time 1919, the cusp of women’s suffrage and Prohibition and the Jazz Age. It helps that New Orleans is a city built on simultaneous ritual tradition and groundbreaking progressivism — a place that feels like the deep past and the near future all at once.

Take the Axeman. On one hand, he’s a serial killer — and like all slasher villains, he’s a vision of freaked-out conservatism who specifically preys upon women (plus the men who warm their bed.) But he’s also a jazzman: We see him fondly hide his axe inside of his saxophone case. Moses told his followers they could ward off the Angel of Death with lamb’s blood; when the Axeman writes a letter to the local papers, he simply asks that everyone who doesn’t want to be murdered play some jazz.

In 1919, jazz music wasn’t yet the cultural force it would become — and for young people in the ’20s, jazz was basically a combination of rock, punk rock, hip-hop, and EDM all at once. In this sense, you could argue that Coven was positively codifying the Axeman as a libertine, a man ahead of his time. Part of what makes American Horror Story scary is how conservatism and progressivism keep getting jumbled together. Or, put another way: Liberal or reactionary, everybody on this show seems to wind up killing women. If no one’s a good guy, does it matter if you’re bad?

But this time, the women were ready for the Axeman. He walked down the street in a state of euphoria, hearing sweet jazz pouring from every window…except the windows of Miss Robichaux’s, which taunted him with opera. In 1919, Miss Robichaux’s was filled at capacity with young women, dressed in identical clothes. Grace Gummer led the team, a young witch with a passion for gender equality who refused to let the Axeman torture the women of New Orleans. The Axeman found her upstairs, laying out Tarot cards. He approached her, but the camera lingered on her face in an eye-popping shot that suggested the Axeman was a rat getting deeper into a trap. (Props to episode director Michael Uppendahl, a frequent AHS presence who also helmed the best and weirdest episode of Mad Men this year.)

The Tarot card for Death came up. The Axeman swung his weapon, and hit dead air. The young witch appeared in the shadows and stabbed him. Her sister witches came out of the shadows, stabbing the Axeman back and forth. A vintage Caesar, with added subtext. (In slasher movies, penetration-by-knife is never just penetration-by-knife.) It’s wrong to take any triumphant moment in American Horror Story at face value — heroes become villains with startling frequency. But you could read this scene most clearly as an example of collective female power, of what women can accomplish when they work together. Or you could read it in another direction, as the specific moment when the patriarchy began to die. (Danny Huston is always symbolic of something.)

If the prologue was a portrait of sisterhood at its zenith, we cut to a very different cultural moment of that same sisterhood in decline. While digging through a box of Madison’s things, Zoe was led by an empty airplane bottle of vodka to a secret compartment containing various relics from the Salem coven’s history. The pictures showed the bygone days of Miss Robichaux’s, when the Academy was so full they needed bunk beds. Now, the “school” was comprised of four witches, one missing and presumed dead. “It’s a numbers game,” explained Zoe. “Witches are dying.” For Zoe, this was a galvanizing realization. “We can’t afford to lose a single witch. From now on, we watch each other’s backs.”

Zoe is a strange character. The first episode implied that Coven would comprise a coming-of-age narrative for the young witch: Essentially, she was Harry Potter if Harry Potter starred Kitty Pryde and if Kitty Pryde’s mutant power was the ability to kill boys with sex. But Zoe took a back seat in recent episodes to various outré characters in the ensemble. In hindsight, the last few episodes showed various possible mentors for the young witches all proving unfit for the task: Devolving into petty jealousies, or occasionally just killing the students they were supposed to protect. Zoe was advocating a new direction for the Coven. The adults can’t protect us, so we have to protect ourselves.

Queenie was skeptical. She’s watched out for herself. But Zoe wanted her to see how powerful they could be together. They drank Absinthe and brought out a spirit board and played F’Real Ouija. They were trying to find Madison. Instead, they conjured up a spirit. A spirit who died in this very house. A spirit who called himself the Axeman.

NEXT: Breaking GoodeFiona Goode is trying to change. Her daughter needs her. At least that’s what Fiona tells herself. So she’s undergoing chemotherapy. “It’s a very aggressive form of treatment,” the doctor assured her. Is she going to lose her hair? “The treatment affects everyone differently, the doctor assured her. Perhaps coincidentally or perhaps not, Fiona’s powers are also going haywire. She can read the minds of the other cancer patients. The woman who wants to make it to her daughter’s funeral. The man who can’t believe a lifetime of hard work is ending with a vacation in the cancer ward.

Fiona herself is feeling some deep emotions. “I want one more great love affair in my life,” she begs the doctor. “I want to belong to somebody. It’s not too late, is it?” Of course not, the doctor assured her: “My mom met somebody on eHarmony. They just went on a cruise ship to Nova Scotia!” Internet dating. Cruise ships. The idea of Canada. A veritable hat trick of things that terrify Fiona, rife with implications of domesticity. Fiona is wise, but as with all of American Horror Story‘s variations of Jessica Lange, there’s something of the youthful romantic in her. Not for her eHarmony and Halifax. She wants to fall in love.

Cooler heads were attempting to prevail among the young witches of Miss Robichaux’s. An Axeman fansite informed them that the killer had taken the lives of eight people, and was never found. Nan connected the dots about the 1919 Coven. Zoe wanted to ask the Axeman’s spirit how she could find Madison. Queenie and Nan begged off. Zoe was furious: “If this is all the fight we have left in us, at the end of our race, then witches deserve to die.”

She brought out the spirit board on her own, and demanded the location of her fallen sister; she swore to release the Axeman if he helped her. (Here again, note how quickly Zoe’s best intentions went awry: In an attempt to unite two of her sisters in a search for a third, she wound up acting alone and working with a being who represented the precise opposite of that sisterhood.) The Axeman sent her up to the attic, where she found Spalding’s dolls and Spalding’s tea cups and Spalding’s Metaphorically Decomposing Corpse of Emma Roberts…not to mention Spalding himself, who grabbed her violently but was quickly dispatched.

The next day saw Cordelia Foxx return to Miss Robichaux’s house as a brand new woman. Her eyes destroyed, she could see the truth. Before, she was quiet and passive and passive-aggressive at worst. Now, she cut to the point. She asked her husband who that redheaded woman was — she could see a picture in her mind of him with her, mid-coitus. (She couldn’t see him putting a bullet to her head, about which more later.)

After kicking out her husband, Delia told her mother that she had “an absolute clarity I’ve never had.” Fiona told her: “You’ve been given the Sight.” Apparently, the ability to see truth-flashbacks is a rare power in the world of witchery. And a painful one, too. Fiona tried helping her daughter undress, and Delia saw flashes of Myrtle’s death-by-burning. She refused to believe her beloved Auntie Myrtle was behind her blindness. (ASIDE: Does Fiona’s new power imply that she is also in the running to be the next Supreme? Or has she achieved some kind of alternative pinnacle of witchery? To me, the new Delia vaguely suggested Watchmen‘s Dr. Manhattan: Someone who can see all things at all times, and can’t quite decide of they’re the puppetmaster or just a puppet terrified of cutting the strings. END OF ASIDE.)

NEXT: Vee heff vays of making you talkUpstairs, the trio of young witches interrogated Spalding using methods both direct and indirect. The direct method involved heating a spatula and burning his chest. The indirect method required Nan to read his mind whenever Zoe asked a question. This scene was a showcase for Denis O’Hare, delivering a glowering monologue in voiceover as he seethed silently, and for Jamie Brewer, delivering deadpan shorter versions of Spalding’s responses. (“I’m a man of uniquely developed appetites” became simply “Sex.”)

Queenie burnt her own cheek, marking Spalding’s with a nasty scar. She talked about killing the mute butler. Zoe shook her head, no. She didn’t think he had killed Madison, no matter what his thoughts said. She had a strategy. And that strategy required someone with the power of life over death.

Cue Misty Day, local necromancer and earth mother, who we found watering her garden. Actually, she was watering a rather shallow grave. Myrtle’s hands poked through, but Misty pushed her back in, presumably because the burnt witch’s skin still needs to heal. One of Misty’s other projects appeared behind her: Kyle, aka FrankenBoy, who really needed a bath.

She washed him in her tub, while a Stevie Nicks tuned played in the background. (I believe it was “Leather & Lace,” a duet between Nicks and Don Henley.) Unfortunately, Kyle suffered an aggressive flashback to his incestuous mama, and raged around Misty’s shack. He demolished her stereo, stealing her darling Stevie away from her. “You’re just a big old monster!” declared Misty. Zoe arrived at this moment, asking for help. “Get him out of here,” said Misty. “He broke Stevie.”

At Miss Robichaux’s, Zoe chained up her reanimated boytoy and asked Misty what she could do about the Metaphorically Decomposing Corpse of Emma Roberts. Misty was skeptical. Madison was dead a long time, already rotting. Resurgence, it seems, gets more difficult when the deceased isn’t freshly dead. Misty asked for Zoe’s help, telling her to push on the dead girl’s stomach. (ASIDE: Misty may have needed Zoe’s help for a different reason, if Zoe really does have the power of resurgence — a possibility, since Kyle only awoke to his new life after receiving a kiss from Zoe. Thought experiment: If Zoe can bring people back to life, and if every time she has sex with someone she kills him…will her eventual boyfriend need to die and come back to life every time they have sex? END OF ASIDE.) Some maggots flew out of Madison’s mouth, but the dead girl coughed and screamed and sat up. Her first words upon re-entering our plane of existence: “I need a cigarette.”

This is about the moment when American Horror Story offered one of its trademark hyperkinetic main-character personality shifts. You remember Delia’s husband, the guy who in five episodes went from being Milquetoast Vaguely Hipster Husband to Cheatin’ Hubby to Murderer? Turns out he’s working for Marie Laveau (the Coven’s nemesis!) as a professional witch hunter (which is a thing!) and he’s been deep-cover embedded with the Salem Coven delivering witch scalps to Marie for years now.

NEXT: It’s a full-on double flashback all the way across the sky!Such a revelation required not just a single flashback but a double flashback. See, Hank fancies himself as a genuine double agent. Using Delia’s role as the headmistress of Miss Robichaux’s, he’s tracked down several Salem descendants…and killed them all. The first flashback revealed that Kaylee, the redhead he murdered on Halloween, had visited Miss Robichaux’s. The nested flashback revealed that she was pyrokinetic: When her boyfriend left her yelling about how weird she was, she set his hands on fire. Delia offered to help her realize her gifts, to become special.

But Kaylee, it turns out, just wanted to be normal. “I don’t want to be powerful,” she explained. “I want a husband and three kids.” And Kaylee figured she had a good chance to make that dream come true: “I work out, I play Fantasy Football.” In American Horror Story, that simple domesticity is always far out of reach. All of the lead characters from one fractured households of one kind or another — with the exception of Delphine LaLaurie, who in the mid-1800s had a husband and three daughters who lived with her in a hellish parody of the domestic ideal. We saw in this flashback how Hank the Witch-Hunting Husband played into Kaylee’s hopes, planning to give her the boyfriend experience before he blew her brains out.

Marie was not happy with him, though, not at all. So he brought her nine Salem descendants in three years? She didn’t ask for that. She wanted her enemies gone. And lately, things had only been getting worse. They killed her Minotaur man. They brought Delphine back up from her grave. And, in the single best-delivered line of dialogue in the episode, Marie sternly told Hank: “When I plant a fatass cracker bitch, I expect her to stay planted.” (ASIDE: Note that this line came in the same episode that saw Misty “planting” Myrtle in her garden. Death and rebirth, conjoined again. END OF ASIDE.)

And Marie thought she had figured out the problem. Hank was actually in love with Delia. Oh, what a tangled web we weave! So Marie had a simpler directive for her man on the inside: “Bring me their heads. All of them. Then you burn that place to the ground. Then I let you live.”

Back at Miss Robichaux’s, the young witches were making their own plans. No one would tell Fiona about Madison, or about Kyle. They offered to let Misty stay, but the swamp witch begged off. This wasn’t the tribe she was looking for; she was getting bad vibes. (Will Misty start her own tribe? Or is she doomed to walk alone?) The sister witches asked Madison what she remembered. The actress knew her quote ($7 million a picture) and her accolades (two Teen Choice Awards, coincidentally tied with longtime nemesis Hayden Panettiere). They asked her what was the last thing she remembered. “Red.” They asked her if there was light on the other side, and in the second best-delivered line of the episode, she said:

“There’s nothing on the other side. Just black. Forever.”

Now, it’s looking more and more as if every single character on this season of American Horror Story will die and then come back to life. This could just be evidence that Ryan Murphy and his merry band are upping the ante on contemporary soap-opera theatrics: “Oh hey, Scandal! You think you’re crazy? I’LL SHOW YOU CRAZY!” But I’m starting to wonder if the show is building up a deeper idea around all the resurrection. On season one of American Horror Story, death was a metaphor for stasis. People moved into the Murder House, got killed, and had to live the rest of eternity with the people they were supposed to love: It could be hell, unless you could figure out how to make your family functional again. Last season, Frances Conroy’s Angel of Death offered something different: Peace. In that iteration, death was an end to the suffering that was existence. There were implications of contentment — in particular, the final exit of Kit Walker felt a bit like Frodo going to the Grey Havens.

This season began with characters terrified of their own mortality: the Delphine wiping blood on her cheeks to eradicate wrinkles, Fiona struggling to cheat death, Marie hovering along the sidelines as an apparent vision of life everlasting. And Madison’s statement initially seems to bear out their fears. There is nothing waiting for you on the other side. You should be afraid. Recall Grace Gummer at the beginning of the episode, turning over the Tarot Card: Death.

Of course, as anyone who has ever visited a fortune teller knows, the Tarot Card for Death doesn’t really mean death. It generally refers to a time of radical transformation: The end of one part of your life, the beginning of another. Fear of death is really just a fear of change. In that sense, perhaps Coven is building up to a radical change in its world of witchery: A new era or some kind. Or maybe there is just nothing on the other side, and everyone who gets to live twice on Coven will appreciate their second life more than their first.

Yet another possible test case for this hypothesis quickly presented himself. Upstairs, the Axeman appeared to Delia. Seems he’d been trapped inside of that room for close to a century, ever since the witches killed him. I wasn’t quite clear on the mechanics, but from what I could understand, the witches specifically imprisoned his spirit there. (Or maybe Miss Robichaux’s works on the same principle as the Murder House — though that means there’s a Ghost Minotaur about somewhere.) He attacked Delia, and her screams brought the younger witches to her aid. They freed the Axeman, who walked out of the mansion, leaving Zoe behind to ponder how she keeps on setting resurrected murderers free in New Orleans.

At a local tavern, we found Fiona at a rough moment. She pulled out some of her hair: Evidence that her very aggressive form of treatment would be very aggressive indeed. We were back to that moment from a few episodes ago, when Fiona sat at the bar waiting for a man and watching all the boys chase girls half her age. Not this time, though. A man — tall, dark, handsome, with that booming Huston voice and those dangerous Huston eyes — set his hat down next to her. “Well hello, pretty lady,” he said. She smiled.

Is the Axeman planning another murder? Or is this precisely the kind of bizarro love affair that Fiona was asking for? And will any episode of Coven not feature at least two resurrections?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

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