American Horror Story recap: Coven' recap: 'The Magical Delights of Stevie Nicks'
The body count builds higher as the witches strike against their enemies and each other. Also, Stevie Nicks plays herself.
Stevie Nicks was in the tenth episode of Coven. Stevie Nicks was the tenth episode of Coven. They named the episode after her, and she taught Misty the proper method for shawl-twirling. She sang “Rhiannon” and she sang “Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You” and she talked to a character played by Jessica Lange. Which means you have to imagine being a fly on the wall when Nicks and Lange were on set together
That’s a lot of showbiz history. And as we look back on Coven, three hours from the end, it’s remarkable how much this season has asked you to consider the whole sweep of its characters’ history. This is a show filled with women of a certain age who are suddenly, desperately aware of their own mortality. You like to imagine that, when you’ve lived long enough, you could look back over the course of your life and feel content. The tenth episode of Coven made a counterargument: Sometimes, you just want more.
The episode began with a beautiful visual of two old enemies now linked together. Recovering from the attack on her hair salon, Marie told Fiona that she was ashamed to show such weakness. The camera slowly zoomed into Angela Bassett’s face, although Jessica Lange was there too, in the mirror on the wall. (Long Take, Mirror: Yep, this was a Gomez-Rejon joint.) I’ll be honest: I was worried that this episode would be all about these two old enemies uniting, that the Coven endgame would see all the disparate witches coming together against a common cause.
Nope! The second Fiona left the room, Marie had a visitor. It was Lance Reddick, whose costume suggested an alternate universe where a very popular Halloween costume this year was Hugo Weaving from Cloud Atlas. Reddick was playing Papa Legba, an important Voodoo figure who is a kind of gatekeeper between our world and the spirit world. He demanded a payment from Marie, “the bargain that we made so long ago.” (You can cross-reference Papa Legba with Frances Conroy’s Angel of Death from Asylum. Seriously, keep track of these characters. It’ll all pay off in eight years when they do the big mega-crossover season. American Horror Story: Crisis in Infinite Wombs.)
So Marie set off for a nursery, where she stole a cute little baby and then mind-tricked two poor cops into shooting each other. The baby cried. Sometimes I take for granted just how enjoyably amoral this show is, and then I remember that this is a show where Angela Bassett occasionally looks a crying baby in the eye and says: “Shut up! I’ll give you something to cry about!”
Also, remember a couple episodes ago, when Fiona and Delia decided they would put aside their differences for the good of the Coven, and seemed like they would have a functional mother-daughter relationship? That’s so 2013, bro! When the TV told them that Delia’s husband was now a very dead witch hunter, Fiona slapped her daughter senseless. How could she bring such a viper into the house?
At the same time, Fiona seemed to be reaching out to a new surrogate daughter figure. Misty claimed she wasn’t interested in being Supreme. She knew Fiona’s game. But Fiona knew Misty’s, too. She brought her downstairs to meet a White Witch. It was Stevie Nicks. “I’m Stevie Nicks,” said Stevie Nicks. Misty fainted. “You owe me five bucks,” said Fiona.
Nicks treated the Coven to an impromptu piano recital, performing “Rhiannon,” the song about a Welsh witch-goddess. (According to legend, Nicks wrote the song before she learned about the myth of Rhiannon, but it still kinda-sorta applies.) It was a great little scene. The older witches sat on couches, watching Nicks play. Misty shawl-twirled. The young witches walked in late, and probably had never heard the song before, but they stopped, too. You can understand a reference, even if you don’t quite know what it’s referring to. (ASIDE: I’m not really up on Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac. And I still thought the two musical numbers were two of the most quietly profound scenes AHS has ever done. Kind of like how I enjoyed Inside Llewyn Davis,even though folk music usually makes me fall asleep and dream about punching folk singers. END OF ASIDE.)
Madison played off like she didn’t care. “I’m more of an Eminem fan,” she said. Responded Fiona: “Marshall? You’re not his type.” (The fact that Jessica Lange looks uncannily like some combination of Eminem’s real mom and Eminem’s Basingerized 8 Mile mom makes me wish that Eminem lived in the same galaxy as American Horror Story so he could drop by for a cameo.) Fiona noted that Misty would definitely pass all of the Seven Wonders. Game, set match: She was the new Supreme. Stevie even gave her a shawl. “This shawl has danced across the stages of the world. And now it’s yours.” And then they twirled together, twirling and twirling, suggesting an alternate universe where To the Wonder inspired a dance craze.
NEXT: And then everything went to hellFiona and Marie decided to strike back against the Witch Hunting empire. Delia did some investigating. She found out about a man named Harrison Renard, the head of a company called the Delphi Trust. “They used to be carpenters. Now they specialize in private equity,” she said, describing
the Vatican the Delphi Trust. Key revelation: Harrison Renard is also her dead husband’s father. She learned this by Googling — I swear, this was onscreen — “Harrison Renard and son.” (Seriously: Hank was the worst witch hunter ever.)
Fiona knew how to strike at these guys. “They pray to one god. A green merciless god. Money.” Delia wanted to help. Fiona had some words for her: “You can’t help me. You can’t help anyone. You’re worthless, hopeless. If you had held the ball laces out, like you were SUPPOSED to, Ray would’ve never missed that kick. You should die of gonorrhea and rot in hell. Would you like a cookie?”
Marie and Fiona did some nifty magic which involved putting a mouse in a gigantic maze. For indeed, aren’t we all just mice in the giant maze…of capitalism? The magic did the trick. Over at the Delphi Trust, the FBI stormed in, holding Search & Seizure warrants. It was bad business: Delphi lost 50 percent of its value in 10 minutes. Bernanke wasn’t taking their phone calls anymore. In a matter of minutes, Coven basically restaged the 2008 economic crash, this time with more Orson Welles-on-funroids low-angle shots of big ceilings. Harrison Renard announced that it was time to kill those darn witches. It was just like Wall Street 2, except more realistic and not terrible.
Since they were spellcasting, male patriarchy-upending BFFs now, Fiona had to ask Marie a question. How had she lived for so long? What was the secret to eternal life? Marie revealed her origin story. How, three centuries ago, she was a witch just coming into her prime. How, at the moment she gave birth to her child, she suddenly understood the idea of her own death…and could not accept it. (On Coven, nothing is more frightening than the next generation.) Papa appeared to her, offering her eternal life for a price. That price: her baby. And every year another baby, it seems.
“Children ain’t in the cards for you,” said Papa. It’s a line with deep resonance in this season of troubled mother-daughter relationships. Fiona had a daughter she basically disowned. Myrtle never had a daughter, so she raised Fiona’s. When we first met Delia, she wanted so badly to have a child; that has gotten steadily less likely with every passing episode. And the daughters have gotten off easy: This has also been the season of FrankenKyle’s Incest Mom and Neighbor Luke’s Murder Mom. (Cross-reference with that famous Katharine Hepburn quote: “I would have been a terrible mother, because I’m basically a very selfish human being.”) (To be clear: Katharine Hepburn rocks. She was like the Stevie Nicks of the ’30s and the Jessica Lange of the ’60s.)
Across town, Misty and Madison were processing behind a New Orleans funeral in the Second Line, which is a phrase I only know because of Treme. (This continues my running theory that this entire season of Coven is Ryan Murphy way of simultaneously apologizing for throwing shade on Treme while also proving that Treme would’ve been much better with witches.) I can barely remember seeing Misty and Madison in the same room so far this season, but their pairing had sparks. Madison played the cynical inside. She told Misty that the whole Stevie Nicks interlude was just a transactional experience: “Now you owe them both. Players only love you when you’re playing.”
Madison was getting into Misty’s head. She was dressed like Cruella De Vil at a Royal Wedding-themed burlesque orgy. She told Misty that her shawl wasn’t anything special: “She probably has a bargain bin filled with shawls in her basement.” (Props to Stevie Nicks: She might have appeared on Coven as the onscreen incarnation of The Goddess, but she still let the show ever-so-slightly deconstruct her.) Some of what Madison said made a bit of sense, too. She brought a dead man back to life, and she pointed at the open casket, telling Misty: “Lose the shawl. Let the part of you that’s just an imitation of some other witch die.” Make your own path, Madison seemed to be saying. The world doesn’t need another Stevie Nicks.
Misty held the shawl over the open casket. She thought about dropping it. But no, she would stay true to her soul. That was right about when Madison hit her in the head with a brick, knocked her unconscious into the coffin, and had the swamp witch buried alive in a mausoleum. Then Madison grabbed the shawl for herself, twirling away.
It was an awesome scene for all kinds of reasons: Because it announced Madison’s final-act Heel Turn as a legitimate contender for the Supreme Throne, and because it served notice that the final endgame of Coven will decidedly not be all of our witches joining together in peaceful sisterhood.
NEXT: Chaos reignsConsider Nan. The clairvoyant/telepath witch has spent this season hovering as a kind of mascot. She’s been sassy. She had a cute flirtation with Neighbor Boy. She was the only witch Fiona seemed to actually like, because after Murder House the infinite variations of Jessica Lange really had to cut the infinite variations of Jamie Brewer a break. She vibed like a dark horse to be Supreme, just because everyone was clearly so much more terrible than her.
Cut to this episode. Nan revealed that her powers were increasing. She could control people now. She told Madison to put out her cigarette, then she told Madison to stick that cigarette in a place one ought not typically stick a cigarette. Then she went to the hospital to visit Neighbor Luke, only to discover that Luke was dead. “No problem,” Nan though to herself, “I’ll just swing next door, ask Luke’s mom where he’s buried, grab his body, and have Misty do her resurrection trick.” TWIST: Luke’s mom had him cremated. (Please tell me I’m not the only person who laughed out loud.) So Nan made Luke’s mom drink bleach. “You have to be cleansed,” she said. Suffice it to say, Luke’s mom only lived twice.
Over in the greenhouse of misery, Delia was having a bad day. She sought comfort from Auntie Myrtle. But Myrtle was absorbed in the celestial tones of her instrument. Delia asked her what the hell that strange sound was. “Don’t be a hater, dear,” said Myrtle, “It’s a theremin.” (Note: Theremins were basically the go-to instrument for Weird Movie Soundtracks, between Spellbound and The Day The Earth Stood Still and the original Thing. Brian Wilson used an electric version of the theremin in “Good Vibrations.”) Delia needed a pep talk. Myrtle told her that she made great salad dressing; why not bottle that? “Cordelia’s Conjured Coriander Condiments.” Delia looked like she was about to cry. “Or you could get a job as a hostess on a cruise ship!” Delia really just needed some kind of kind word. Myrtle: “What are your chances when your mother’s Hillary Clinton?”
That did it. Delia had nothing: Absolutely nothing. “I am an absolute failure!” she screamed. In some respects, I feel like Sarah Paulson has had a tough go of it this season. Delia is a much less showy role than the other witches: First she was quietly buttoned-up, then she was quietly omniscient. It was a kick to see her finally unleash all that pent-up energy, destroying all her plants in a full-fledged Charles Foster Kane Room Tantrum. And Myrtle shrugged and kept right on playing her theremin. (ASIDE: For the record, the least showy and maybe most thankless role this season belongs to Taissa Farmiga, who came on in the premiere like Coven‘s Kitty Pryde but who has spent the middle act of the season playing second banana to everyone. I kind of wonder if the Coven endgame will see everyone else destroy each other, with Zoe left behind and ultimately rising above as the new Supreme purely by virtue of the fact that she is less selfish than the rest of them. END OF ASIDE.)
Upstairs, Fiona conjured Papa — apparently with cocaine, although it was probably mystical cocaine and/or ‘ludes. (Papa was introduced in one of those vintage Gomez-Rejon long takes that spun around and upside down the whole room. You’re insatiable, G-R, insatiable!) Fiona tried to set terms for her immortality: No aging, no decrepitude. Papa asked her some questions. Would she cripple her own daughter? “Absolutely.” Would she murder someone she loves? “Whatever it takes.” Papa went in for a kiss…and then backed away. “The deal is off. You have nothing to sell. You have no soul.”
Right about then is when things got very impressionistic. The Axeman suddenly appeared in the chair opposite: “Bum luck, baby. No sale.” But there was a more clear-cut path to immortality. One of those girls downstairs was taking Fiona’s power away. They would just have to kill her. Fiona took a snort and cut to the chase: “Haven’t you heard? I’ve got no soul. I’ll just kill ’em all.”
As a character, Fiona Goode is all over the place. She’s a supervillain and an empress, she’s a bohemian and an aristocrat, she wants to defend the Coven and she wants to destroy the Coven, she wants to be a better mother and she wants to eat her daughter alive. She’s in love with a resurrected serial killer who’s been watching her grow up since she was a teenager. In a moment that set the tone for this whole death-obsessed season, she begged Madison to kill her before she decided to kill Madison instead.
If Fiona weren’t played by Jessica Lange, if she were on any show other than American Horror Story, I’m not sure she would make any sense. But at this point in Coven, she looks like an indelible Jackson Pollock portrait: A vision of powerful womanhood in extremis, torn between the urge to leave the world better than she found it and the counter-urge to burn it all to the ground so nobody else can ever enjoy it.
Example: Nan. The clairvoyant witch heard the little baby crying, and went upstairs. Marie told her to put that baby down. Nan refused. “I’m the new Supreme,” she said — at the exact wrong moment, since that’s when Fiona walked in. Marie informed Fiona that Papa needed the blood of an innocent. “Maybe we can kill two birds with one stone,” said Fiona. CUT TO: Fiona and Marie, freaking drowning Nan in a bathtub. Fiona, with the line of the night: “Don’t put up such a fuss. You’re not the first witch to be drowned.”
Nan isn’t the first main character to die this season, of course. (Deaths still pending: Zoe, Delia, Fiona, Marie. I guess technically Delphine never died, but she’s been buried and decapitated, so let’s not get pedantic about this.) Somehow, though, this death felt permanent. Papa initially refused the offering. But Fiona noted that Nan was innocent, mostly. So Papa took Nan away. “Do I have to wear this outfit for all eternity?” Nan asked. Papa said no: She’d find something more suiting. Nan sounded positively sanguine about this development: “Anywhere is better than here.” Off they walked into the shadows.
Then it was back down to the ballroom for Fiona. Stevie was still there, playing the piano. “Perfect ending to a long day,” said Fiona. She listened while Stevie sang “Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You,” a song that’s about death and being remembered, or perhaps about the fear of death and the fear of not being remembered. It struck a chord with Fiona, sitting there on the couch. The last shot of the episode was a close-up on her face, smiling and crying all at once.
It was an active episode, fellow viewers, setting up all kinds of potential conflicts as we go into the final three episodes. What did you think? Is Nan really gone? (Ryan Murphy says: yes.) Did I completely miss the part in last episode where Queenie died? (I figured she’d recover from the gunshot, and the fact that the witches didn’t find her is encouraging.) Is Misty going to emerge from the mausoleum a changed witch, seeking vengeance?
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