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