A bewitching new season of the horror anthology introduces a new world of mystery and terror

By Darren Franich
Updated October 10, 2013 at 03:12 AM EDT
Michele K. Short/FX

American Horror Story

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The first hour of American Horror Story: Coven featured two escalating instances of homicidal telekinetic vengeance, a shot of the flayed skinless face of an enslaved human being, the apparently quite painful transformation of a man into a minotaur, the deflowering of a virgin teenager, various forms of sexual assault (including two instances of brain-imploding vagina dentata), the apparent deaths of three main characters (one already resurrected), Jessica Lange sucking the life out of the dude from The Event until he looked like the dude who chose poorly in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the tantalizing possibility that witchcraft will be a metaphor for Hurricane Katrina and the terrifying possibility that Hurricane Katrina will be a metaphor for witchcraft. All of this horror, and I haven’t even mentioned the Mary Todd Lincoln joke.

So it might sound weird to say that — compared to the previous iterations of American Horror Story — the first episode of Coven was a relatively (relatively) light affair, introducing a host of new characters played by familiar faces in circumstances that explicitly suggest a weirder Harry Potter with an all-woman cast set in Anne Rice’s New Orleans. The premiere episode of season one’s Murder House established the depressing marital miasma of Mrs. Coach Taylor and Naked Dylan McDermott; the opening hour of last year’s Asylum thrust us into the terrifying titular crazy den, with the creeping shadows and gibbering idiots and — dear god — the nuns. (Take it from this Catholic-educated schoolboy: Few species on this earth are scarier than nuns with New England accents.)

In both cases, the dominant mood was of entrapment, of characters imprisoned by doomed relationships or scary houses or Society. And despite the parade of horrors above, the dominant mood of Coven‘s first hour was the opposite of entrapment. Co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk were in world-building mode, sketching out the sub-strata of Coven‘s witchy shadow civilization and crafting a set of narrative/thematic rules for their vision of witchcraft. This being a Ryan Murphy show, I expect all those rules will be broken by next week. Boy, I’m glad this show is back.

Let’s run down what we saw last night:

Prologue: Madame and the Minotaur

The premiere opened with Kathy Bates hosting a lovely dinner party in her lovely house in lovely New Orleans in the year 1834, an era when New Orleans was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the United States, with a near-majority of French speakers and a large population of free African Americans alongside a large population of slaves. Bates is playing Madame LaLaurie, an actual historical figure. On Coven, we met the Madame at a telling moment: Introducing her daughters to some wealthy society men. (She assured them that her daughters could make up for “what they lack in outer beauty.”)

Soon enough, LaLaurie is upstairs, applying some restorative bloood to her face in a vain attempt to maintain her youth. “Just look at this waddle,” she complained to her servant, “This blood’s not fresh!” She had bigger problems. One of her daughters — the smirking one, the one who doesn’t mind saying words like boudoir in mixed company — was caught in flagrante delicto with a houseboy. For a moment, you might have thought this was forbidden passion. But no: The man explained that he hadn’t wanted anything to do with the daughter, that he was promised to another. (A recurring theme in all variations of American Horror Story is how objectification begets objectification: LaLaurie turns her daughter into a sex object for rich men, so the daughter uses a slave as her personal sex object.)

LaLaurie took the man up to her attic, where we saw several slaves imprisoned, with evidence of inconceivable torture covering their scarred and gore-splattered faces. For the poor soul who had the misfortune of being in the same room as her daughter, she had a special punishment ready. She explained how much she loved the Greek myths, filled with “wonderful miraculous creatures.” She had a bull’s head put atop the man. (I couldn’t quite figure out if, in the process, she somehow magically fused the bull’s head on top of his body — a la The Haunted Mask.) When the first cast teaser for Coven debuted last month, I mistakenly assumed that the minotaur on the porch was a metaphor, presumably for something sexy and transgressive. (Think: The “white nun” from last year’s Asylum posters.) But no, it turns out that Coven actually has a minotaur.

The episode returned to the 1830s later on, when the Minotaur-man’s lady love (played by Angela Bassett with a mysterious regal bearing that practically screamed “I’m not in this episode very much, but I’m going to be very important”) brought a love potion to the Madame that wound up being poison. Bassett regarded her lover with sadness and pity. Presumably, Bassett’s character has survived into the modern era. Did her lover? Free-floating Season Premiere Theory Question Alert: If there is a Minotaur, should we assume that there will also at some point be a Maze?

NEXT: Be GentleYou’re a Witch, ‘Arry

After a new opening title sequence, which you can watch here, we flashed forward to the modern day, and to Taissa Farmiga, returning to the AHS-verse after sitting out Asylum. She’s playing a girl named Zoe Benson, and we met her in the midst of losing her virginity. She led a boy up to her bed, promising that her parents weren’t home. The boy whispered sweet teenaged nothings in her ear: “Sucks being someone’s first.” Ah, romance! He promised not to hurt her. Within a few minutes, he was bleeding out of every facial orifice. The doctors called it a brain aneurysm. Zoe’s mom knew that it was something more.

Zoe, you see, is a witch. In the world of Coven, witches as a race have been around for centuries at least. Witch-power seems to be passed along in roughly the same genetic manner as magic in Harry Potter or the mutant gene in X-Men. Some people have it, and some people don’t. (Deadpanned Zoe: “My cousin Amanda is just bulimic.”) A flashback to the Salem trials established that witches have been persecuted since the dawn of the American idea; in Zoe’s telling, the actual witches were too smart for the Salem goons. So, while innocent women were executed, the witches fled south to New Orleans.

The Salem witches appear to have some kind of omnipresent law-enforcement organization, represented here byFrances Conroy as a mysterious red-haired lady with an elaborate cigarette. Her name is Myrtle Snow, but we didn’t see very much of her: She shepherded Zoe to Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies (flanked by a brigade of bald men in black), before disappearing into the wind.

Although the Academy has an impressive history of teaching/protecting young witches, it appears to have fallen on lean times. There are only three other students at the school, besides Zoe, who introduced themselves by terrorizing her with Eyes Wide Shut masks. They are:

Madison Montgomery: A fictionalized version of your least favorite hard-partying starlet, beamed in from the February 12 2007 issue of Newsweek. She likes to party and hates directors. In a brief flashback, we saw how she wound up at Miss Robichaux’s: Madison was doing some kind of film/photo shoot based around Marilyn Monroe; the director mouthed off; she used her emergent telekinetic abilities to crush his head with a light. Basically Carrie White combined with Miley Cyrus at the Video Music Awards.

Queenie: Played by Precious Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe, Queenie has by far the most interesting power on the show. if she inflicts pain on herself — like, say stabbing herself with a fork — she can target that pain at someone else. (We saw her perform this trick on Madison.) If I watched correctly, she herself does not feel that pain, which calls up all kinds of intriguing possibilities. Does her power only work if she causes the pain? Or, say, if you were to punch her, could she make you feel it? And clearly doesn’t this mean that one episode of Coven will end with her pointing a gun at her head as a threat to someone else?

Nan: Returning from AHS‘s first season, Jamie Brewer once again plays a mysterious gal whose apparent mental handicap belies the fact that she is smarter and wiser than every other character on this show. Literally, this time: Nan has the power of clairvoyance and dropped all kinds of foreshadowing on the characters, most especially that Zoe is going to meet “a strange and unexpected love.”

Zoe got a quick tutorial in the Academy’s history from the headmistress, a character played by Sarah Paulson. Her name is Cordelia Foxx, which sounds like the name of the heroine of a popular series of ’70s sci-fi porn spoofs and/or the name of the evil stepmother tyrant from the Hunger Games YA trilogy ripoff that someone is writing right now. According to Cordelia, the school was founded by a suffragette in 1868 — information that explicitly ties Miss Robichaux’s to the history of feminism, while also tying the school’s rise to the antebellum period. Witches, apparently, are a dying breed: Many families have chosen to simply stop procreating, which could be a very fantasy-genre way of saying “More women are choosing not to have children.” Another important point: Although each witch has their own special power, every generation also gives rise to a single super-powerful witch “who embodies countless gifts.” That uber-witch is known as a Supreme, giving hope to those of us who are praying that Coven features a dream sequence where Jessica Lange leads the cast in a rendition of “Stop! In the Name of Love.”

One last key point brought up by Cordelia: She believes that the stated goal of Miss Robichaux’s is “Not Suppression. Control.” One imagines that the ambiguous relationship between those two ideas will be central to this series. The necessity for control was expressed by the fable of a Cajun girl named Misty Day, played by returning AHS player and Ryan Murphy’s preferred Anthropomorphic Madonna-Whore Complex Lily Rabe. Misty discovered that she had the power of Resurgence, the ability to bring a creature back from the edge of death. She was burned at the stake, although she promised her tormentors that they would end in flames. (ASIDE: Since Lily Rabe is credited as a regular, presumably she will somehow use the power of Resurgence on herself — which could also explain how another dead regular will return from the grave. Will she find her way to Miss Robichaux’s? Will she return to life with visions from beyond? Since there is now a character who basically has resurrection powers, does this mean that Coven could potentially kill off all of its characters multiple times? END OF ASIDE.)

“Our lives are always at risk,” concluded Cordelia. She represents a path of quiet fortitude, of hiding her gifts behind a veneer of normalcy. This is not the only path available to the young women of Miss Robichaux’s.

NEXT: At Lange Last Love

Mirror Mirror

But let’s get down to brass tacks here, fellow viewers. This isAmerican Horror Story, and there have been like five whole scenes without a rockstar Jessica Lange line reading. Sensing our dismay, the AHS producers pulled the “Lange Lever,” which they keep in the writers’ room next to the Quinto Panic Button and Adam Levine’s severed arm. Lange is playing Fiona Goode, which sounds like the name of the badass heroine from a blaxploitation thriller whose tagline is “Nobody’s Badder than Goode.” Fiona took a meeting with a hotshot doctor-type played by procedural guest-star Ian Anthony Dale, who showed off a youth serum that he’s been working on. He fed the youth serum, “RM-47,” to a rodent monkey named Allegra, who quickly rediscovered a spring in her step. Said Fiona, in what has to be a deliberate echo of When Harry Met Sally, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Doctor IAD refused to give her medicine that was still in the experimental phase. Fiona reminded him that her late husband’s money was financing his experiments. CUT TO: Fiona, dancing to “In-A-Gadda-da-Vida,” snorting cocaine and staring at herself in the mirror like the Queen in Snow White. Doctor IAD swung by to inform her that he was cutting her off the youth medicine. In return, she started to seduce him, before throwing him against the wall using telekinesis, before sucking the life out of him. Women, amiright? (ASIDE: I assume that the working title of this season was American Horror Story: Women, Amiright? END OF ASIDE.) That act of life-sucking appeared to make her a little younger, thought not enough: She punched the mirror, unhappy with the face looking back at her.

So Fiona wants to be young again; perhaps she even wants to live forever. (Again: You have to wonder how Misty Day might factor into Fiona’s plans in the future, assuming Misty can cure herself of her current “being dead” illness.) But Fiona isn’t all vanity. She caught the first flight out to Miss Robichaux’s after hearing about Misty’s death. She had some unkind words for Cordelia, who she discovered in a greenhouse making some kind of bizarre cocktail for herself. Turns out that Cordelia is Fiona’s daughter…and Fiona is not very happy with her life choices. “The only child of the Supreme,” she said, “You could be ruling the world.”

But Fiona also disagrees with Cordelia philosophically. Cordelia wants to hide in the shadows. “There are no shadows anymore,” explained Fiona, noting that witchcraft in the era of Facebook and Twitter is one misstep away from becoming a viral freakshow. She announced that she would be running things at Miss Robichaux’s, leading Cordelia to say, “When are you gonna die, and stop ruining my life?” So mother-daughter relations are complicated, is what we’re getting the sense of here. (ASIDE: Although the history of feminism is very much on Coven‘s mind, I wonder if Cordelia and Fiona are meant to more generally represent two perspectives on “otherness” in society: Cordelia advocating for “normalizing” and integration, while Fiona demands to be recognized as The Other. Or, more to the point: She wants her Otherness to become the new normal. When she talks about “ruling the world,” is she being figurative or literal? END OF ASIDE.)

Party People

Madison wanted to party. She pulled Zoe along to a frat party hosted by the boys of Tau Omega Alpha, which is not a real fraternity but which did show up on Arrested Development. (When rendered in Greek letters, it looks like TΩΑ, which looks a bit like T&A. The point is, now we have proof that American Horror Story takes place in the same fictional universe as Arrested Development.) In attendance were the boys from Kappa Alpha Gamma (which in Greek letters is KAΓ, which looks like…well, nothing. Speculation welcome!) Heading up the fratboy brigade was AHS loverboy and future son-of-Magneto Evan Peters, whose name here is Kyle. He agreed to be the sober monitor for the evening, apparently a requirement since the boys are currently on probation with the administration. Part of the problem seemed to be a skeevy drunkard played by Grey Damon, who looks like what happens when Liam Hemsworth discovers Jägermeister. (Which I mean as a compliment.)

The party itself was an inviting nightmare — props to Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who directed many of last season’s best episodes and who gave the Coven opener lots of fish-eye lens surrealism. The fratboys took notice of Madison’s arrival, but Kyle only had eyes for Zoe. In homage to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, they first spotted each other through an ice luge. They flirted. Zoe said, “I think frats are full of fascists.” Kyle explained that he was there on scholarship. It was a nice reunion of the two actors, last seen together as extremely twisted young lovers in AHS‘s first season. It would not last: Upstairs, Kyle’s frat brothers were slipping Madison a roofie-laced cocktail.

What followed was one of the most flat-out disturbing sequences in American Horror Story‘s run: A brutal gang-rape, shown partially from Madison’s perspective, as the frat dudes filmed everything. Sent up by Zoe, Kyle discovered them and was horrified, chasing them out of the party as Zoe tried to comfort Madison. Inside of the frat bus, the boys tried to get their stories straight, deleting the videos from their phones and knocking out Kyle when he furiously attacked them. As they drove away, Zoe looked on in horror. Then Madison walked out and used her powers to flip the bus over. If this season is indeed about a kind of Cordelia/Fiona dichotomy — assimilation vs. revolution, basically — we know which side Madison would come down on.

NEXT: Nicolas Cage, of courseAftermath: The Prologue Ends

The local news was buzzing over the crash that claimed the lives of seven fraternity boys and severely injured two of them. Madison seemed unaffected, both by the trauma she suffered and the trauma she caused. New schoolmaster Fiona seemed to agree with her. “The world’s not gonna miss a lot of a—holes in Ed Hardy shirts,” she said. But she marked her territory by tossing Madison across the room and announcing a change of command. “No more sitting around here at Hogwarts,” said Fiona, announcing that they would be taking a mandatory field trip with a mandatory black-clothes uniform policy.

Fiona wanted to take the girls to the former headquarters of what she called “an alternative coven,” implying that the witching world has had several factions throughout history with disagreeing philosophies. But Nan led them into Madame LaLaurie’s old house. After Fiona performed a quick not-the-droids-you’re-looking-for mind trick, the tour guide gave them a free tour of the building, explaining how the Madame would make a special revivifying beverage for herself. (The recipe called for pancreas.) This is when we caught up with the story of Angela Bassett and the Poisoned Love Potion. This is also when we learned that Madame LaLaurie’s old house was once owned by “the guy from Face/Off,” aka Nicolas Cage, who starred in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which I’m henceforth going to consider a prequel to Coven. Meanwhile, Nan led Fiona across the street, saying that the lady of the house was buried there.

Zoe visited the hospital, hoping to find that her boy-crush Kyle was one of the two surviving boys. That would have made sense, since Evan Peters is nominally a lead this season. But no: Kyle appears to have died, unconscious in the crashed bus. Instead, the survivors included the Evil Roofie Son of a Bitch. “Shoulda been you,” said Zoe, who started soliloquizing in a Meredith Grey Voiceover. “The world isn’t safe for a girl like me,” she said. “Might as well put this curse to some use.” And, in a scene loaded with all kinds of twisted thematic power, she raped the rapist to death. (ASIDE: This scene — and some elements of Zoe’s characterization — reminded me of the overlooked horror gem Teeth, the disturbing and funny film about a girl coming of age surrounded by dudes who really shouldn’t mess with her. END OF ASIDE.)

Zoe’s single-episode arc from scared neophyte to twisted avenger is evidence that all the ambient world-building in Coven hasn’t slowed down the hyper-accelerated American Horror Story plot train. Which means this is a good time for a Season Question Theory Lightning Round: In the skewed Potterverse of Coven, is Zoe our “Harry” figure, a newcomer to the shadow world who is going to become hugely important — perhaps even the Supreme? Or is she meant to be an audience-surrogate every-person getting pulled in various directions by the factionalism of the Coven — someone more equivalent to Kip in Asylum?

Meanwhile, Fiona brought some workmen to dig in the spot where Nan indicated…and out of a coffin came Madame LaLaurie, very much alive (or perhaps “alive”) and looking extremely confused. “Come on, Mary Todd Lincoln,” said Fiona. “I’ll buy you a drink.”

So did Angela Bassett fail to kill Madame LaLaurie? Or did she want her imprisoned? Is Madame LaLaurie a witch, or just witch-adjacent? How does Madame LaLaurie’s desperation to stay young match up with Fiona’s urge for the same — and will that desire motivate their actions this season, or are they up to something even crazier? Where is the minotaur? Where is Patti LuPone? Does Denis O’Hare’s butler Spaulding really not have a tongue? Is there really going to be a threesome? Is Coven going to retroactively claim that other famous and infamous women throughout history were witches? Who will be the new Supreme?

Fellow viewers, what did you think of the Coven premiere? How did it compare to Murder House and Asylum? Can you ever have too much fish-eye lens?

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American Horror Story

An anthology series that centers on different characters and locations, including a haunted house, an insane asylum, a witch coven, a freak show, and a hotel.

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