Nick Hanover: I blame you for my entrance into the world of American Horror Story, Dylan. If it hadn’t been for your review of the first season and that laundry list of absurdities that made up the major plot points of the first season, I never would have wound up going down this rabbit hole of tilted camera angles, random bursts of nonsensical music cues and scenery chewing. But here I am, back for more at the start of what might be the most hilarious season of American Horror Story yet.
Dylan Garsee: Well, I had to introduce you to the world of modern day TV camp, and I’m sure as hell you’ll never watch Scandal. But like Scandal, AHS is over the top and sort of self serious, but unlike so many other shows in this “golden age” of television that are so cinematic it’s as if they’re ashamed of being on television, it feels like television.
As much as I love Breaking Bad and The Wire, I never see anything that I couldn’t find on the big screen. This sort of resurgence of camp is something that could only exist on TV. And in the age of binge watching, these shows are like big bowls of Skittles.
Nick: I might watch Scandal now, just to spite you. Except I’m not sure who would actually “lose” in that situation.
While I don’t completely agree with your statement that Breaking Bad doesn’t feature anything you can’t see on the big screen (the serialized aspect of Breaking Bad is one of its greatest strengths), I completely agree with what you mean about AHS being television. It’s not just that every season of AHS is completely different, or that each episode is completely different, but that each scene is a completely different experience. AHS is a show that embraces its campiness and the manic editing and stylistic experimentation that used to be more commonplace on television. It’s a completely unique experience that utilizes the language of television to scramble your notion of what television even is.
This first episode had that element at the forefront, as we began with a weird period drama involving a psychopathic high society madame (Kathy Bates’ Madama LaLaurie) who is attempting to auction her daughters off to the highest bidder, flaunting their “talents.” One of her daughters suggests that perhaps her talent is “in the boudoir,” and then we get an awkward pause filled with some leers from the gentlemen callers before a totally ridiculous transition involving a silent film-style cut-out zoom and close up on the face of one of the slaves tells us whose boudoir she’s really aiming for. Which, of course, leads to the first truly great bit of camp in what I’m sure will be a whole fucking season of the stuff: a goddam minotaur man.
Dylan: This show is really meant for Twitter. “KATHY BATES + SLAVE BLOOD + BARE MINERALS BRUSH = #AHS.” It’s really a show that begs for the most response. While watching this show, your brother said the scene between Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson in Poison Ivy’s lair from Batman and Robin was the stupidest thing he’s seen. Which is exactly the kind of reaction that Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk want. They want hate, they want groaning, they want a reaction. And the first episode of AHS: Coven, with the evocative episode title “Bitchcraft,” is pure reaction.
Nick: Reaction is pretty much exactly how you should describe AHS and the minotaur man is that in a nutshell. First there’s the gonzo shock value of a camp-to-the-max Kathy Bates having a minotaur head sewn onto a slave’s body, then there’s the hilarious but dead serious monologue explaining how the minotaur was always her favorite mythological beast as a kid and then there’s her henchman going “Madame, I think this is your greatest creation yet.” In the midst of a horrifying menagerie of tortured and mutilated slaves, the minotaur man simultaneously gave the scene a weird kind of levity and made LaLurie’s sociopathic tendencies far clearer than any number of slave blood + bare minerals brush sequences ever could have. AND THIS WAS JUST THE COLD OPEN.
Dylan: Which brings us to my absolute favorite thing in this episode: the opening credits. While the rest of the show is campy fun, the opening credits are truly horrifying, part Metal Machine Music, part racist fever dream. Each season hides little hints of the whole story arc in the opening credits, so I’m kind of afraid of what black female KKK members have to do with the story.
Nick: Well, given that the first scene of the episode focused on a crazy madame who uses slaves for beautification experiments based on a real life crazy madame who wasn’t quite as beauty obsessed but still did some fucked up things, I’m going to guess the survivors of her little Avon retreat might spin off into their own enclave before long.
But most of this episode was set in the present day, focusing on a group of young witches who have been sent to what the show itself, via Jessica Lange’s batshit Supreme witch character, describes as a sort of “Hogwarts.” We’re first introduced to Taissa Farmiga’s Zoe Benson, whose powers “activate” as she’s losing her virginity to her high school sweetheart, who is rocking a chain wallet during the event. Basically, Zoe is the protagonist of Teeth, except in a more invisible, aneurysm-based way; when she has sex with people, their brains implode, or something, and they’re left a bloodied, eye bulgy mess.
Zoe is surprisingly calm about the whole thing, and when her mom tells her she’s a witch and a fleet of albino henchmen walk in to take her away to not-Hogwarts, she doesn’t freak out as much as one might expect a young woman who melted the brains of her boyfriend during sex to. Maybe it’s a result of the calming presence of Frances Conroy channeling her inner “Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus,” complete with shocking orange hair and an incomprehensible accent. I know “I’m just maaaaaaaaddddd for Tartan” is a phrase I’ll be getting a lot of mileage out of.
Dylan: She looked like Tori Amos abused her time machine.
Nick: Or if my senile aunt decided to go to the supermarket while cosplaying as a transvestite Florence minus the Machine.
Dylan: She looks like a mannequin that came to life, burned to death in a tanning bed, turned back into a mannequin, then came back to life.
Nick: Speaking of burning to death, the not-Hogwarts stuff is connected by the death of a young Cajun witch, whose snake dancin’ clan burn her on a hillbilly stake comprised of broken car parts because she has the totally un-Christian ability to resurrect things. Sarah Paulson’s Cordelia Foxx (because every name in AHS is a drag name) is the not-Humbledore in this scenario, and she uses the death of the Cajun witch (Misty Day, because drag) as a cautionary example of why witches have to be covert these days.
Zoe is the audience surrogate, so she doesn’t really have an opinion on the state of witchery just yet, but her classmates, including Emma Roberts’ former movie star Madison Montgomery and Gabourey Sidibe’s “human voodoo doll” Queenie, feel that their powers are being “suppressed” by this kind of education. The only neutral party other than Zoe is arguably Nan, a clairvoyant young witch played by AHS regular Jamie Brewer. On the far opposite end of the spectrum is Jessica Lange’s Fiona Goode, the Supreme who had taken a hand’s off approach to witch education in favor of competing with Stevie Nicks in the witchy cocaine devotion sweepstakes.
Dylan: Honestly, Jessica Lange is just such a truly bizarre person that with any situation the writers force her into, she’ll pump out the strangest, most confounding performance on TV. I know Claire Danes gets all of the critical love at the moment, and Jessica Lange isn’t exactly underrated herself, but I think what she’s doing on AHS is far more interesting than the work Danes puts out on Homeland, especially this last season.
Nick: I honestly could have watched an entire season of that coked out sequence where she literally sucks the life out of the man making her immortality formula. It’s like John Mulaney and Ice-T, except in my case it’s not a fallen rap icon trying to understand sex crimes but a deranged white prestige actress snorting a ton of coke and liposuctioning someone’s soul.
Lange has such a commanding presence that the show springs to a new kind of life every time she’s on screen, so it’s not too surprising that AHS finds new ways to let her do her thing each season. Her character is a bland archetype in description— massive bitch who will do anything to reclaim her youth and tragically doesn’t understand how much she has already— but in Lange’s hands, Fiona is mesmerizing, not exactly sympathetic or understandable but impossible to ignore or not at least be entertained by. The students can’t help but seem uninteresting by contrast, and I honestly had a hard time giving a shit about their rivalries or pasts, with Emma Roberts specifically struggling to turn Madison into a watchable character rather than an uninspired Hollywood cliche.
Dylan: Speaking of uninspired Hollywood cliches, the meeting of the apparent star crossed lovers of Zoe and Tate from the first season felt like a cop out, like the writers don’t know how to write non-subservient male characters this season. But I guess I don’t really care about the roots, I just want to see what crazy ass tree this season creates.
Nick: The whole frat party scene was pretty undercooked. It seemed like something the writers felt the need to do in order to create some “stakes” before Jessica Lange’s entrance. It also felt like a forced attempt to humanize Madison, while also giving Zoe some action to do that didn’t involve her making a blank, semi-confused expression at everything around her. Again, for a girl who literally killed her boyfriend with her vagina, Zoe was remarkably composed and even more remarkably ready to flirt with a boy. The dinner scene, where Queenie and Madison quarreled while Nan and Zoe tried to figure out whether they should pick a side, was more exciting, but admittedly the bus flip that followed that questionable gang rape scene was a well-executed effect that showed off the production values that have always been an AHS specialty.
Not that all of Lange’s scenes were instant wins. Her confrontation with her daughter Cordelia had a good simmer to it, but never quite escalated the way it appeared it would, and as nice as it was to see Lange slam Roberts into a wall after some cattiness, her introduction to her new wards felt hamfisted and slow. Once they left the “campus” and wandered into LaLurie’s now museumized mansion— immortalized here as a house once owned by “that guy from Face/Off”— things picked up quite a bit, both in terms of dialogue (“even my vagina is sweating”) and in set-up. That final reveal after Nan told Fiona she knew where LaLurie was buried had me pretty excited, mostly because seeing Fiona dig up a completely alive if somewhat bewildered LaLurie meant that we were in for a whole season of Lange vs. Bates scenery consumption.
Dylan: Does this mean we’re in for 12 more episodes of Magneto vs. Professor Xavier? Because if so, I’m definitely in.
The episode did seem to lose its way during its second act, that’s something shows like this struggle with. Shows like Scandal and AHS are there to hook you in and then leave you bewildered and wanting to come back next week. Honestly, with a show like this, the story and the characters, strangely enough, don’t seem to matter. It’s all about their synergy, which creates a hodge podge of campy, chewy ridiculousness that you can’t help but tune in for every week. Or, in 2013, hitting next on Netflix.
Nick: I know a lot of critics have gotten a lot of mileage out of the fact that the cast of characters is dominated by semi-strong female characters, and there is an appeal in the uniqueness of that perspective, especially in the otherwise testosterone heavy horror field. But if we’re being completely frank, that appeal you’ve described for the show makes it clear that the characters are basically interchangeable and their traits don’t matter. That should be a problem, but when a show is as much fun as AHS, it’s easy to look past that and focus on the goods, which in this case all seem to be directly connected to how committed to nonstop entertainment this show is. And on the plus side, we did get a glimpse at what may be a truly strong, truly worthwhile character in the form of Angela Bassett’s Marie Laveau, who occupied a Django like role here but will hopefully be even more prominent in future episodes. Anyway, what’s your ultimate verdict on this premier?
Dylan: I’m happy to see more shows engage my brain in different ways than, to use an overused phrase “white male fantasy.” In other words, anything that’s not Breaking Bad is perfect for me right now, and I’m glad to embrace more shows like this, which are there to purely entertain and not necessarily comment on society.
Nick: I agree, it is a welcome tonic, and though it’s easy to pick out the flaws and bizarre writing that prohibits AHS from becoming something truly great, the show’s fun factor is arguably more valuable now than truly great television.