“American Horror Story: Coven” Shapes Up to be Strongest Season Yet

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“American Horror Story” airs on Wednesday nights at 10 pm on FX.

Jamie Ferguson

"American Horror Story" airs on Wednesday nights at 10 pm on FX.
“American Horror Story” airs on Wednesday nights at 10 pm on FX.

Ever since the premiere of American Horror Story in 2011, television has never been quite the same. The appropriately titled show, combining horror movie scares with a television format, received critical praise and awards for its shocking portrayal of violence, suspense, and terror despite the controversial subject matter (including rape, Nazis, school shootings, exorcisms, and torture). Its anthology format introduces a brand new time period, plot, and cast of characters, while keeping the same core group of actors and actresses. After two successful seasons, American Horror Story returns with its third installment, entitled Coven.

Coven takes place almost exclusively in Louisiana, about 300 years after the Salem witch trials. The witch population is nosediving, so a school opens in New Orleans for young witches so they can learn to control their powers. The school is home to four students: Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), a reckless young actress who has the power of telekinesis; Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), the former manager of a fast food restaurant who is a human Voodoo doll; Zoe Benson (Taissa Farminga), who kills people she sleeps with; and Nan (Jamie Brewer), a clairvoyant. The headmistress of the school, Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson) struggles to teach the girls to coexist peacefully in the real world when her headstrong mother Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange) arrives to protect the girls. Fiona is the Supreme, a term used to describe a witch who, once a generation, has a multitude of powers instead of one specific ability. However, she is losing control of her powers, signaling that one of the young witches will soon become the next Supreme.

As always, Coven is filled with numerous side stories, which give deeper insight to many characters’ pasts. After resurrecting the deceased Kyle into a Frankenstein-like state, Zoe brings him home to his mother as an apology for his untimely death; however, viewers quickly learn that Kyle’s mother sexually abused him. Cordelia’s problems run deeper than keeping her students safe when she discovers her fertility issues. Despite her husband’s suggestions, she vows to never use magic to have a baby; however, when her situation is proven to be futile, she struggles to keep her promise.

The modern day aspect of American Horror Story, which was lost for the majority of season two, is now more prominent than ever, with references to Harry Potter and Twitter speckling the dialogue. Zoe and Madison go to a modern day frat party where Zoe meets Kyle (Evan Peters), a stark contrast to the first season, which avoided any modern language or pop culture references to create a timeless story line. Asylum took place almost exclusively in 1964, which channeled a refreshing time period for television. And although the first season took place predominantly in 2011, events occurring in the same house throughout history maintained a historical influence throughout the season. Coven is also much funnier, with its humor juxtaposing the impending darkness that the first few episodes hint at.

But despite the refreshingly modern angle of Coven, the story has roots in a much older generation. The opening scene of the premiere shows Madame Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), a real slave owner from the 1830s who was notorious for violently abusing her slaves. After LaLaurie tortured her lover, the equally real Voodoo practitioner Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) punished her by killing her family and granting LaLaurie immortality. The theme of youth and the desire to be immortal penetrates Coven, specifically through Fiona’s struggle to recover her lost youth. The fate of LaLaurie suggests that immortality is not all that it is cracked up to be, and can be an even worse punishment than death. 200 years later, Fiona digs up LaLaurie in her search for immortality, and uses her as a leverage against the never-aging Laveau.

The intertwined stories of Fiona, LaLaurie, and Laveau allow Lange, Bates, and Basse—the most talented actors on the show—to act alongside each other, and the three women alone provide enough acting talent for the entire cast. Jessica Lange in particular provides yet another outstanding performance as the weakened Fiona, a role on par with her award winning roles of Constance in season one and Sister Jude in season two. Although each of the three roles seems the same on paper (a cold, fierce, intelligent woman who will gladly step over people to get what she wants), Lange’s performances bring out their backstories, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities that make all of them very different. Additionally, the rest of the ensemble cast is equally strong, with actors such as series regular Evan Peters, season two star Sarah Paulson, and newcomer Emma Roberts giving diverse and powerful performances.

Although American Horror Story has rarely struggled with its portrayal of women, Coven has an almost entirely female cast, which is a welcome change from a heavily male industry. The women are three dimensional and original, and the characterization avoids the tired idea that complex, well-written female characters have to be masculine or strong willed. In reality, a truly strong female character can be feminine, vulnerable, or even weak, as long as she has a fully developed story that does not exist purely to move along the story of a male character. For example, Cordelia is gentle and soft-spoken, but she is also human, and has motives and ideas of her own that are written to develop her own character. That being said, Zoe shares a similar shy, quiet personality, but her story line revolves exclusively around Kyle, so little is known about her outside of her romantic endeavors. Men should not be portrayed as sensitive and emotional to break stereotypes and women should not be macho and tough; instead, characters of any gender should have a range of emotions, strengths, and weaknesses to make them truly human.

Each season of American Horror Story thus far seems to have topped its predecessor, and Coven is no exception. Coven combines the good of the previous seasons (such season one’s strong characters and Asylum’s masterful suspense) while leaving out the weak points (season one’s haunted house story got old quickly, and Asylum was overwhelmed by its number of side stories). The characters are better written and more complex than ever before, and the story line is fresh enough to stand on its own while maintaining the acclaimed horror and suspense that American Horror Story is famous for. Though drastically different than anything the show has tackled before, Coven is shaping up to be the strongest season yet.