American Horror Story season finale recap: Coven' recap: 'The Seven Wonders'
The Coven welcomes a new Supreme. Not everyone gets out alive.
It was probably inevitable that Stevie Nicks would kick off the final episode of American Horror Story: Coven by twirling through Miss Robichaux’s singing “Seven Wonders.” There was gauzy overlighting and bad lip-syncing, and the camera followed Misty and a metaphorical black cat while they checked in on all of the witches left alive. It felt like the final scene of an ’80s teen movie, the moment when the whole cast grins through a symphony of self-actualization: The Craft if it had been made 10 years earlier by John Hughes. There’s Zoe, using her telekinesis to lift her bed into the air; there’s Madison, boiling up her bubble bath and lighting candles with her mind; there’s Misty, bringing dead plants back to life and actually smiling right as Stevie Nicks sings the word “Smile” on the soundtrack; there’s Queenie, trying to speak to Nan via her Spirit Board.
The girls all march downstairs, waiting as patiently as a bunch of Bradys. Then up walks Stevie Nicks herself. “Good luck, girls!” They all smile. Stevie leaves the building. Then again, scratch that teen-movie comparison. The opening scene of the final Coven felt like the credits sequence for a very different show about these crazy witches — the spinoff that wasn’t. And it set the tone for a very weird hour of television.
The finale of Murder House turned into a delicate twist: After an entire season about the breakdown of the American family, a season which argued relentlessly that any long-term relationship is doomed to misery and corrosion, the final episode suggested that the Harmons could finally find peace with each other. (We last saw them decorating a Christmas Tree; I have to believe there’s a deleted scene where they joined together with all the ghosts for a rousing rendition of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” It was a season of cataclysm that ended with quiet, and something like grace. Asylum went the other route: After a season of mid-century madness, the show hit the gas pedal and followed that madness across the decades, ending with an act of filicide that simultaneously read as redemptive and apocalyptic, as if the joyful solution to all the problems of our sad world was to stop having the children who screw things up.
“The Seven Wonders” was different. After a season of mad spinning, Coven spun onwards, with an ending that you could read as happy or as ironically happy or as evidence that nothing has really changed. It began with a recreation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, a reference which every show has to make eventually. Myrtle had chosen a last supper of Caviar and Champagne. Delia saluted her young witches. She paraphrased the Bible: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, reasoned like a child. But when I became a woman, I put aside childish things.” The paraphrase was actually just a regendering. Appropriate, considering that Coven has more or less committed gendercide: All the male characters have been killed, many of them self-destructing, leaving only poor Kyle behind as brute-force man-candy.
The Seven Wonders began. Telekinesis was easy. Then came Concilium. Misty mind-controlled Queenie into slapping her own cheeks, the witch version of the popular big-sibling game Stop Hitting Yourself! (Queenie got her own back, getting Misty to pull at her own hair.) Then came Madison and Zoe. They turned FrankenKyle into a chesspiece. Madison forced Kyle to kiss her, and then made her lick her own boots. Zoe made Kyle kiss her, shooting Madison a look while it happened. Then Madison made Zoe strangle Kyle.
Then the girls all went to Hell. Queenie had already been there: She escaped the old Chicken Shack with ease. Madison’s Hell was far worse: “I was stuck on a network musical. It was a live version of The Sound of Music. I wasn’t even the lead! I was Liesl!” Face, NBC, you just got faced! Zoe woke up and her hell was Kyle breaking up with her because her only character trait is loving the prettiest Frankenstein ever. Misty found herself in her worst memory: In school on dissection day, cursed to kill a living frog and bring it back to life over and over again.
And she never escaped. After a lifetime of servitude, bringing murdered women and hunted animals back to life, Misty’s eternal reward was to be trapped in the worst minute of her life. “If you won’t dissect a dead frog, you can dissect a live one!” screamed Mr. Cranely, over and over again. As I think back on the episode, I find myself thinking about this moment over and over. The episode proper ended on a hopeful note — but what are we to make of the fact that Misty Day, who never did a single thing wrong, is cursed forever? This was pure death-metal nihilism. Or maybe they just had to start getting rid of people. I thought Misty might stage one last resurrection, but her body faded into a million little ambient particles. Good night, sweet Swamp Witch. Flights of angels take you to the big Fleetwood Mac concert in the sky.
NEXT: Let’s play some tag!Everything was so sad all of the sudden. The witches just wanted to have some fun! So they played Transmutation Tag, engaging their inner Nightcrawler. Madison smiled and Zoe smiled and Queenie smiled. “Girls! Don’t have too much fun now!” said Delia, sounding like a concerned parent in a Public Service Announcement about the dangers of playing Dodgeball on a freeway. “C’mon, Delia! We just wanna have fun!” said Zoe, who was having so much fun and smiling and laughing and jumping for joy. Predictably, she teleported herself right on top of the Miss Robichaux’s gate, impaling herself.
Dead, she provided a handy subject for Vitalum Vitalis, the act of resurrection. Queenie managed to pull off a resurrection spell on Misty last week, but she couldn’t resurrect Zoe, because because. Delia asked Madison to resurrect Zoe. Madison was understandably not having it. Resurrect her own combination? She clapped her hands on a fly, killing it; she brought it back to life. Myrtle tried to take the moral high ground: “If you refuse this, then you don’t deserve to be Supreme?” Madison, echoing a great line by Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, responded: “What’s deserve got to do with it?” Lest there was any confusion, Madison confirmed herself as Fiona 2.0, promising to use all the power of the Supreme for her own benefit.
This left Delia feeling depressed. Her mother had been right all along: It was Madison, always Madison, an incarnation of all-consuming narcissism and the murderous Pleasure Principle. But Myrtle didn’t think so. She had a different idea. Maybe the new Supreme wasn’t one of these young ladies. Maybe it was the woman who had spent her life in service to the Coven, attempting to keep Miss Robichaux’s afloat even as her superiors ran amok. Perhaps it was Cordelia who would be the next Sup-
We get it. The second Myrtle brought up this possibility, we knew it was inevitable. This was only really a twist because the show tried hard to make it seem unlikely. Delia was blinded, not once but twice. She never spoke openly about any intentions of becoming the Supreme, and last episode implicitly disqualified herself from any such race. But the second the idea was brought up, Cordelia was the clear choice. She performed all the tests: Candle, Piano, Underworld, Nightcrawler. She used Divination to figure out the precise location of Mimi DeLongpre’s antique broach. Madison could do so much, but Divination stumped her. She gave a final farewell, promising to return to Hollywood and tell TMZ all about this cuckoo Coven, and she ran upstairs, leaving the clear choice for Supreme behind with wry smile.
But now, a word about Madison for a second. Last week’s death orgy left this season finale shorn of its most interesting personalities/best actors. Marie Laveau and the Madame LaLaurie are trapped forever in their ironic hellscape; Fiona appeared only briefly, about which more later. Left alone with the younger witches, it felt more than ever like Coven was really 10 different TV shows in one. All versions of American Horror Story have felt rollicking and scattered, of course, but Murder House and Asylum had a certain unity of tone and theme. (The aliens and Satan and the mutants and the Bad Santa never crossed paths, but they all walked to the beat of the same crazy drummer.) Coven split its characters into a whole series of stories that only occasionally made sense in the same universe. The Marie/LaLaurie rivalry was miles removed from the Zoe/Kyle flirtation, which was itself completely cut off from the Axeman/Fiona entanglement, which only briefly took place in the same galaxy as that whole Witch Hunters of Wall Street tangent, and don’t forget about Misty Day forever twirling.
I’m not saying that was a bad thing or a good thing. But most of all, it was a big thing. You could’ve taken any one thread from Coven and blown it up into a complete 10-episode miniseries. When the show worked, it managed to conjure up the feeling of a superhero crossover out of thin air: Coven was like The Avengers of witches. (Fiona was Tony Stark. Delia was Bruce Banner. Marie Laveau was Thor.)
And for my money, the best and most complete miniseries belonged entirely to Madison Montgomery. Other characters on the show existed in the quantum phase of Ryan Murphy narrative, forever vacillating between wild extremes: Delia and Fiona hate each other, develop a grudging respect for each other, try to kill each other, love each other. But consider Madison. When we met her, she was a spoiled-brat starlet. Then something terrible happened to her: Raped by fratboys, a goddess demeaned into a victim. She sought vengeance, and in the process damned herself: Killing her rapists, she also killed a good boy who never did anything wrong. For her crimes she received karmic punishment: death at the hands of Fiona, her corpse used as a masturbatory toy doll for the proverbial Weird Dude In The Attic.
But then, twist! Brought back from the beyond, she spoke of a terrible darkness. You got the sense that she was the kind of girl who found a kind of heaven in hell, who only felt really good when she was doing bad things — so it made sense that her infinite punishment would be the absence of anything, a terrible quiet beyond even the pleasure of pain. Back from the dead, she found herself healed. Her broken heart was fixed. She fell in love with a boy: The same boy she had killed, in fact.
But the boy loved someone else. And so, having fallen and then risen, Madison fell once again: Jealousy led to rage led to ambition led to all-consuming desire. Her power grew with her desire. She killed one witch, Misty Day — the very witch who brought her back to life. And when it came time to prove herself, her romantic rival proved weak. Madison stared down at the face of the girl who ruined her second life. She had the power to bring Zoe back. She refused. And so she was damned all over again. The power in her grasp — which could have been hers if only she had committed a single selfless act — faded away.
Left with nothing, she took the only logical step you can take when your whole life has fallen in on itself. She planned to start over. She packed her bag. The boy she loved demanded to know why she let his true love die. She told him: “I love you! I love you, please!” He looked at her with cold eyes: “You’re not that good an actress.” And he strangled her, sending her back to the darkness that was always her home. Her soul was gone, if she ever had one. Her body would be bequeathed to Spalding, a human doll once again.
NEXT: You’re alive! Now Die!I guess you could argue that my description hyperbolizes Madison a little bit. Maybe she really never loved Kyle. Maybe she could never have been the Supreme. (Given the hazy rules around Supremedom, who the hell knows?) But there’s a nice caffeine-pulp coherence to her story arc — the beautiful grotesque, the notion of a barely-legal starlet as a cynical has-been — and Emma Roberts clearly had a blast playing the proverbial Child Star Breaking Bad. It makes me wonder if there was a different version of Coven that took the implicit Hollywood symbolism and made it explicit — a Coven where Miss Robichaux’s was an old mansion on Sunset Boulevard, where all the witches were also young actresses struggling for success or older acclaimed stars struggling against obsolescence.
(ASIDE: Lest that sound like a wild unlikelihood, keep in mind that all of Ryan Murphy’s shows are partially about Hollywood. Popular played around with typical teen-drama iconography, refocusing on characters types classically defines as “outcasts.” Glee did the same thing, in a world where “Let’s put on a show!” is standard operating procedure. Nip/Tuck dug into the beauty industry before finally just moving to Los Angeles; Murder House was set in the decayed dreams of Old Los Angeles, while New Normal imagined a flip-side nouveau-LA where Andrew Rannells’ TV producer lived a yuppie dreamlife with a sassy assistant who looked like a Bravolebrity and a lovable blonde dame who looked like Ellen Barkin. In an ideal world, Murphy would reboot LA Confidential as a vaguely historically accurate musical anthology and let Alfonso Gomez-Rejon shoot it like a Douglas Sirk movie. END OF ASIDE.)
So Madison died and Zoe came back to life, and Delia was crowned the new Supreme. Her eyes grew back, her garden glowed with beauty, there was a general sense of true happiness all around. Worth pointing out that, with Zoe’s death-and-resurrection, Delia was the only person who didn’t die this season: An indication that the Horror Story writers were playing the long game, maybe.
And then BOOM: We cut forward in time a few months, to yet another iteration of Sarah Paulson giving yet another TV interview in yet another iteration of American Horror Story. The witches had gone public: “Women who identify as witches are born as such. It’s not a choice being a witch…when you hide in the shadows, you are less visible.” This was a Theme Dump: You could replace “witch” with all kind of real-world synonyms. Delia explicitly mentioned anti-witch Hate Crimes. She gave out her email address. (On the TV, the news crawl promised, “Up Next: Liza Minnelli Talks About Her Hip!”)
Delia promised to be a new kind of Supreme. She would rebuild the Coven, bring it back to its place of prominence. Her mentor, Myrtle, was proud of her. But she also knew that Delia had to perform a horrible act. Myrtle had killed the other members of the council. Witch Had Killed Witch. “You want to be burned at the stake…again?” Myrtle did. “The last thing you need is an AbScam, a Watergate. I killed so I must pay for it.”
Myrtle has always been, above all, an idealist. She put the needs of the Coven ahead of herself. So I liked how she pulled a Cincinnatus, staying true to her principles even when absolute power beckoned. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that she pulled a Terminator 2, sacrificing herself for the good of her young charge. So “Silver Springs” played, and so Myrtle marched once again up to Burning Hill. (Once again, she was flanked by her assistants, one bald and one not bald.) And when Myrtle burned again, the last vestige of her Witching generation died off. A new generation would take over now.
Or would it?
NEXT: Yes it would. Or would it? Yes.The surviving witches looked outside of Miss Robichaux’s. There was a line around the block, around more blocks. Witches of all shapes and sizes had made the pilgrimage to New Orleans. They would have to buy another house, more houses. This was the dawn of a new age of witchcraft. A new age needed a new Council. So Queenie and Zoe ascended to the right hand of the Supreme. Yes, everything was going great…
…but there was that strange whisper downstairs. Yes, Fiona survived the Axeman’s attack. There hadn’t even been an attack. We saw a flashback to last week’s Best Shot Ever, revealing that Fiona’s whole incredible pre-death monologue had never even happened. She told the Axeman that she had a plan. Disappear to Paris for a few days; let the true Supreme reveal herself; then come back and regain her power. (ASIDE: Everything about this plan invites every possible question about logical inconsistencies, so let’s just chalk this up to the Dr. Evil Monologue thing. Because yes, it would’ve been faster to, like, throw five grenades through the window of Miss Robichaux’s at breakfast. END OF ASIDE.) She planted an image of her death inside the Axeman’s head, covered him in goat’s blood, and strolled out. Delia’s heretofore-omniscient Sight didn’t see this plan, because because.
Whatever, logic. The sight of Fiona, near-bald and disease-ravaged, hit like a depth charge. This is what Fiona has been afraid of all season: her own death, the moment at which her body fails her. Delia figured that Fiona’s plan got complicated: Isn’t it harder to kill your own daughter? “Not really,” said Fiona. But this wasn’t a showdown, like last season’s Paulson/McDermott mother-son chat. This was an opportunity for two people to finally, here at the end, understand each other. “A woman becomes a mother, she can’t help but see her mortality in that cherubic little face,” said Fiona. “Every time I looked at you, I saw my own death.”
Here we are again in the death-metal soap opera. A mother who looks at her daughter and sees only death. And that daughter, caught in an endless loop. “You were the monster in every one of my closets,” said Delia. “A lifetime spent either trying to prove myself to you, get close to you, or get away from you.” Delia talked about the little girl who was still inside of her; that little girl would die when Fiona died. “Then kill them both right now,” said Fiona, brandishing her old knife. You imagine that Fiona, ever the drama queen, was just fine with that ending. Fiona killed her spiritual mother, the previous Supreme, in that very spot with that very knife: She could appreciate the intrinsic Greek-Tragic irony in being killed by her own actual daughter, the next Supreme.
But Delia wouldn’t let her mother off the hook. She held her close, and told her to let the terror of death wash over her completely. “You have to do this alone. Feel the fear, and the pain, let it all in, and then let it all go.” Fiona died in her arms: The first hug they ever had. Not to keep rambling on about commonalities across the American Horror Story spectrum, but: Asylum ended with one iteration of Sarah Paulson killing her own neglected child; Coven ended with a different iteration of Sarah Paulson, a neglected child, helping her parent achieve peace before death. Was Coven more optimistic? Or is the whole point of American Horror Story that we are trapped forever between our parents and our children?
Fiona woke up in her own personal hell, trapped forever on a farm with the Axeman. He had catfish with him, and the promise of gin rickeys. She slapped him, and he punched her back. “I can’t spend eternity here!” she raged. “This place reeks of fish, cat piss — what is this, knotty pine?” Except this is Jessica Lange we’re talking about so “knotty pine” came out like “Nawteee PAAAAAAAHHHHNNNN?” Papa Legba waved g’bye to Fiona, leaving her trapped in terrifying domesticity. (Notably, the Axeman made a point of saying: “I’m in Heaven.”)
And so Miss Robichaux’s reopened to a new generation of young witches. In Spalding’s place now stands Kyle, wearing a tuxedo and looking all in all quite well-adjusted for a reanimated fratboy who killed his handsy mother. Delia gave a speech that you could only read as a ridiculously happy ending: “I know, together, we can do more than survive. It’s our time to thrive.” There was a minor off-note: One young recruit asked “What’s a Supreme?” with a tone of voice that reminded me of Phoebe in All About Eve, one of the best movie characters to ever appear in only the very last scene of her movie.
What’s a Supreme? You’re looking at her, was the response. And we ended the third season of American Horror Story on Delia’s smiling face, looking out at the fresh faces of the new era of witchery.
There was a lot to chew on in this finale, fellow viewers. Certain characters who seemed important weren’t, really. (I loved the moment when Kyle sees Spalding, who has been on the show this entire season, and all he could say was: “Who the hell are you?”) The finale seemed to retroactively argue that Coven was ultimately the story of Cordelia’s ascension, which throws some of her character’s earlier struggles into a strange new light. (Remember when she wanted to have a baby?)
But this episode also had moments of beauty that we’ve come to expect from a Gomez-Rejon joint: That Last Supper homage, the mind-control make-out/strangulation competition. The sudden time-jump practically felt like a last-minute reboot for the show — you have to wonder if that was at least partially leftover from the spinoff that wasn’t. The idea of witches “coming out” is so intriguing that I’m sad we only got a quick look at the post-revelation world. And I’m tempted to say that the show’s decision to conclude on a note of triumphant optimism felt a bit off-key. Much of Coven was devoted to a developing suspicion of authority figures; but Delia in the end is a Good Supreme, a Platonic Ideal of leadership who seems not corrupted whatsoever by the absolute power she has received.
Still, maybe that’s in keeping with the tone of Coven as a whole. After two seasons of building success, the series took a victory lap; after the bleak grotesquerie of Asylum, the show wanted fashion and fun and theremins and Stevie Nicks playing Stevie Nicks. This was American Horror Story‘s double album, filled with tangents. (Silent movie homage! Patti LuPone!) What comes after the victory lap? We’ll find out in late 2014, when American Horror Story: Jessica Lange’s German Accent hits our television. Until then, I’m off to write a FanFic spin-off in which Stevie Nicks forms a jazz-funk collective with Myrtle on the theremin, the Axeman on the saxophone, and the Minotaur on drums. Thanks for taking this beautiful journey with me.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich