American Horror Story: Coven shows promise

Despite the actress's impeccable performance, Jessica Lange's character — Supreme Witch Fiona — is disappointingly weak, failing to live up to her formidable title. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) Despite the actress's impeccable performance, Jessica Lange's character — Supreme Witch Fiona — is disappointingly weak, failing to live up to her formidable title. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Warning: This article contains spoilers for the first episode of American Horror Story: Coven, as well as spoilers for the first two seasons.

The third season of American Horror Story premiered Wednesday amid a whirlwind of high expectations. Its second season was nominated for 17 Emmys, and for the most part, the first episode — titled “Bitchcraft” — lived up to expectations.

This season, called American Horror Story: Coven, revolves around a coven of witches living in New Orleans at Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies. Here, four young women are taught to hone their powers by headmistress Cordelia Foxx, played by returning cast member Sarah Paulson.

The show’s various settings promise to lend themselves to an interesting season. The story jumps between 19th-century and present-day New Orleans, and it is already apparent that boiling tensions from events in the 1800s will resonate in the present as the season progresses. The academy is stunning with its whitewash hardwood flooring and ornate marble staircase, and the mansion is brimming with tension. The four student witches have already shown cracks in their solidarity, with Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) injuring Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts) with an act of voodoo halfway through the episode.

As per usual, the show presents a strong cast of characters who are sure to cause a stir.

“Darling, you have outdone yourself. How ever did you think this up?” asks a man — presumably Madame Delphine LaLaurie’s husband — during the episode’s opening sequence, set in 1834 New Orleans, as a young slave of hers places the head of a bull upon another slave. LaLaurie, played by Kathy Bates, is based on the historical figure of the same name who is now infamous for torturing her slaves.

Bates is a new addition to the repertoire of talented actresses who grace the show, and her appearance shows promise. Bates’s character is the most exciting in the episode, with the rift she has created between herself and Angela Bassett’s voodoo practitioner Marie Laveau, her reappearance in present-day New Orleans, and her truly disturbing rituals like nightly blood facials to tighten her flabby skin.

Returning to the cast after their absences from season two are Taissa Farmiga and Jamie Brewer, who played Violet Harmon and Adelaide Langdon respectively in season one. Their returns are welcome — especially that of Brewer, who plays a witch student, Nan, gifted with clairvoyance. Nan provides a sense of tension through her all-knowing and mysterious personality. Meanwhile, Farmiga’s character, Zoe Benson, promises to be a strong character who seeks justice in any way she can.

The show’s opening titles are impressive. As in past seasons, the titles are accompanied by creepy imagery consistent with the season’s themes, as well as the show’s disturbing theme music. Gone are the worn baby pictures and disturbed asylum inmates of the last seasons, replaced by voodoo dolls and figures draped in black stalking the woods.

While the first episode holds much promise for the season to come, certain aspects of the show disappoint.

The show seems to have returned to a slower, more relaxed pace than the previous season. The asylum in season two is a place with little refuge, but this season, there seems to be room for safety within the almost inviting witches’ school and the streets of New Orleans. The witches go to a fraternity party — admittedly, where tragic events unfold — and they prod at each other over the kitchen table. The relentlessness of the second season is gone, replaced by dark humor, which is similarly scattered throughout the first season.

However, there promises to be increasing tension as the show progresses. The potential for a bitter season has already been set up with the conflicts between Supreme Witch Fiona (Jessica Lange) and Cordelia, LaLaurie and Laveau, and Madison and the remaining fraternity boys.

While the character relations add unique tensions, the premise of the story echoes those that have been done before. Harry Potter has already claimed the idea of a boarding school for witches and wizards, and Disney has touched upon the premise with the Halloweentown movie series. There are even references to other witchcraft-centric stories in the episode: Fiona likens the mansion to Hogwarts, and she threatens to drop a house on her daughter à la The Wizard of Oz. One can only hope that the show’s creators do not linger upon the wonder of the boarding school, but focus instead on the tension between the witches, LaLaurie, and Laveau. Laveau will hopefully make a breakthrough appearance in present-day New Orleans soon.

Most disappointing is Jessica Lange’s character, Fiona. Lange’s acting is, of course, stellar: She fills the role of a witch desperate for youth and full of arrogance. However, the character does not seem as strong as expected. In fact, she seems weak. She almost begs a man at the beginning of the episode to provide her with a youth serum, and she gives in to her disappointment by killing him when the serum does not work. From that point on, she seems to be making up for the youth she does not have by berating the young witches at the boarding school. Her title as a Supreme Witch implies that she has power and personality unlike any other witch, but her current portrayal doesn’t live up to that name. Hopefully, her character will evolve into the headstrong, unrelenting witch that the title implies, rather than one who fights with the witches her daughter teaches.

While the first episode may not have the compelling pace or unique atmosphere of the second season, this third installment in the American Horror Story anthology is shaping up to be a free-for-all among a cast of strong female characters.