American Horror Story recap: Coven' recap: 'Fearful Pranks Ensue'
Halloween brings ill tidings to Miss Robichaux's, as Marie breaks a decade-old truce and old lies give way to new lies. Also, zombies.
Great pulp explores heavy topics with a light touch. It hides big themes behind trash and camp. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a meditation on communism, McCarthyism, midcentury suburban conformity; it’s also a movie about freaky alien pod-person clones. I Married a Monster from Outer Space is a movie about marital ennui and repressed homosexuality; it’s also a movie called I Married a Monster from Outer Space. Great pulp tastes like sugar but hits like cough medicine. And American Horror Story is pulp taken to the highest register possible: It’s a barrel full of Lucky Charms marshmallows drenched in Robitussin that spontaneously combusts every 10 minutes.
Coven has already dipped its toes into an assortment of heavy topics. The first three episodes explored the history of feminism, retelling the history of female power within the veneer of a subculture of witchcraft dating back centuries. The fourth episode of Coven jumped head first into the history of American racism. It was an episode that began in the days of integration with a murder so terrifying it was rendered in monochrome; an episode that imagined a peace treaty between the white-establishment Salem Coven and the voodoo witches, with a 1971-era Angela Bassett modeling a blaxploitation-heroine afro; an episode that featured Madame LaLaurie — a character based on an actual historical figure who wrought inconceivable torture during a lifetime of terrorizing her slaves — having an overnight change of heart on the whole “being a horrific racist” thing after Queenie saved her life. And in the same episode, a creepy tongueless butler with a doll fetish welcomed the corpse of a dead Hollywood starlet to his tea party. This is the essence of pulp: High and low, painful reality and weirdo wildness all mashed together.
The episode began in 1961, with a young African American boy being chased down the road by the most terrifying monsters of all: Racist White Dudes. It was a scene set squarely in the era of American Horror Story: Asylum. The second season of AHS is already gaining a reputation as the most disturbing of the show’s three iterations. What made it most disturbing — when you got past the basic fact that insane asylums are the scariest places on earth — was how completely it portrayed midcentury America as a place filled with terror. In the history of our country according to AHS, ’60s America was a place that was dangerous for homosexuals, minorities, and women: Basically, everyone who wasn’t a white heterosexual dude.
Over at Marie’s hair salon, there was a sense of hope. A young mother proudly noted that her son had just started attending an integrated school. Marie warned her she was taking a big chance. The White Citizens’ Council of New Orleans was spreading rumors about Congolese raping white daughters. The mother was stalwart. President Kennedy was in the White House. “I have faith in the future,” she said. The show smash-cut to a faraway shot of her son, swaying from a noose. The mother cried. Marie looked on. She saw this coming. But that didn’t mean she was going to put up with it.
We saw Marie engage in an elaborate ritual. Percussion. Snakes. Beads. Drinking fire. Elsewhere in New Orleans, the Racist White Dudes chatted amiably about a job well done. In the cemetery, hands punched out of graves. A squadron of vengeful undead came knock-knock-knocking on the RWD’s door. They delimbed one man and bit into another. The leader tried to flee…and ran straight into a bayonet belonging to an undead soldier. I couldn’t quite tell through the layers of soot, but the zombie appeared to be wearing a gray uniform: A Confederate soldier, reborn in death as an instrument of vengeance against the white establishment.
I know there are some people who get antsy when American Horror Story trafficks so completely in touchy topics. There are almost certainly more sensitive ways to approach the history of American racism than to send a reanimated Civil War soldier to stab a murderous white man in the stomach while a flock of other zombies devour the white man’s intestinal tract. To me, that first scene was Pulp Unbound, with the metaphor barely even a metaphor anymore. Night of the Living Dead had subtext; American Horror Story takes that subtext and turns it into the lyrics to a Lady Gaga song. And I mean that as a huge compliment: By comparison, the most popular show in America is basically Zombie Death Variety Hour. (Night of the Living Dead had subtext; The Walking Dead has Wingdings.)
We flashed forward to a flashback. Spalding the Mysterious Butler was upstairs arranging an impressive collection of dolls at a tea party. He looked happier than we’ve ever seen him. Here’s a clip from the tea party:
But Spalding heard voices downstairs. He walked right in on the scene that concluded last week’s episode: Fiona committing cross-generation homicide by slicing open Madison’s throat. Afterwards, Fiona tried to explain her actions. “She would’ve made a lousy Supreme,” she said. “This Coven can’t afford that.” Spalding listened quietly, poured her another drink. “I’ve always enjoyed our talks together,” said Fiona. “Especially since you lost your tongue.”
Noises from the garden distracted Fiona’s post-celebricide reverie. She discovered Queenie, covered in blood. “I couldn’t stop it,” said Queenie. A shadow rose up behind Fiona. A few minutes later, Fiona set Queenie down in a bed. Delia came in, and the two witches had one of their trademark poorly-timed mother-daughter talks. Delia chastised Fiona for going to see Marie; Fiona chastised Delia for the same thing, going to see the Voodoo Queen for a “half-assed fertility spell.”
Mid-argument, they noticed that Queenie was not breathing. So Fiona leaned over and — in what amounts to the most tender moment the character has had since we met her — she blew air back into her young charge. In the span of a half-hour, Fiona killed one of her students and saved the life of another. (ASIDE: It’s interesting to see how the AHS creators have gotten even more confident this season their ability to push their characters far outside any recognizable good/evil architecture. Who is the protagonist of Coven? Who is the antagonist? Is Fiona an admirable character because she wants to lead her Coven to greatness? Or is she a despicable character because she frequently confuses the needs of her constituents with her own internal desires? Doesn’t that just make her a good politician? END OF ASIDE.)
NEXT: Farewell, MinotaurAt Marie’s salon, Queen Laveau was preparing a lady named Miss Cora for her trip to mayor’s annual Halloween fiesta. “If the hair is nappy, white people ain’t happy,” the ladies said — a joke, but rife with meaning. (Marie accepted no payment; she actually paid Miss Cora. As a leader, she believes in community maintenance — a sharp contrast to Fiona’s rampant self-interest.) A package arrived for Marie. The postage must have cost a fortune, since it’s common knowledge that the postal service charges extra for Minotaurs. Yes, inside of the box was Bastian the Minotaur, who lived for nearly two centuries just to die at Fiona’s hands. (Although the Minotaur head seemed to blink: A spasm? Or evidence that the Minotaur will stage a comeback, like various AHS regulars before him?)
Across town, Zoe was dealing with the aftermath of FrankenKyle’s angry incestuous matricide. Kyle was knocking his head against the tub. Zoe apologized: For inadvertently leading him to death, for bringing him back to life, for turning him into a reanimated rage monster. “Kyle,” said the beast. “No Kyle.” She made him some tuna. Then she noticed some rat poison. Clearly making all kinds of good decisions, Zoe decided that now was the time to directly cause Kyle’s second death, after indirectly causing his first death. Unfortunately, Kyle was nowhere to be found. Zoe ran outside…only to discover children out trick or treating. Yes, it’s Halloween Time in American Horror Story land once again: A night when a reanimated boyfriend-monster covered in blood can fit right in on populated city streets.
When Zoe ran out, she caught eyes with a young man in the passenger seat of a car driving by. Said young man was wearing a skeleton costume. Which looked an awful lot like the skeleton makeup Tate wore on his murder rampage back in AHS season 1. Not to theorize baselessly, but could it be that whenever Halloween occurs in the AHS-verse, the walls between the realities of Murder House and Asylum and Coven fall down? Could it be that, in that moment, Zoe had a flash of a past life in the Taissa Farmiga continuum? Is American Horror Story just building up to a seventh season starring every version of Jessica Lange?
Speaking of Jessica Lange! Fiona called Madame LaLaurie. She needed someone to zip her up, and to listen to her soliloquize for a moment. Halloween, Fiona explained, is her favorite day of the year. “Is it the end of Harvest already?” asked the Madame. “You’ll want me lighting the bonfires, putting out food to keep the demons away. The dead shall arise and fearful pranks ensue should we fail to protect ourselves.” Fiona regarded LaLaurie like she was a Roman speaking Pig Latin. (In the span of about four episodes, the Madame LaLaurie — again, one of the worst people ever — has been transformed into a wacky sitcom grandma.)
But the Madame had some kind words for her mistress. “You look…” “Younger?” completed Fiona. “I was gonna say beautiful,” said the aristocrat-turned-maid. “Well, both are correct,” said Fiona. She stared at herself in the mirror and gave herself a Travis Bickle pump-up: “Who’s the baddest witch in town?” Except in Fiona’s accent it sounded like “Who’s the bay-yuh-dest witch in tah-yun?”
Elsewhere in said town, Marie wanted vengeance. She retreated to her throne room and prepared for a spell. Her lieutenant begged her not to go down this road. She reminded Marie of the old days, the bad days, when blood ran through the streets. “Their blood. I used it to paint my day room,” said Marie. “Brick red.” She reminded her of the truce between the Salem branch and the Voodoo consortium. We caught a quick flashback to 1971-era New Orleans: Marie with a serious afro, sitting across the table from Anna-Lee the Supreme, bringing peace to the society of witchery. In that story, Marie was a hero because of her diplomacy. She made peace.
In the present, Marie was not in a diplomatic mood. “The truce is over,” she said. “Either you’re with me, or against me.” That’s a statement with all kinds of historical echoes: George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton, in the context of post-9/11 terrorism; Jesus, in every Gospel besides John; Gaston in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which is probably the most apropos comparison.
While Marie plotted revenge, Delia called her totally normal husband for a totally normal phone chat. “Hi there, beloved husband!” said Delia. “So glad you’re in Baton Rouge on a totally normal foreman job, and not having extramarital relations of a potentially fatal nature with a female human you met online!” Her husband agreed that was indeed a good thing, but had to get off the phone. He said he had a meeting with Phil Underwood, which is sort of like saying you have a meeting with Arnold Fakenamestein. Sure enough, when he opened up his hotel door, a lovely young redhead smiled at him. The show smash-cut to them having some serious coitus.
The redhead was named Kaley or Kayley or perhaps Kailee, played by none other than Alex Breckinridge. Breckenridge played the younger, more tantalizing incarnation of Frances Conroy’s maid way back in Murder House. Here, she was the very picture of innocence. She told Hank that Halloween was her favorite night of the year. “It gives people the permission to be who they really wanna be,” she said hopefully. “Who were you last year?” Hank smoked his evil cigarette and looked at her the way hunters looked at Bambi’s mother. “Me? I was a monster,” he said. I may have been hallucinating, but I’m pretty sure when he said that, thunder crashed and a record scratched and a black cat meowed and a tuba exploded.
NEXT: The Council arrivesAt Miss Robichaux’s, Queenie awoke to an apologetic LaLaurie, who couldn’t quite find the words to thank the youngster for saving her life. This optimistic interlude was immediately interrupted by Nan, who walked in and quoted Poltergeist: “They’re here.” The “they” in question is none other than the Council of Witches, a power trio, assembled only under the greatest circumstances, with a mandatory excessive-costume-design requirement. Myrtle Snow we’ve met before, when she shepherded Zoe to Miss Robichaux’s: Red hair, English Professor-vibe, a dress with roses on it.
She was joined by two compatriots. Cecily is a buttoned-up straight-arrow, played by returning AHS supporting player Robin Bartlett. (She played the new administrator in Asylum‘s asylum in the penultimate episode. In her Coven reincarnation, she would once again sit across the table from a madwoman with Jessica Lange’s face.) And there was Quentin, a small man with an excellent hat and a voice that makes him sound like a cross between Paula Deen and the Yes Guy.
The Council, here at Miss Robichaux’s! Delia knew she had to play it cool. The conversation played out like this:
Delia: I had no idea the Council would be joining us today!
The Council: Well, we were called here because something very bad has happened.
Delia: I know. The assault on Queenie last night. Terrible.
The Council: Bwwwaaahhhhhhh?
Delia: Oh, err, yes. She was attacked by something not altogether human. Really shocking stuff.
The Council: Well, we’re not here because of that. We’re here because of something even worse.
Delia: I know, I know. I should have never gone to see Marie Laveau.
The Council: Bwwwaaaahhhhh?
Delia: Darn it! Um, well, okay, so yes, I did pay a visit to one of our most powerful enemies. But in my defense, I am completely incompetent.
The Council: Well, that is also not why we’re here.
Delia: Those parking tickets? I can pay those! My husband’s got a big contract in Baton Rouge? Have you heard of Phil Underwood?
Fiona waltzed in, told her daughter to shut up, and said hello to the Council. She said Myrtle was developing a sense of style, in a tone of voice that suggested profound and aggressive disinterest. She congratulated Quentin on owning the bestseller list, and reminded him which witch got him there. She stared at Cecily for about a second. (ASIDE: I think she called Cecily “Pembroke,” but in the press notes that character is called Cecily. Let’s compromise and call her The Other One. END OF ASIDE.)
The Council informed Fiona that she had been summoned by one of Miss Robichaux’s students: None other than Nan, Little Miss Knows-Too-Much, who also happens to be the easy-bet dark-horse candidate for twist-ending Supreme. Nan couldn’t hear Madison in her head anymore: “I think she’s dead.” The Council began a serious inquisition into this: Myrtle cross-examining, Quentin offering witty commentary, The Other One typing it all away. (They looked to me like a variation on The Three, the mythological trio from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series who variously represent the Fates, the Furies, and the life cycle of a human being.)
The denizens of Miss Robichaux’s weren’t much help. Delia admitted that Madison usually went out for days on end, but noted that she’d had more luck than the Betty Ford center. Zoe was just in awe of Madison’s charisma. Queenie offered up this nugget of wisdom: “Madison Montgomery is a stone-cold bitch who loves hard drinking, big d—s, and trouble. If she’s dead, it’s probably because she got wasted and offered the Grim Reaper a h—–b or something.” (Oh, for a world where Queenie worked for the New York Times obituary section!) Nan was much more helpful, though. She told the Council Madison had pyrokinetic powers. And she told them who else knew about it, too.
Back at the Sex-Having Hotel, Delia’s husband was chatting with Cayleigh. She had bought some soup from a vending machine, a notion that filled her with absolute delight. “In my town, all you can get from a vending machine is Pop and Reese’s,” she said. Hank the Happy Husband told her all about the faraway land of San Diego, where you can purchase sushi in a vending machine.
Adorable young Khehlee found this magical. She always wanted to visit San Diego, see the zoo, get bored, see the zoo again. She thought Hank was a USDA agent. “They call us inspectors, not agents,” he lied. Kehlli thought this was even cooler. She said, “To think I found you in an online community dedicated to collecting Thomas Kinkade paintings!” which I guarantee is not the saddest thing a girl has ever said to a boy she met online. (“To think I found you in an online community dedicated to collecting Thomas Kinkade forgeries!” would be much sadder.)
We learned some intriguing things about Ol’ Hank. The lovely young redhead told him that he was a smooth one: “You knew you had me before I even responded.” Could it be that he has some heretofore-unrevealed mystical power? Or is he just a homicidal psycho douche grenade? Evidence for the latter came swiftly. He joked about being like James Bond. Kaylee laughed, and then a sad look crossed her face. “I really like you,” she said. “Is that a problem?” he sneered. “It is if you’re gonna break my heart,” she said, pleading as openly as a single gal can.
She closed her eyes, and he shot her through the head with a silenced pistol.
So many questions out of this. How long has Hank been playing the murderous-cuckold game on his wife? Is this a new development, after their vaguely Satanic fertility sex? Or is this a years-long hobby? Certainly, that silencer looked professional. Is he a serial killer? Or was all that James Bond stuff right on point: Is Hank keeping some kind of secret from his wife about his professional life? Did Coven just deconstruct the whole James Bond myth, arguing that the rise of internet dating is really just an excuse for single dudes to act even worse towards women than they have throughout history?
NEXT: Flashback time!Part of the fun of American Horror Story‘s hyper-accelerated storytelling style is how it can conjure up decades of history between characters in a few minutes of quick-cut flashbacks and scenery-chewing speeches. Such was the case with Myrtle Snow and Fiona Goode. In full view of the Council, Myrtle laid into Fiona. She noted that — given the state of Miss Robichaux’s and the whole Salem Coven — it felt as if there had been no Supreme for four decades. “You were absent from last year’s Summit gathering. Three winter petitions remain unsigned. You haven’t appointed a new Chancellor in over a decade.” I don’t know what any of that means, but it sounds important, much like all the things I don’t understand about Congress which I nevertheless assume are important. In the society of the Salem Witches, the apparatus of governance has had no center ever since the early ’70s — roughly the time when it became totally normal for American citizens to distrust their government.
“This is the second time while you were under this roof a witch has gone missing from this place,” said Myrtle, and we flashed straight back to 1971. Young Fiona told the previous Council that she couldn’t believe Supreme Anna-Lee would just disappear. The Council assured her that no one could detect her life force. (ASIDE: The ’70s-era Council looked a lot like the contemporary council: A red woman in the middle, a businesslike woman typing away on the right, a fabulously-dressed guy on the left. I was toying with the idea that the Warlock on the Council was the only male witch in each generation — kind of like the one guy who gets to attend Wellesley each year. But Proto-Myrtle told Young Fiona that none of the “witches or warlocks” on the Council could detect Anna-Lee, implying that there are more warlocks, and also that perhaps the Council is much larger than the Power Trio. END OF ASIDE.)
The Retro-Council asked Fiona if she had any idea where Anna-Lee went. Fiona claimed Anna-Lee was last seen with a bottle of wine, what she called “a final peace offering.” This was not too long after she made peace with Marie; the Council asked Fiona if she thought the voodoo witches were at fault. (ASIDE: It’s probably obvious to say this about any TV character of the last decade, but Fiona has an awful lot in common with Tony Soprano. Like Tony, she often dodges guilt by blaming her crimes on the African Americans across town. And like Tony, she has a nasty habit of killing off the people who are supposed to replace her: Fear of mortality manifesting as spiritual infanticide. END OF ASIDE.)
The Council informed Young Fiona that she was to be the new Supreme. A party was called — and we saw that, in 1971, Miss Robichaux’s was indeed a heavily-populated Academy. One girl was not too happy about Fiona’s ascendance. Young Myrtle vibed nerdy — Fiona called her “Dogface” — but she was wise. “I’m a Guardian of Veracity in the Vernacular,” she said, “I know when a lie is being told.” She wanted to catch Fiona. She cast a truth spell on Spalding’s tongue, so it would be incapable of speaking a lie. “I cast a truth spell on Spalding’s tongue, so it’s incapable of telling a lie!” she whisper-shouted at dinner the next day. “Hi Spalding! I’m not talking about you, I swear!” Predictably, later that night, Miss Robichaux’s awoke to horrible screaming. Spalding’s tongue lay on the floor of the bathroom, quite a distance from the rest of Spalding. Fiona stared daggers at Myrtle. Boarding schools are dramatic, guys.
In the present, Myrtle began her final arguments. “No witch has been tried and convicted and burned at the stake since 1926,” she said — clearly teeing up a 1926 flashback with Ellen Burstyn playing Annie Oakley, who turns out was secretly a witch who killed President McKinley. “And on a personal note,” continued Myrtle, “I’ve got a book of matches in my pocket, Fiona, and I’m just dying to light this fire.”
She called Spalding as a witness. She asked him one thing: “Write the name of the witch who’s responsible for severing your tongue.” It was almost certainly the worst possible way to phrase that question, since Spalding wrote the name “Myrtle Snow.” Turns out he overheard her whisper-screaming about the truth spell, and took matters into his own ends. He went to the bathroom. He brought out his knife. Fiona appeared, looking annoyed. “Thank you for comin’,” said Spalding, the first words he’s ever spoken on this show. “These are my last words, Miss Fiona,” he continued. “I have always loved you.” And then he chopped his own tongue off. (On American Horror Story, every incarnation of Denis O’Hare seems cursed to never realize that every incarnation of Jessica Lange is just not that into him.)
Myrtle was angry. She knew Fiona killed one Supreme 40 years ago; she knew Fiona had done it again last night. But Delia chimed in. Madison wasn’t the next Supreme, she said. “The hallmark of any rising Supreme is glowing, radiant health. Madison had a heart murmur. She kept it secret.” This information turned the tide against Myrtle’s prosecution. But it also made Fiona visibly nervous. If Madison wasn’t the Supreme…who was?
This is about the time when, for the second time in one hour of television, Angela Bassett killed a snake and brought half the corpses in New Orleans back to life. Yep, just a typical episode of NCIS: LA.
NEXT: Two Untruths and a LieTrick or Treaters came by Miss Robichaux’s. “Little beggar children, all fancied up!” said the Madame LaLaurie, who discovered that the youth of today never take just one piece of candy. Upstairs, the three remaining students of Miss Robichaux’s debated what to do about Madison. Further upstairs, Spalding was decidedly doing something about Madison. Specifically, he was dressing up in Little Bo Peep pajamas, grabbing a ladylike frilly nightgown, and staring licentiously at the corpse of Madison Montgomery. He had put her in make-up and arranged her in the corner of his tea party; to cover up her unsightly neck scar, he gave her a red scarf. It was vaguely necrophiliac — and if we’re being honest, there’s no such thing as “vaguely” necrophiliac.
Fiona and Delia were out on the town, celebrating what we can only assume is the latest in a whole series of Not-Guilty verdicts for the elder Goode. An unusually soused Delia asked her mother to play a game. Three Questions: Swear to Answer Honestly. She asked why Fiona didn’t like her husband, and Fiona pointed out that he reeks of bulls—, not to mention minotaurs— and general serial killer weirdos—. Delia asked if Fiona killed Madison, and Fiona said “No,” clearly not in the spirit of the game. Then Fiona asked Delia her own question: “Who do you believe is the next Supreme?” Delia laughed and didn’t answer. These women are really terrible at following the rules.
Delia told the bartender: “Keep these coming, Mister Man!” The show smash-cut to Delia regurgitating several Maker’s Neats into the toilet. She washed her hands. A figure cloaked all in black approached her, and apropos of nothing, threw liquid in her face. It burned Delia. Was it acid? Enchanted water? Was that the first direct strike in the Voodoo-Salem war? Or something even more insidious?
Back at Miss Robichaux’s, Handsome Neighbor Boy arrived to give treats. He had some cookies, to repay Nan for that delicious cake. Zoe looked on, suspicious. It’s interesting to see how quickly Zoe has gone from being the centric figure of the season premiere to a glorified extra with a D-plot. Actually, each version of American Horror Story has a similar narrative issue: The pilot focuses on a relatively straightforward protagonist (Vivien Harmon, Kit Walker) who is more obviously heroic and therefore way less interesting than the parade of grotesques who populate the show. Zoe is probably the by-default favorite to be the next Supreme, since her name comes earliest in the credits, so I expect she’ll be more prominent in future episodes.
Madame LaLaurie answered a knock at the door…and found three undead husks awaiting her. She recognized one of them. It was her daughter. You know, the supposedly chubby one. The Madame closed the door, terrified. Outside, the undead surrounded Miss Robichaux’s. The Confederate Soldier hoisted his revolver, bayonet at the ready. Halloween Night was just beginning. I’m guessing a whole lot of zombies are about to die hilariously.
Fellow viewers, what did you think of the latest episode of Coven. Intrigued by the arrival of the Council? Wondering how long it will take concerned parents to call the cops about that freaky college boy covered in blood parading down the street screaming “No Kyle! No Kyle!”? Would you like an invitation to Spalding’s tea party? Isn’t everyone who claims to be a Thomas Kinkade aficionado secretly a silencer-toting psychopath?
Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich