American Horror Story: Coven had no idea what it wanted to be. A modern-day witch soap opera with a rich mythology? A parable of race relations in Post-Katrina New Orleans? An ode to the feminine mystique? A metaphor for the gay experience? A redemption tale? Coven would be one thing for a couple of episodes and then completely change gears. The first two seasons of American Horror Story threw a bunch of plots in the air in the first six or seven episodes and then used their back halves to fit all of the disparate pieces together into something resembling a cohesive narrative; both, more or less, succeeded. Coven, on the other hand, introduced a lot of threads and themes only to get bored of them one by one. So much of the first half of the season foreshadowed some fast approaching war, one that threatened the very survival of this coven. First, it was Angela Basset and her voodoo practitioners. Then, it was Jessica Lange, the vengeful outgoing Supreme. Then, it was witch hunters! Witch hunters with suits and ties and conference tables! But there never was any war. Coven squandered all of its narratives on moments: burning Frances Conroy at the stake—twice; Taissa Farmiga fighting zombies with chainsaws; Angela Basset slithering around and gobbling down scenery; black men and women being shot down while, upstairs, Kathy Bates’s decapitated head cries along to “Free At Last”.
Once it was finally time to choose the next Supreme, the proceedings seemed arbitrary. The penultimate episode killed off all four of the season’s major villains and left us to deal with Emma Robert’s Madison. I love Madison but her brand of bitchiness pales in comparison to the evil that was Marie Laveau, Fiona Goode and Madame Delphine LaLaurie. She’s brutally killed off as well, because, why just let her leave? Kyle strangles her, and I think we’re supposed to be…grateful? He’s rewarded for his senseless violence by becoming the new Spalding. Oh, and Misty gets sent to Hell. She has to dissect and kill the same frog in middle school Biology class continuously for all of eternity. All Fiona had to do was eat catfish with the Axe Man!
Zoe dies and then becomes the 97th person to be resurrected on this show. Cordelia ascends to the role of Supreme, regaining the eyes she had plucked out of her head, which had been taken from the sockets of Myrtle’s enemies in order to give Cordelia her sight back in the first place, because she had acid thrown in her face, which caused her to yell, “whhhyyyyyy??????” Zoe and Queenie form her new council, simultaneously reopening the school and solving racism forever!
It’s not that it didn’t make sense to place all of the action in the penultimate episode—shows do that all the time, using the last episode to tie up some loose ends and set up the stakes for the next season—but American Horror Story: Coven is one story told in one season. Unlike in the first two seasons, it seemed like Coven was setting up multi-season arcs, leading some to wonder if this season would break tradition by continuing the story another year. I thought that might be a possibility considering the questionable way world building was dealt with this season. Murder House introduced a lot of characters but was ultimately able to tie them into the show’s central conceit. Asylum was a complete, disturbing portrait of mental hospital, using its setting to centralize all of the competing stories. Coven had way too many ideas, and no interest in following through with any of them.
Witch School in modern-day New Orleans should have been a rich enough premise to fill one season. Throw in a rival voodoo coven and you’ve got the makings of a war to focus the season. But with Madame LaLaurie and the Witch Hunters and Patti LuPone next door and everything Spalding was doing and the Axeman and Zombie Evan Peters, nothing had time to breathe. Every story competed for Ryan Murphy’s attention, and being the ADD-generation show runner that he is, he tried to give equal weight to each story. Show like Lost could set up a billion plots in its first season because nobody knew when it was going to end. Coven had an end date, but was still treated like it had endless possibilities.
On the other hand, long live Myrtle Snow. “BALENCIAGA!!!”