5 Reasons the Spell Wore Off on American Horror Story: Coven

American Horror Story cast

Before the finale of American Horror Story: Coven aired on 1/29, fans of the series had one major question on their minds: who would be the next Supreme? Once the initial shock of the reveal faded, they then asked themselves, “Did it really matter?” Ryan Murphy’s wildly successful horror anthology was never too caught up on consistency, focusing instead on bizarre twists and turns that had viewers wondering if they really just watched Gabourey Sidibe pleasure herself in front of a minotaur. These campy moments defined the season and sent everyone dashing towards Tumblr for GIFs of the instantly quotable Madison Montgomery (played by Emma Roberts). The vain Hollywood starlet offered up such gems as, “I need a cigarette,” immediately after being revived from a throat-slitting.

This season’s focus on fun and addictive after the extremely grim Asylum brought us swamp witch catfights, tea parties with corpses, talking disembodied heads, and special guest star Stevie Nicks as herself. It also brought us a season where, if I may quote Drew Carey on Whose Line is It Anyway, “everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.” There lies one of Coven‘s many problems. (Spoilers beyond this point!)

5. Virtually No Stakes except Literal Ones

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When Madison Montgomery and Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga) put together the gory separated limbs of the latter’s frat boy love interest a la Frankenstein, there were consequences for his revival. Bringing Kyle (Evan Peters) back to life meant a major loss of the character’s former self. It meant unleashing a violent, impulsive beast onto the world. It meant that Evan Peters would have to groan and flail around for the rest of the season. When Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange) slit Madison’s throat, jaws dropped at the writers’ ballsy decision to kill off such a major star. While Madison’s inevitable return made the season much more entertaining than it would have been sans her mean snark, it began a trend in which death ceased to matter. Burning Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy) at the stake was hardly a shock when we knew swamp witch Misty Day (Lily Rabe) could easily revive her. With no sense of actual risk or danger for these characters, where was the fundamental fear of death that comes with horror? Death was about as perilous for these characters as falling off a cliff is for Wile E. Coyote.

As a result of the lack of stakes and therefore, the diminished conflict, scenes that should have been Crowning Moments of Awesome, like Zoe wielding a chainsaw against the zombies, fizzled without much pay-off. At best, they were cool to look at and at worst, they seemed like poorly written fan-fiction. Meanwhile, Cordelia Foxx lost her vision twice in the season and easily gained it back both times (once with Myrtle’s help and once because she suddenly became Supreme). When a character forcing garden shears into her eyes barely makes the audience flinch, then the writers may need to re-evaluate how they approach dramatic stakes.

4. Shock for Shock’s Sake

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We love American Horror Story for its ability to make us ask, “Can they even show that on TV?” However, it started to hit a point of diminishing returns on the shocking, squicky moments. The problem partially came from the lack of stakes, as earlier mentioned. It also came from the sheer frequency we as viewers were being hit with gratuitous infant sacrifices, eye-gouging, incest, blood rituals, and necrophilia. The writers refused to exercise restraint on the quantity of shocking moments, seeing as how it worked so well on previous seasons. It came to the point where the viewer could say, “Ah, someone’s having sex with his grandmother after murdering her. Must be Wednesday.”

In a season that featured bubbling semen fertility ceremonies, bleach enemas, and Stevie Nicks music videos, even a mother raping her undead son became forgettable. Coven certainly showed us horrific and graphic images but the actual horror failed to sink in with quick cuts and bizarre camera angles designed to make us dizzy rather than fearful. As the writers threw everything they had at viewers from their bag of scares, they forgot that the effective build-up of suspense is half the battle. This overload of imagery ultimately turned the shocking into the mundane.

3. Unclear Rules

One of the major rules of world-building is to establish the rules of the universe early on to prevent deus ex machina and developments coming out of nowhere. Coven often failed to clearly define its rules. When it did, it was either breezed over in a quick expository monologue or mentioned too late. There was frequent talk about the Supreme performing the seven wonders but it wasn’t until the penultimate episode of the season that we discovered what these seven wonders actually were. Did the writers forget that the season took place in a witch academy? There were plenty of opportunities for them to showcase the possibilities and limitations of the craft in a classroom setting. Instead, we got witch hunters and yet another pregnancy storyline.

Also, was there a reason Fiona had only been targeting the witches in the academy as the next supreme? As Misty Day and deceased (maybe) witch Kaylee had shown, there were clearly witches outside of the coven. Upon further consideration, what was so great about being the next Supreme anyway? None of the girls seemed even remotely upset about losing out on the position to Cordelia. Towards the end of the finale, a character echoed the sentiments of viewers alike, asking, “What’s a Supreme?” At so many points of the season, the title of Supreme carried as much weight as the emperor’s fancy ensemble in The Emperor’s New Clothes – characters were aware that it was important but they had no clue as to why.

2. Failed Attempts at Social Commentary

Marie Laveau casts a spell

Normally, this wouldn’t have been a problem if the season hadn’t put race and gender politics at the forefront of its themes. We got the sense that Murphy and co. really wanted to tackle this subject matter but didn’t exactly have much to say. The season pit sadistic slave-owner Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) against Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) in a racial war. Essentially, a group of black people faced off against a group of white people and they were witches. This was about the extent of racial commentary that Coven had to offer. Bassett’s character seemed to exist solely to compete in sass-offs against Jessica Lange’s Fiona. The scenes, while incredibly fun to watch, were devoid of any real content. Meanwhile, the rich setting of New Orleans gave frat brother Kyle a chance to mention Hurricane Katrina offhand. (This, uttered in the same breath as “Toto is amazeballs!”) How topical!

Finally, the subject of female empowerment was there but remained stagnant. There were several mentions of the girls in the coven sticking together and paralleled scenes in which witches held hands to stab the Axe Man. But when the highlight of an episode was Misty Day beating the sarcasm out of Madison Montgomery, then Coven seemed about as empowering as an episode of Real Housewives of New Jersey. For female empowerment done right, look to Daenarys Targaryen commanding an army of Unsullied or Buffy Summers activating all the Potentials in the world. Finally, as if the themes weren’t scattered enough, the writers shoehorned a blatant gay metaphor into the finale with Cordelia climbing to the soapbox on a CNN interview. True Blood‘s attempts to draw parallels between monsters and the disenfranchised, while just as obvious, were at least focused.

1. Characters with Nothing to Do

Coven‘s abundance of characters meant certain episodes would exclude certain characters – this is inevitable with any ensemble cast. However, for the most part, it seemed that many of the characters were aimlessly wandering until the plot gave them something to do. Aside from Fiona, characters like Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) and Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) were so undeveloped and static that they may as well have joined Madame LaLaurie as decapitated heads. They popped up and disappear as they pleased, which is only an excuse if you’re a ghost like butler Spalding or the Axe Man. While Fiona and Laveau were killing Nan (Jamie Brewer), there was no reason the rest of the witches couldn’t have heard her, especially since they were just sitting around at home.

Where veteran actresses like Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, and Angela Bassett could expertly chew their scenery to a fine cud, younger actresses like Farmiga and Sidibe seemed to have a tougher time with a script that handed them wildly different characters without the season even having changed. At the start of the season, Zoe was our viewpoint character into the strange world of the coven. We had hope for her as an active character when she took matters of revenge on her own hands by killing a frat brother in the hospital. (Modus Operandi? Killer Life Force Depleting Vagina. Seriously.) As the season progressed, she took a backseat to the action by devoting all her time and attention to Frankenkyle. The end of her arc featured her version of Hell, which revolved entirely around a relationship viewers had little investment in in the first place. (Her Hell, by the way, was Kyle breaking up with her – the same Kyle who spent most of the season with a six-year-old’s IQ. Again, so much for female empowerment.)

The writers’ focus on glamorous aesthetics and new plotlines meant the neglect of supposedly major characters. Queenie’s allegiances shifted from week to week, so much so that even Sidibe seemed hesitant in her line delivery about joining forces with Laveau. The mother-daughter reunion scene in the finale between Fiona and Cordelia, which was intended to be touching, was borderline unsettling because of the inconsistent characterization. Didn’t Fiona manipulate her daughter and everyone else she encountered for the entirety of Coven? With only thirteen episodes a season and a completely new storyline each time, focusing on cohesive characterization should not be such a daunting task.

In spite of these glaring flaws, American Horror Story remains schlocky entertainment that’s simply hard to turn away from. Millions tuned into the season finale and lapped up whatever shocks and reveals the writers had to offer, including the crowning of season underdog Cordelia Goode (Sarah Paulson) as the next Supreme. One can only hope, however, that the next season delivers a cohesive, tightly-plotted story in addition to the fun and scares.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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30 Comments

  1. Ramona I.
    0

    Actually I thought this season was the best! Season 1 felt to me like it was channelling the shock horror style of the 2000’s and I liked it, but it also felt really scattered with 12 different stories that didn’t mesh.

    Season 2 to me felt like it was the darkest, very 70’s horror with more focus on tension than anything and if I had to pick a scariest one then it’s be this one

    Though for me, Season 3 win’s just because it was the most fun to watch. Be it Jessica Lange owning every frame she was in, or Kathy Bates being casually racist and crying about Obama (I can’t help but laugh at that sequence, especially the one word ‘Liies), to Angela just being a flawless bitch who stopped giving a shit about anyone but herself, it was the series that was easily the most fun watch.

    • Asylum. I literally gulped it, and it left me a very satisfied customer.

      Murder House was interesting, but the finale will always be my favorite episode.

      Coven was literally a chore to sit through, and I usually love witch shows (apart from The Secret Circle, ugh was that bad).

    • Murder House is the best season.. Asylum was like watching an assignment.. it was so all over the map and everything was just there for shock value. Coven was much more coherent with the exception of the whole bull head guy raping Queenie..that was just.. there.

    • Jody Beck
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      Season 1 was the best: creepy, original, kept you guessing
      Season 2 had too much sci-fi with aliens and a Nazi scientist.
      Season 3 was good despite being anti-male and anti-mother and the lazy writing in the finale.

    • Kelly Bell
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      Season 2/Asylum is my favorite. I was interested in the themes it examined. It was probably the most fully realized, darkest, grittiest, most compelling and most character driven season. I agree wit this article, this season wasn’t good at all.

  2. Agree about everything. It’s so unfortunate. It had a long way to fall. It had SUCH a long way to fall, in fact, that I think American Horror Story: Coven is the biggest failure in television (dramatic, serialized televison), for me. It actually hurts my soul a little.

  3. Yes! Finally an article brave enough to tell the truth about American Horror Story: Coven! Jessica Lange: Brilliant, Kathy Bates: Brilliant, Angela Bassett: Brilliant, Frances Conroy: Incredible (as always), Taissa Farmiga (channeling Leelee Sobieski and Helen Hunt): Brilliant, Stevie Nicks, Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe (LOVE her!), Jamie Brewer, Emma Roberts (BITCH Supreme!), and Gabourey Sidibe (were there even men in this Season?) All this talent, and STILL the Season was a bust!

    Any one of these talented actresses could have carried the Season (and each did have their moments), but the lack of cohesion and inconsistent story-telling left me wanting something more.

    WHY did Fiona leave the Coven in the first place? What was her motivation? This seemed to be a central point that was never explored.

    WHERE was the resolution for Madame LaLaurie’s racism and cruelty? This could have been a great foil to Papa Legba … but no.

    WHAT happened to Marie Laveau? She just disappeared. Yeah, we heard she got chopped-up and scattered, and a mention of her inability to provide annual sacrifices, but is Papa Legba that powerless? Could he not bring her parts back together?

    HOW did Myrtle’s immolation help Cordelia? I mean, really? Zoe and Queenie knew the whole story already, and there were no new witches present. Would have been easy to say her power transferred to the Supreme, or somehow that type of death created something special. But really, this made no sense and added nothing to the storyline.

    I have been a HUGE AHS fan, and will continue to be (assuming the writers make an effort!) but this Season was a disaster, and an insult to these fine actors. Thank you for pointing this out.

  4. I think AHS is meant to be binge watched. I didn’t like Asylum when I first saw it, but I just re watched the season on Netflix and all of those emotions are coming back.

    I like Murder House more for the structure, you knew where the story was going and you could follow what the character was doing/ how they were developing every episode. Kit really resonated with me, him and Dr. Thredson keep me up at night (in a bad way).

    • Funny; my fiancé and I came to this same conclusion! (about the need to be binge-watched).

  5. A great point regarding #5. I’m completely addicted to American Horror Story but this was the same problem I had with Season 1. After the shock of learning that Violet had already died there didn’t really seem to be any stakes anymore. If the characters died then they would just continue living on as ghosts. It gave us a more or less happy ending in the first season.

    I think that points to a greater flaw in the shows premise is that it is constantly getting less horrific as each season goes on. We learn too much about the monster hiding in the dark and they cease to terrify us anymore.

  6. Agreed 100%. Diehard AHS fan, but this season started off so strong and jumped the shark when Queenie and the Minataur had sex (?). While the comedic tone was entertaining, I miss the darkness of Asylum and hope the tone shifts in season 4. I also hope Ryan Murphy doesn’t use the entire AHS alumni for the sake of giving everyone a part. The weak link in every season is too many story lines that are underdeveloped.

  7. Anthropy
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    Yeah, I thought this season was supposed to be about “girl power” with a strong feminist message. If that’s the case I would be insulted, they have only shown back stabbing and cruelty towards the only women they can trust in the world. The Coven is more of “X-Men” school. The x-men movie and the finale of this season have similar themes (a bad comparison to the plight of gays in the US). And out of all the witches in the country, why the hell would Cordelia risk the lives of her students to find the next supreme? She couldn’t wait it out for a while, try to spread to the word, find more candidates or something? Jeez.

  8. I was about to forgive this season its flaws and enjoy it for what it was – dark camp entertainment. But the finale was simply outrageous and disappointing. No redeeming qualities anymore.

  9. Nathaniel
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    The third season of American Horror Story was all over the freaking place, a huge mess. The writers probably could not decide whether it should be horror or petty catfights, or a social commentary on girl power. What I mostly don’t get is where the hell is the coven? All that was shown was a magic school for teenage girls who screw around with undead boys. If it was an actual coven, we would know or see some form of initiations into the coven.

  10. This season was like an honor role student heading off to college for the first time only to spiral down the path meth and satanic rock & rap music.

  11. Phrie110
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    I think this season was absolute crap. First of all, there were several plotlines (all introduced as something very important) that led absolutely nowhere or ended abruptly.

    And then came the last episode where Cordelia, the witch who hasn’t shown ANY powers other than mixing potions (and magical sight, when blinded) suddenly displays all of the powers needed to be supreme. WTF? Then a quick wrap up and that’s that. Let’s also add that, other than a few torture scenes in the seasons beginning with Kathy Bates character, there was absolutely nothing “horror” about this season. On the contrary, it was all about retarded love triangles and bitch wars between girls. Just… awful.

  12. Sophie Wise

    Agree with this article completely. Thought this season started off strong but quickly lost its way in terms of plot development and characterisation – totally lost interest. Agree with your points on the shows ‘shock factor’ – it all felt a bit too try-hard, ironically having no effect whatsoever. As ever, the shows saving grace were the performances.

  13. Alice Bishop

    I think you made some very valid points here. Asylum was definitely my favourite but I still liked Coven a lot. I think, although the issues are certainly there, I found myself able to look past them as it’s such fun and satisfying series for any horror fan. All of the excessive and bizarre elements just added to this for me and I found myself not caring about things like character development or actual narrative issues. Perhaps this will wear a little thin in upcoming series but it has kept me interested up to this point 🙂

  14. Whilst I thought Coven was fantastic, Asylum was so much better in terms of having a more coherent storyline. However, as a huge horror fan the weirder the plots, the more for you have and the more pleasure I get from watching it. And I think it is fair to say Coven was weird, fantastical and had some great set pieces that both shocked and astounded me.

  15. The process started with the Asylum, where many questions remained unresolved at the end of the series. Perhaps one of the most important was the background and the purpose of the Nazi-looking doctor. In the end, I felt betrayed by the producers.

  16. Personally, I thought that the Murder House season was the best as far as suspense and wrapping everything up in the end. The suggestion in the last episode that the antichrist had been born to Vivien seemed to be a new twist that hadn’t been used in that particular way before. The Asylum season finale disappointed me because I watched it expecting questions to be answered, but not many were. For example, the plot involving the aliens was never cleared as to what it meant or how it related to the rest of the season. However, I feel that the Coven season took a huge downfall compared to previous seasons. I was only able to watch about three episodes before becoming bored. The witchcraft theme never seemed scary enough to create suspense or invoke fear of any kind. It also came off a bit like they were trying too hard to make it scary. I think if they had focused on the Salem witch trials and the historical context of innocent people being executed for supposed “witchcraft,” it would have had the potential to be much more scary. The idea of a society murdering so many people over ridiculous suspicions seems like a more believable and horrifying plot theme than a group of women who can cast spells on those who tick them off. I felt more like I was watching a season of “Gossip Girl” or “Pretty Little Liars” than a season of “American Horror Story.” Also, the constant vulgarity overshadowed any chance of horror, and it only distracted from the plot rather than adding to it.

  17. I loved this season when it started off. Sure it wasn’t scary like Murder House was at times or just plain creepy like Asylum was, BUT it had some sort of flare – which more than likely was caused from the all female cast (besides like four key men). What eventually began to bore me was the fact that things weren’t getting paid off, as well as the Cordelia’s sudden eye-sight after being hailed the Supreme.

    I didn’t feel people had the pay offs they deserved and things just began to end strangely. I don’t know. I give the season a 7/10 for sure though.

  18. I agree with you 100%. I thought Season 1 was masterful in the execution of a tight, coherent storyline that progressed and was actually scary. Season 2 and Season 3 have been terrible, and Coven exactly for the reasons you listed. This season started off with so much potential, which is why I’m so disappointed. The characters were always great, but they tapered off into much less interesting versions of themselves by the end. The story roams around all over the place and you’re right, by the end, no one even cares who the next Supreme is. It’s unfortunate and I don’t know if I’ll be watching Season 4 considering the fate of the last two seasons.

  19. Seriously: fantastic article! I have been trying (admittedly with minimal effort) to discover why this season of AHS just didn’t do it for me. Thank you for articulating these frustrations so eloquently—everything you said is spot on. “It came to the point where the viewer could say, “Ah, someone’s having sex with his grandmother after murdering her. Must be Wednesday.’” Ha!

    I wished they had focused the story, rather than continuously introducing more and more elements into it.

  20. Kayleigh Hall

    I’ve always been disappointed by American Horror Story simply because I feel like it could do so much more! As a particularly avid fan of macabre history and folklore, I wish AHS would delve more into the dark history of American than it does.
    Madame LaLaurie was a real woman. Her atrocities were real and almost unbelievable. Yet the show seemed to make a mockery of a true event. Other examples of not-so-sensitive inclusions in previous series: Elizabeth Short in Murder House and Anne Frank (?) in Asylum.

    Rather than truly interesting explorations of seedy horrific history, every series has felt like a soap opera which is constantly trying to shock me. Its approach to this is strange, as, if other people’s reactions are anything to go by, apparently people do find this show very unsettling. I must be a hardened weirdo because it all actually feels very tame to me! It feels like every time there is a strange sexually-charged scene or bit of gore that everybody on screen is relishing just how strange and scary (!) they’re being.

    I think so much of the writing in the series is problematic. You mention that it could feel like fan-fiction and I completely agree. I felt like there were certain plot turns which only served some silly little childish plot and completely betrayed any attempt at character development beforehand. Case in point: two characters, recently brought back from the dead, and previously both sexually abused – Madison, being gang-raped, and Kyle, abused by his mother – meet each other and decide that the ultimate way they must express their sadness is to instantly start boning. So much for addressing their previous issues. Instead, it just served to give more meat to an already silly love triangle plot line.

    I feel like I’ve already ranted far too much about the show so I’ll definitely stop now.

    Great article.

  21. casstaker
    0

    There wasn’t any great mystery or reveal. It was slow, boring, and rather repetitive compared to the previous two seasons.

    The season finale was a dud! Nothing really spectacular. Just hastily wrapping up this “storyline”, which felt more like a boat drifting aimlessly without a crew. And they really missed a bunch of opportunities with New Orleans as the setting.

    • I completely agree. I loved the conclusion of Asylum in particular; so much happened, and it was packed with twists and turns, but it ended on such a satisfying note. Coven just flopped, unfortunately.

  22. I am really glad you brought up the race/gender issue — I felt the same way. Murphy continually disappoints me in this realm, although I think he tackled it much better earlier in the series. There really was no thematic coherence. There was a whole lot of potential with the witch premise, but ultimately it was just disappointing.

  23. Liz Havens

    I did like the humor of Coven, and I enjoyed the feeling that I could turn my brain off or leave the room and not miss anything. However, the last half of the season was a real struggle to get through after I had enjoyed the first three or four episodes so much. The whole thing felt like it got lost. I only hope that season four will stay more on track. This article brought up great points and was well organized. Thank you for sharing!

  24. After looking through this article I can still be sure of one thing. I LOVE coven. Your points are absolutely right but I just loved that season. I get what you mean but honestly all their seasons had at least one of these problems … infact most of every show on TV has these problems. SO people don’t care because that’s TV for you. A bundle of cliches and sudden irregular changes from good to horrible writing (sometimes so horrible that the show really gets bad). But Coven got as much ratings as it’s other seasons because it gave people not what they really wanted but what they knew would keep them watching all episode, talking about it to friends and feeling guilty for falling in love with a messy show.

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