This preview contains some mild spoilers.
“She’s the Supreme,” trills clairvoyant Nan (Jamie Brewer) as Jessica Lange’s Fiona leads her young witch charges through the streets of New Orleans. Nan’s right. ‘Coven’, the third season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s American Horror Story, gifts Lange with another glorious character and an opportunity to tear chunks out of the scenery.
However, ‘Coven’ holds off on introducing Lange for a good fifteen minutes, instead opening in 1834 with Kathy Bates’ monstrous Madame Delphine LaLaurie. LaLaurie’s desperation to stop her aging neatly combines with her interest in torturing her slaves, with some horrifying secrets in the attic that rival American Horror Story’s most gruesome moments. The casting of Bates, whose performance in Misery left its mark on many a horror fan (and James Caan), was a masterstroke and if anyone’s going to rival Lange in the scene-stealing stakes, she is a good bet.
Murphy stated an interest in bringing teen romance back to AHS after the none-more-grim events of last season’s ‘Asylum’, and it’s great to see Taissa Farmiga (who played Murder House’ lonely daughter) back and providing the audience identification point for this season. She plays Zoe, who discovers that she has inherited the family witchcraft gene after a bloody encounter with her boyfriend. She’s packed off to Miss Robichaux’s Academy For Exceptional Young Ladies; a boarding school dedicated to helping young witches develop their powers in a safe environment run by the softly spoken Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson), who’s also Fiona’s daughter.
Paulson delivered a searing performance in ‘Asylum’ and it’s something of a surprise to see her as the calm centre in a sea of fiery tempers as the school’s principal. In addition to Zoe and Nan, Cordelia is looking after “human voodoo doll” Queenie (Precious’ Gabourey Sidibe) and movie star/party girl Madison (Scream 4’s Emma Roberts). Strange as it sounds, the scenes between the young witches help to root the series in some form of reality, at least when compared to Lange’s powerhouse turn.
‘Bitchcraft’ might not open with Lange, she certainly leaves her mark on the episode. Whether it’s doing a coke-addled dance to ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ among lacy, gently wafting curtains or flinging Madison across the room to make a point, she dominates every scene that she’s in. Interestingly, there’s just a hint of softness in her spiky scenes with Cordelia as she explains why she’s come back to help her.
While it’s difficult to talk too much about how ‘Bitchcraft’ begins to establish the season’s main arc without spoilers, it’s safe to say that this first episode is the combination of horror references, gory surprises, and going so far over the top that the bottom is no longer visible. There’s always been a full-tilt hysteria to American Horror Story that’s counterbalanced by a self-awareness and a willingness to go to places other series won’t. On the evidence of this first hour, Coven will carry on in the same vein, and we haven’t even discussed the fantastic Lily Rabe’s country witch Misty Day or Angela Bassett’s full-blooded turn as voodoo queen Marie Laveau.
There’s definitely a sense that Murphy and Falchuk are making good on their intention of shaking off some of ‘Asylum’’s soul-crushing grimness, but there’s plenty of darkness to be found here. The challenge will be keeping the season from tipping too far into arch high-camp and the beserk silliness of ‘Murder House’’ final episodes. If they can find a way to combine the first season’s deceptively big heart with the second’s dark soul then we’re in for a treat. Funny, flamboyant and twisted, ‘Bitchcraft’ gives every indication that ‘Coven’ will be a hell of a ride.
American Horror Story: Coven begins Tuesday 29 October on Fox.