Releasing the third of anything is always a bit risky. You’ve got an audience now, the standards are set and you have to establish to a certain extent what your consumers can expect every time so they come back for more. ‘American Horror Story: Coven’ is no exception to this. We’ve seen the first two seasons, we know the producers are willing to go to great lengths to horrify us with their story-lines and characters. We know the show is capable of taking us to some very dark places and making some very grim statements along the way. The question is: can the show continue on it’s upward slope?
‘Coven’ takes place, as you would expect, in a modern day witches coven in New Orleans, Louisiana. Miss Robichaux’s Academy is the setting where we see our predominately female cast of characters congregate for much of the series. Much like it’s predecessors, ‘Coven’ has one primary setting from which most events stem from, and the casting is a mix of recurring players, such as Jessica Lange and Taissa Farmiga, and new faces, including Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett. It’s familiar now, we know what to expect when we watch the first episode – except, in this season, the first five minutes just completely blow the previous two seasons out of the water entirely. We are made abundantly aware that the producers know they pushed boundaries in previous episodes, and they are willing to go even further as we are shown the infamous Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) doing what she became famous for; torturing and murdering slaves. Yeah, they know how to give a character an entrance and make us pay our fullest attention. From there, a psuedo-montage carries in each major player as the game sets itself up for another 13 episodes of horror. Honestly, this is one of my favourite moments of the season, the character introductions. How everyone is introduced is so epic feeling, it’s like an incredibly elaborate chess-board being set up as we see whose who and tell ourselves not to get attached to anyone.
It’s these same characters that prove to be the season’s greatest strength because the over-arching plot-lines simply fall flat, despite having very promising beginnings. The coven is shown as this dark, grim foster home for real life witches as they learn how to control their powers and keep themselves out of harms way. It’s run by a headmistress who is constantly at odds with her mother who happens to be the Supreme (most powerful witch) of the coven. In the beginning, the story is simply about the small, disparate group of young witches currently under the coven’s care as they get to know each other and feel out their powers a little bit. Things are very promising – the powers are varied from the useful to the downright cruel as the girls explore the darker side of their magical abilities with necromancy and death-by-sex making early appearances, them being teenagers who just want to go out is shown to be incredibly risky and by the time Misty Day (Lily Rabe) and the rival voodoo sect led by Marie Leveau (Angela Bassett) are introduced, we’re ready to watch things get messy. The problem is, things get the wrong kind of messy.
In previous seasons, there’s a strong over-arching plot-line that maintains continuity and keeps us interested in what happens in the last two episodes. For ‘Coven’, that’s thrown out the window in favour of scattered story-telling and no real sense of who the true enemy is or where it’s all going. First, we have the voodoo sect. This works, age-old rivalry and witches vs. witches, the immortal leader Levaue is out for blood against the immortal LaLaurie who ends up the coven’s maid. This is moved to the side in favour of a united enemy in witch hunters. Again, this works, and the witch-hunter’s company feels very reminiscent of ‘Wolfram& Hart’ from nerd god Joss Whedon’s Angel. This is also moved to the side in favour of inner bickering as the characters scramble to find out who the new Supreme is, a plot which is re-introduced in the dying moments of episode 12 for a last episode reprisal. Amongst all of this, we have ghosts playing a major part without any explanation for their limitations in the way of lore, people getting murdered left right and centre with seemingly no comeuppance or even second mention of them being missing and a lord of the underworld that just doesn’t get enough character development at all. The season endings have not been strong to date – the writers favour happy endings, which is fine, but don’t work tonally with the rest of the show and usually leaves me a tad unfulfilled. Here, however, I didn’t care one way or the other because by the end I just wanted them to settle on something and stop moving from story to story with no sense of finality.
This is an even greater pity because, for my two cents, this season has had the best cast thus far in ‘American Horror Story’, with some of the most complex interesting characters they’ve yet written. Jessica Lange is a powerhouse as the decadent but gerascophobic Supreme Fiona, Kathy Bates is equal parts horrifying and hilarious as Delphine LaLaurie and Emma Roberts steals the show with an incredibly haunting monologue in episode 7. There are strong echoes of films like ‘Gremlins’ and ‘Leprechaun’ in how the program carries itself in terms of horror vs. comedy. Kathy Bates as a decapitated head is hilarious and the interactions between her and Queenie are often worth at least a giggle or three. There’s even a sequence of the witches kicking some voodoo zombie ass early on! This is all carried by a troupe of truly great actresses, bolstered by one Stevie Nicks, who deliver on every line and movement and whose chemistry on screen is the right mix of ardent and acidic. It’s these on-screen portrayals that carry the show and keep you watching despite not caring what’s actually going to happen, which is a mighty achievement indeed.
I remember thinking to myself ‘How can they take this any further!?!’ when ‘American Horror Story: Asylum’ ended. In the first five minutes of ‘Coven’, I was answered with a fervent ‘THIS FAR!’ by the shows writers. What followed went up and up, and then down, down and down again. The highs are great, but the lows become all too frequent towards the end. Great performances cannot fully make up for bad writing, and unfortunately, there’s plenty of that in the second half of this season. It is still worth watching for the cast of characters, and there are treasured moments through-out that do keep you from feeling totally disappointed, but overall this isn’t quite as strong as you’d expect a season 3 to be. ‘American Horror Story’ is something special, because it takes the spirit of shows of old like ‘Creepshow’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’ and merges it with old-school horror settings from the Hammer series and beyond. The concept allows for near-endless potential with a rotating cast and new concept every seasons. There’s nothing quite like this show on right now, and it could be years before anything that takes horror this seriously is back on television. I just hope season 4 picks up the slack to make sure it sticks around.
[easyreview cat1title=”The Arcade Verdict” cat1detail=”” cat1rating=”4″]