Collins’ Crypt: AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN Wrap-Up

One out of three IS bad.

As I've explained in a couple of previous Crypts, I wasn't on board with American Horror Story right from its start; Asylum was already under way by the time I finally watched (and quite enjoyed) Murder House, and while I didn't think the 2nd season was as strong as the first, I still dug it enough to know I wouldn't make the same mistake again. So Coven became the first one I watched week to week, which turned out to be a sort of blessing... because the few friends that were satisfied with this season wouldn't have been enough to convince me to bother when stacked against the vast majority that found it to be a waste of time.

When announced, it seemed like this year had the ingredients to be the best one yet. Witches are an underused "monster" in TV and film (at least compared to haunted houses and evil doctors), and the show's best asset is its recurring cast of terrific female leads: Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe, Frances Conroy and of course Jessica Lange (plus the returning Taissa Farmiga, who sat Asylum out). This time they'd be joined by powerhouses like Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett, not to mention Emma Roberts, who is a bit obnoxious but certainly can bring the crazy when asked (see: her self-beating sequence in Scream 4, one of the film's few highlights). I WAS a bit concerned that Zachary Quinto (and to a lesser extent, Dylan McDermott, whose role in S2 was pretty minor) would not be coming back, since they seemed to "get" Ryan Murphy's insane approach to story and character and dive right into it, but given the female-centric premise it made sense.

But while it started out just fine, my fears proved to be warranted around the halfway point, when characters first started "dying" and coming back, a "twist" that reared its ugly head in pretty much every episode for the season's back half. It made sense for Evan Peters' character, as his death was a legit shock and his return as a sort of Frankenstein's Monster (complete with body parts from multiple sources; that tattoo driven flashback was one of the season's more inspired moments) fit into the show's kitchen sink attitude - no way in hell Murphy would be content with JUST witches! Plus, he had changed - there was a legitimate (negative) effect to what had happened to him, making his death - even though it was temporary - still have some meaning. But then it happened again. And again. And yet again. By the time the show limped to its finale last week, nearly every single character had been killed and brought back to life, often without the slightest bit of trauma (sometimes even without scars!), rendering it a meaningless act. When Farmiga's character inexplicably teleported onto the spike of an iron fence in the finale, it wasn't a question of whether or not she'd be brought back to life, but if they'd wait one commercial break, or two. Sure, the other seasons had this sort of thing too, but in much smaller doses and with actual side effects - they were ghosts! Here, death just means you got an episode off and little else.

Worse, the characters were constantly switching allegiances, which made such betrayals just as inconsequential as their "death" scenes. After a while I gave up trying to figure out who was on whose side, since the show's writers seemingly couldn't even keep it straight. One of the better plot threads involved Bates' racist character Madame LaLaurie learning to accept black people (namely, Queenie, played by Gabourey Sidibe) - at one point they even snuck out together to enjoy some fast food! But then Queenie turned on her, and LaLaurie spent the next few episodes as just a head - and without any shred of the progress she had made. Adios, potentially interesting character development! Likewise, Farmiga and Roberts' characters started off as sort-of pals, then got closer, and then became enemies, save for a random trip into three-ways with Peters. Why can't anyone just LIKE anyone else on this damn show?

Sadly, the biggest problem may have been Lange, as Fiona, the current Supreme. I can't swear on a Bible, but it certainly SEEMED like she had more screen time than ever, and yet given the least interesting of her three AHS characters to play. Her primary arc throughout the season was to find/kill the next Supreme (witch) so she could keep on living, something you knew she'd never accomplish, rendering all of her efforts incredibly uninteresting. And the show's writers completely dropped the ball with regards to her relationship with her daughter Cordelia (Paulson); other than the face-off Fiona had with her hated son-in-law (Josh Hamilton, part of one of the season's multiple go-nowhere plot threads that's not even worth discussing), you might not even have been aware they were mother and daughter if you missed the season premiere. Thus, their final scene together, where they made what passed for amends (and proved that one of the highlights of the previous episode was nothing more than a complete fabrication, or cheat), felt emotionally hollow to me - it was resolving a relationship that barely existed. The fact that no one seemed to care that Fiona had "murdered" one of the girls is another sore point; granted death has been proven to be meaningless here, but come on!

The other issue with the finale was that it FINALLY chose a next Supreme (I swear, if you downed a shot every time someone said "next Supreme" on this show, you'd be dead before the halfway point), which was neither surprising or much of a payoff when you consider the "Coven" incarnation of the show has no second season. Murder House and Asylum wrapped everything up, more or less - this one sets up a more interesting show we will never see. Now the school is out in the open? Great - WHY COULDN'T THEY HAVE DONE THAT SOONER??? To me that would be vastly more intriguing than a season devoted almost entirely to someone being groomed for a job we never get to see in any sort of action, or a selection process that the writers clearly aren't even much interested in (for some reason, Queenie is unable to perform a task she performed 2 episodes before). The season began with the idea that Fiona's time as Supreme was ending, and ended with her replacement being selected - we never got much of a sense as to what a Supreme DOES (unless the job entails murdering potential replacements and acting like a delightful bitch to everyone in their presence). The show completely blew it by not focusing enough on the young quartet of seeming potentials (Farmiga, Roberts, Sidibe, and Jamie Brewer as Nan, a rare character who stayed dead after being killed) and how they developed their powers or interacted with each other, choosing to focus on the adults who were vastly less interesting (if, obviously, more seasoned performers).

See, every season starts to flounder around the halfway point; Murphy and Brad Falchuk have exhausted all of their ideas for random shit to throw into the mix (this year we got zombies and a minotaur!), and almost begrudgingly have to start focusing and building toward an ending. In the previous two seasons, they pulled it off; I think Murder House was more successful than Asylum (the reveal that Peters was doing everything to keep Farmiga from realizing she was dead in the former was a true knockout for me), but both were leaps and bounds ahead of this one, where plot threads were either dropped entirely or tied up with a shrug (LaLaurie suddenly getting her body back was particularly grating). And there was no emotional climax; again, the Fiona/Cordelia relationship was too underplayed for its conclusion to really mean much (even if both actresses delivered terrific performances in the scene), and Conroy's Myrtle had already died, so her going through it again - in the exact same way! - wasn't particularly affecting, either.

In short: this one didn't do it for me. There were some great ideas and moments that had me cheering or laughing, and JUST enough of the series' usual inspired lunacy to keep me going (I like the suggestion that Eminem is a warlock), but considering that their "every year is different" approach is supposed to keep it from ever getting stale, I can't help but feel massively disappointed that this season was exactly that. I'm all for the bizarre plot turns and "hey let's throw a _____ in there for the hell of it!" decision-making, but it's gotta all come together and service a plot that has SOME semblance of a focus and revolves around characters with more than a modicum of consistency to their behavior. Hopefully they can get it back on track next year; it will be Lange's last, so if they blow it again in Season 4, there will be even less of a reason to watch Season 5.

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