Mothers behave very, very badly. Plus: Minotaur!

By Darren Franich
Updated October 24, 2013 at 03:20 AM EDT
Credit: Michele K. Short/FX
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On a restless night filled with expensive pills washed down with expensive booze, Fiona walked through Miss Robichaux’s, carried away by wonderful bad memories. In 1971, Fiona was a beautiful young witch, a southern blonde with a smile on her face and murder in her eyes. Not for her the burning of bras in Jackson Square; you get the sense that the Salem Witches outgrew bra-burning centuries ago. She stayed behind. She had a question for the old headmistress, a kindly elder who looked like the grandmother in a Frank Capra movie. “How did you know that you were the Supreme?” asked Fiona.

The elder laughed it off. It was an old story. She performed the Seven Wonders, the ritual by which a young witch announces herself as the trueborn heir of the Supremacy. (We didn’t learn what the Seven Wonders were. Possibly one of them involves killing Shou Lao the Undying. Even the best show could always use a little more dragon.) Young Fiona announced that she was ready to demonstrate her power. The headmistress dismissed her — grabbing a long cigarette in a long cigarette holder, which is how kindly grandmotherly types kindly tell you to leave them the hell alone.

Young Fiona escalated. She pointed out that the elder witch was getting sick: Diabetes, heart trouble. “As I get stronger, you get weaker,” she said. (There is not an infinite supply of magic in the world of Coven‘s witches. Matter is not created or destroyed.) The aging witch rose in fury. She had seen the future, with Fiona as Supreme and the world of the Salem witches in tatters. She would make it her mission to ensure Fiona never ascended. So then Fiona sliced the old woman’s neck open. In the corner, mute, stood Spalding, with much worse hair. He was still standing there, over 40 years later, watching Fiona with impassive humor.

(ASIDE: With three episodes, and still no explanation about his existence, the time has come for a Spalding Theory Speed Round. He’s Fiona’s Brother. He’s Fiona’s baby daddy, and Delia was conceived the evening Fiona sliced open her mistress’ throat. He’s the husband and/or brother of Myrtle Snow, that mysterious Frances Conroy angel-devil who hasn’t returned since the premiere. He’s the eternal caretaker of Miss Robichaux’s, a la Jack Nicholson in The Shining. He’s the devil. He’s God. He’s John from Cincinnati. He’s Iron Fist. All of the above. Your opinions welcome. END OF ASIDE.)

Things are trending bad for Fiona Goode. Time was she’d go to the bar and never buy a drink. She explained, “My partners have been princes and starving artists, Greek gods and clowns,” which covers all four dudes from Entourage. All of the men thought they were leading the dance, but to Fiona, they were just “primitive, beautiful animals,” acting on instinct while she led them by the collar.

The men in Coven are all meat with minor operating brain cells — one of them is a literal half-animal, and the most active male character is a reanimated hunk of man-meat. But from Fiona’s perspective, the men have one check on her power: The ability to choose someone younger. So we saw Fiona commit herself to the butchery of cosmetic surgery, demanding her surgeon show her a video of the procedure. “The human face is not attached to the skull at all,” intoned the medical video’s narrator that I’m choosing to believe was Troy McClure. Fiona watched the video and shuddered, realizing for perhaps the first time that she was just meat, too.

There’s an unsubtle theme running throughout this season of American Horror Story: The idea that “witchcraft,” as represented in Coven, is really just a metaphor for acting. Fiona is the aging actress, with a magnificent history written in red and black ink, a historic figure by any reasoning. But that history is also her shame: She wants to be young again, to return to her glory days like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Meanwhile, a new generation of actresses beckon, taking her roles, living the life she used to live. (In this metaphor, Delia is the proverbial child-of-celebrity who just wants to be normal but who keeps getting pulled into the spotlight, slash Ronan Farrow.) That metaphor went Full Motif in episode 3, as Fiona focused her energies on the one young witch who is literally a rising superstar actress.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

NEXT: Mommie DearestZoe decided to visit the recently undeceased Kyle’s mother. She discovered a bohemian gal with a front-braid, generous with her weed. (Mrs. Spencer was played by Mare Winningham, who played a bizarrely similar role — Mom With A Secret — in one episode of Under the Dome, a show that is worse in every way than American Horror Story except for the way that involves having a Dome.) Mrs. Spencer had actually been one centimeter from cradling her neck in a hangman’s noose when Zoe called. (Mondays, amiright?) The mom didn’t believe in an afterlife, but Zoe assured her she didn’t have to: “I’m sure Kyle has not left us.”

Back at Miss Robichaux’s, a hot six-pack with a head attached was moving into the house next door. The six-pack’s name was Luke or Duke or Klute or something. The girls caught a gander and started talking boys. Nan assured them that she was not a virgin; Queenie proclaimed that she was saving herself. (When someone says they are “saving themselves” in the context of sex on a Ryan Murphy show, it’s the equivalent of a character announcing “This gun is loaded! Loaded gun here! Hope nobody fires this loaded gun!” in a Chekhov play.)

Upstairs, the Madame LaLaurie made a terrifying discovery. A black man had been elected President. Of the United States. Of America. “I voted for him twice,” said Fiona. “Lies!” screamed the Madame, which in Kathy Bates’ voice came out as “Liiiieeeeessss,” and sounded a bit like Shelob the Spider quoting Clay Davis. Fiona declared Madame LaLaurie the new maid. But the Madame refused to serve Queenie. This led Fiona to declare some frontier justice: “You are gonna be Queenie’s personal slave.” Fiona might be a homicidal egomaniacal sociopath with Borderline personality disorder who occasionally leeches the life out of innocent people, but she does have one redeeming quality: “There is nothing I hate more than a racist.”

Meanwhile, at the Reanimated Frankenstein Boyfriend Healing Facility/Bayou Outpost of the Stevie Nicks Fanclub, Misty was half-spooning Kyle and singing along to Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara.” Misty explained how Stevie Nicks only found herself when she found the band, that “you can’t be your best self unless you find your tribe.” This brings up the possibility that this whole season of American Horror Story: Coven is actually just a highly symbolic retelling of the life of Stevie Nicks, sort of like what I’m Not There was for Bob Dylan or what Spring Breakers was for Britney Spears.

Zoe came by to pick up Hottie Frankenstein. Misty freaked out. Misty wanted him to stay. Misty wanted Zoe to stay. Misty just wants a friend so bad, you guys. She wound up dancing by herself to Fleetwood Mac in a shack in the middle of the woods; I can’t think of anything lonelier, except maybe listening to Sigur Ros and watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s surrounded by your cats on a spaceship after the earth blows up

Back at Miss Robichaux’s, the girls decided to get neighborly. So Nan spent a few hours baking her very best sweet treat, and Madison threw on a dress that was so short you’d think legs had just been invented. The six-pack with the face answered the door. He didn’t know who Madison was: “We don’t have TV or internet,” he explained, making him the single weirdest person to ever appear on an episode of American Horror Story. His mom appeared. His mom is named Joan, and is played by Patti LuPone, who has won significantly more Tonys than you. (IMPORTANT NOTE: She was nominated for a Tony in 1993 for playing Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.)

Joan asked the girls if they had heard about Jesus, leading Madison to declare that that whole thing — religion, Christianity, The Passion of the Christ — was claptrap. “Why wait for some phony happily-ever-after?” she asked. (This could be a key question for this whole season, which is filled with characters who A) are trying to avoid death, and B) have already experienced death.) There was a telekinetic altercation with a knife, and then Madison set the curtains afire — she didn’t even know she could do that.

NEXT: Bad news from the doctorsThe next scene was a showstopper. There are two phrases in the American Horror Story opening credits that never fail to excite me. The first is “Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon,” the episode director with the stylish eye who prefers bold wide-angle lenses and pushes the show’s hyper-kinetic aesthetic into genuine lunacy. The second is “Written by James Wong,” a TV writer whose resume dates back to The X-Files and the great lost ’90s curio Space: Above and Beyond. (He also co-wrote and directed Final Destination, helping to invent one of the most tenacious and weirdly fruitful horror concepts of the last couple decades.)

Wong and Gomez-Rejon were both at the top of their game with the next scene, which cut between matching mother-daughter doctor visits. Delia went to her fertility doc to ask about the next step. Her magical methods had failed: It was time to initiate the IVF protocol. Meanwhile, Fiona went in to see her cosmetic surgeon. Neither medical professional had good news. Delia’s doc told her she could never have a baby. Fiona’s surgeon, meanwhile, said that no one could operate on her, not in her condition: Her immune system was in freefall. We only learned the exact nature of her ailment later in the episode: Fiona has cancer, a death sentence, less than a year to live. What’s the point of a getting a new face if it’s going straight in the casket?

So perhaps Fiona was not in the best mood to receive visitors. But Joan Ramsay walked on over, all neighborly. She even brought a copy of the Good Book: A gift she always brings, on a first visit. She complained about the girls from the school. Fiona said she despised Bible-Thumpers: “Behind closed doors, you are the biggest perverts of all.” Madison echoed that statement, telling Joan: “Your son’s so backed up, all I’d have to say is ‘panties’ and he’d j— his jeans.”

The first episode established a clear ideological divide for this season of Coven: Fiona vs. Delia, the former a proud hedonist and the latter a buttoned-up monogamist. With the addition of the Christians Next Door, it seems like Coven is exploring this idea even more. And neither side appears to be particularly attractive: The Ramsays are scared of their own reflection, while Fiona and Madison are drug-addled egomaniacs. (If there’s a positive figure in Coven so far, it’s probably Misty, who believes in the importance of family and friendship — although, notably, she herself is a friendless hermit living in a shack in the woods.)

Joan did tell Fiona something interesting, though: That bit with the fire, the arson that came out of Madison’s fingertips. She asked Madison to light her cigarette from across the room…and Madison cast a pyro spell, easy as a flick of her fingers.

Meanwhile, Zoe dropped off the reanimated Kyle back at his house. When his mom hugged him, he flashed a terrified look at Zoe before he was pulled inside.

We soon found out why.

“You’re a different person,” she told her son, laying down next to him in bed. “Your body.”

(No, your brain whispered.)

“Don’t worry,” she said, “You’re still my beautiful boy.”

(Nononononono, said your brain, trying to shut your eyelids.)

“Kiss me,” she said. (NONONONONONONO, your brain said, attempting now to induce hysterical blindness.)

She licked his scars and moved her hand down his NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

Yes, in the hardest blow to the American family unit since the inception of swing-dancing, it turns out that Mrs. Spencer has gone Full Lannister, apparently for a very long time now. This makes Kyle’s role in Coven even more tragic. He’s been objectified by everyone: By Madison, who thought he was just another frat boy, but also by Zoe, who may have brought him back to life just because she liked him. (Note that she didn’t refuse when Madison gave him a way better set of abs.) And objectification is right there in his origin story: His dad walked out, his mom needed a man, and she settled for the easiest alternative and damned her son to a lifetime of terror in the process.

We cut from that scene of motherhood to a scene of attempted motherhood. Delia visited Marie’s hair salon. Turns out that Marie has a back room, where she sits lounging on a lavish throne surrounded by skulls and plays Solitaire on her iPad. She explained to Delia what went into the fertility spell, and we saw it happen. Delia would need to bring two ounces of, ahem, her husband’s semen. (Marie called it “baby gravy.”) Angela Bassett ate the hottest pepper on earth, and painted men and women danced all around her, and a mason jar of boiling semen exploded on the fire, and a live goat’s throat was sliced so the blood could dribble all over Sarah Paulson’s mid-section. Everything I wrote in that last sentence might sound weird, but in fairness, that’s just a typical Friday happy hour in the American Horror Story writers’ room.

Marie explained that it would cost $50 thousand, and would be performed at the next new moon. Delia asked her when that would happen. Marie laughed, and informed her she would never perform the ritual: Not for the daughter of her sworn enemy. (She actually said the phrase “sworn enemy.” It was awesome.) Delia didn’t even know that Fiona had visited Marie. Theory: Will Delia start working as a double agent inside of the Salem Coven? To become a mother, must she kill her mother?

NEXT: Fiona tries her hand at teaching. It doesn’t go well, per se.

Fiona took Madison out for some afternoon tea. They talked mothers. Madison didn’t have a good one. “The last time I saw her, she snorted half my coke and then let the cops bust me for it.” (In fairness, that doesn’t even enter the Hall of Fame of Stage Mom bad behavior. Yeesh, it was only half.) Fiona noted that she was herself a pretty bad mom to Delia. “She’s not dead. You can change,” said Madison — and for a moment, you could see how she really wanted to say those words to her own mom.

One of the things that makes American Horror Story such an enjoyable show is how it views every character with a psychological panorama: Madison is a murderous hedonist anti-intellectual beauty-fascist, but in that moment she was also a girl who badly needed a mother. So she asked Fiona to teach her. And Fiona taught her the basics. Not mind control, but mind nudging — convincing a guy that walking into the middle of the street was good for him.

But so anyways let’s get down to The Masturbating Dylan McDermott Memorial Award For Craziest Scene of the Episode, always a hotly contested trophy. Queenie and her personal slave Madame LaLaurie were in the kitchen. Queenie wanted more food. Madame LaLaurie, admitting defeat, told her “Peach cobbler won’t keep you warm at night.” Queenie explained that Dr. Phil said she was just eating her feelings, due to parental neglect. (Or maybe it was Dr. Oz. Truly, I couldn’t care less.) “I think you best look for a new physician,” said the Madame, and it was at this point that A MOTHERF–ING MINOTAUR POKED HIS HEAD AGAINST THE WINDOW.

The Madame explained that it was her house boy, “a beast in life” returned to torment her. She claimed the man had taken her daughter, and she begged for mercy, and I really feel the need to stress this, THERE WAS A MINOTAUR KNOCKING AGAINST THE DOOR. I don’t know what Dr. Phil would say about that, but I bet he’d probably say, “Please, Mr. Minotaur, don’t crush mmmeeeeeee–” before being crushed by the Minotaur. Seriously though, Minotaur is my character on television since Dome.

Queenie sliced some blood from the Madame and wiped it on some cloth, and she led Minotaur into the garden, like a matador leading a bull. In the least expected flirtation in a show filled with unexpected flirtation, Queenie told Minotaur, “You just wanted love. That makes you a beast?” The other kids had called her a beast once, she explained. “We both deserve love, like everybody else.” She pulled up her skirt and engaged in some too-hot-for-CW activity; Minotaur moved behind her and caressed her with his horns, before suddenly grabbing her mouth.

Now, guys. There’s a way to read this scene where it’s a twisted contemporized version of Beauty and the Beast: The much-maligned girl who is proud and self-confident, the man transformed into a beast who appears to be shackled to a more powerful controller. There’s another way to read this scene that is rife with troubling racial politics (not least because Minotaur is the only recurring African American male character, and his main character trait so far is “being a Minotaur.) Clearly, the only way we can resolve this ambiguity is with more Minotaur, perhaps granting the character a spinoff sitcom called Mostly Minotaur, which would be about Minotaur starting a law practice. (Disappointingly, that idea is not as stupid as Anger Management.)

Speaking of troubling sex scenes, Kyle’s mom told him “I’ve been possessive” and told him “You needed it as much as I did” and said “No one knows you like I do” and nonononono stopstopstopstopstop. Kyle agreed with your brain, screaming “Nooooo!” and bashing his mom’s head in with a trophy. Zoe arrived just in time to find FrankenKyle covered in blood.

Meanwhile, Fiona and Madison were out for a night. Fiona wore red, but Madison wore white. They were playing pool, and every woman looks great when they play pool. All the boys stared at Madison, and Fiona stared at her too, and saw her younger self looking back. Back at Miss Robichaux’s, Fiona pointed up at the portraits. “Get yours painted when you’re young,” she said. Madison laughed: Like she would ever even graduate from this school.

But Fiona maintained that she’d be just fine. “You’re the next Supreme,” she said. “My life force is pouring out of my body into yours.” She revealed her cancer diagnosis. Madison, bless her, said her agent could put her in contact with a good oncologist. Fiona refused chemo: “I’ve led a disreputable life, but I’ve done it in style.” (This was one of those American Horror Story scenes where everything Jessica Lange said sounded like it could be a country music lyric, a quote from the Old Testament, or the last line from the memoir of the dying empress of a fantasy kingdom.)

Fiona expressed regret. She said that she took her inheritance too soon, and apparently, she misused her powers: “I just took it and poured it back into myself,” she said. She remembered the old Supreme: “She was majestic and powerful.” She taught her everything; to thank her, Fiona cut her throat. (ASIDE: In the Hollywood Actress Sub-Narrative, this is basically a New Hollywood actress talking about an Old Hollywood Actress to a modern actress. Pause to imagine Faye Dunaway explaining Rita Hayworth to Shailene Woodley. END OF ASIDE.)

Fiona had kept the knife, for more than 40 years now. She brandished it now. “Do it,” she told her successor. “Don’t be afraid.” They fought. They screamed. Madison refused: Perhaps because she couldn’t kill her mother figure, perhaps because — without vengeance, in full control of her power — she wasn’t really a murderer.

So Fiona slashed her neck open and watched her bleed to death.

Spalding apparated out of nowhere, always exactly where he has to be. Fiona smiled at him. “Bury her deep. God knows what all that s— in her body will do in the lawn when it comes up in the spring.” She looked down at the corpse of the girl who was supposed to take her place. What was she thinking, walking into that room? Did she want to give Madison the chance to save herself — and Madison failed? With the next Supreme dead, would the power return to Fiona — or would it discover a new vessel, in one of the other girls? Is Fiona’s only salvation the death of every witch in her Coven: An objectivist salvation, based on Fiona’s rational self-interest and the awareness that there is a limited amount of magic, which should belong to those bold enough to take it?

The episode began with Fiona killing her spiritual mother, and it ended with her killing her spiritual daughter: A closed circle of life. “This Coven doesn’t need a new Supreme,” she told Spalding. “It needs a new rug.”

Fellow viewers, what did you think of this episode? Is Madison dead dead or “dead” dead? (I’m guessing the latter, since everyone else has been resurrected so far.) Who’s your favorite couple, Queenotaur or Franken-Momcest? And we are now accepting guesses for what Stevie Nicks song will play during next week’s episode. I’m guessing “Tusk.” Because, again: Minotaur.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

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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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