There are some television shows (among them “Roseanne,” “The Simpsons” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer“) that make a very big deal out of their Halloween episode. Just as the holiday celebrates slipping out of your skin and into someone else’s, these episodes often break from the formula of the rest of the series, offering a wildly divergent path into some very strange waters. With “American Horror Story,” since the entire series plays like a post-trick-or-treating fever dream, the Halloween episodes are an even more heightened homage to the things that go bump in the night, where the entire country takes on the show’s eerie glow. They are also widely considered to be some of the series’ very best episodes. The third season’s Halloween offering is no different.
The pre-titles sequence for this episode, entitled “Fearful Pranks Ensue” and written by longtime Ryan Murphy confederate Jennifer Salt, is haunting: in New Orleans, 1961, a young black boy is cornered by a gang of white men. We then cut to Cornrow City, where a woman is proudly talking about the same child’s admission to the integrated school. The next scene, shot in harrowingly documentary-style black-and-white, shows the young boy’s body hanging from a tree. Not that voodoo queen Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) is going to take this lying down. She does some kind of crazy spell and resurrects several people from the dead, who attack and kill the young boy’s murderers in spectacularly gory fashion.
This sequence is striking for a few reasons: first of all this is the first time since “Night of the Living Dead,” really, besides a brief mention in the “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” movie, of vampires being created by voodoo. After George A. Romero‘s seminal classic (released 7 years after the events of this opening), there was always a pseudoscientific explanation given for the walking dead. Secondly, the types of people Marie brought back are really interesting (a hillbilly, a flapper, and a Revolutionary War veteran); the only thing that united them was their quest for vengeance. And maybe most striking was the fact that this took a toll on Marie, she felt every time one of the racists would shoot her zombies. It was fascinating and keeping with the show’s somewhat twisted moral center; there’s rarely carnage without consequence.
After the credits we cut back to the witchy young girls’ school, where Spalding (Dennis O’Hare) is having a creepy tea party with some of his most nightmarish dolls. He’s summoned by the commotion downstairs and we get to see the shocking events of the last episode unfold from a new perspective: we watch Fiona (Jessica Lange) slice the throat of poor young Madison (Emma Roberts) and Spalding dutifully clean up the crime. Of course, there’s other shit to deal with in the house: Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) is bleeding from her prolonged bout of minotaur-sex and Delphine (Kathy Bates) is scared witless. Fiona revives her with the kiss of life and then does some dirty work on her own. When Delphine fearfully wonders what will happen if the Minotaur comes back, Fiona coolly shoots back, “It won’t.”
We then cut to Cornrow City, where a large box is delivered. Marie assumes it’s wigs and weaves from India. But no. It’s her monster boyfriend’s head in a box, it’s eyes and mouth still blinking. As wonderful a moment as that is, wouldn’t it have been nice to see Fiona decapitate a brutal monster? We say yes!
From there it’s over to Franken-Kyle’s house, where he’s pretty much catatonic and covered in his mother’s blood. You know, the mother who tried to show her appreciation for him returning from the dead by jerking him off? Ick. Still can’t quite shake that one. Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), unsure of what to do, decides to make him a snack and whips up a nice tuna sandwich laced with rat poison (by the way who keeps a giant box of rat poison in their kitchen? That seems unwise). Maybe she can undo all the trouble that she’s done? But, returning from the kitchen with her tuna-rat-melt, she discovers that Kyle is gone. Running outside she sees trick-or-treaters and knows that he has slipped out on the one night where his oddball behavior and grotesque stitches won’t be given a second thought. (Considering this thread is never revisited in the episode, we hope to Allah it’s explored next episode; many of the Halloween outings on “American Horror Story” span two episodes.)
One of the funniest scenes yet this season follows, as Fiona explains to Delphine that it’s Halloween. “Is it the end of the harvest already?” Delphine gasps. Fiona explains that bonfires have been replaced by Jack o’ lanterns and that seasonal offerings are now bowls of candy. Lange is getting dressed up, as a witch, of course (complete with giant pointy hat). We get a brief flashback to the Supreme Fiona murdered, Anna Lee, and an afro’d Marie, signing a peace accord. “The truce is over,” Fiona intones gravely. After a wonderful little sequence between Delphine and Queenie, where Delphine thanks Queenie for saving her life, hinting at where their relationship could go, it cuts to Hank (Josh Hamilton), who claims to be away on business but is having a slutty hotel hook-up with a very young girl.
Back at Hogwart’s, there’s a knock at the door and the Council (led by Frances Conroy‘s Myrtle Snow) walk in. After some awkward fumbling by Cordelia (Sarah Paulson), they inform Fiona that they have been summoned by Nan (Jamie Brewer), who claims that she can no longer hear Madison’s thoughts. Much of the episode is structured around this mini-witch hunt, with the Council trying to prove whether or not Fiona offed Madison, and sprinkled with delightful flashbacks to when Myrtle and Fiona were rivals at the same school. Right after Anna Lee was murdered, Myrtle enchanted Spalding’s tongue so that he had to tell the truth. Myrtle believes that Fiona mutilated Spalding to keep her murderous secret but, as it’s revealed later in the episode, Spalding did it to himself. Looking at a young Fiona, Spalding says, “These are the last words I’ll ever speak… I have always loved you.” Slice!
Of course there are other moments peppered throughout the inquisition, most notably the end of the Hank’s affair subplot. He’s told the young girl he’s a USDA agent and she believes him. Apparently they met on some forum online. “I know you,” she says, trustingly, and then he shoots her in the head. Maybe it’s because Hank had been set up as such a charismatically decent guy, a devoted husband who wants to start a family with his sexy witch wife, that it was inevitable that he would be a cheating murderer, but it still felt like a shock. We’re not sure where this will go, especially because in a couple of episode’s well finally meet Fiona’s man, a mythical serial killer played by Danny Huston. But wherever it goes, we’re on board. You can never have too many psychopaths on “American Horror Story.”
The final moments of the episode featured a number of equally startling revelations: for one, Cordelia informs the Council that Madison wasn’t the next Supreme. Apparently if a witch is next in line for Supremacy, she will be in top physical health. Cordelia reveals that Madison had a heart murmur she kept from the other girls. (Making her death even more senseless.) Also, Marie performs her voodoo zombie spell (this time with an albino python!) Plus, there’s the added bonus of seeing Spalding, dressed up in an old fashioned nightgown, attending to Madison’s nearly naked body, a scarf modestly covering up her gaping neck wound. Grossssssssssss.
The episode concluded with a pair of unforgettable moments. In the first, Madison and Fiona are sharing drinks at a local dive. Cordelia proposes that Fiona must answer five questions honestly. Her first is about Fiona’s dislike of Hank (“He reeks of bullshit”), the second about Madison’s fate (“I did not”)… But by then Fiona has already lost interest so she shoots back, “Who do you think is my replacement?” Cordelia says she doesn’t know and slips into the bathroom. As she emerges from the stall, a black-hooded figure also walks out… and throws acid in Cordelia’s face. SAY WHAT!?!?! Cordelia has always been the figure of decency and kindness; she’s the Martin Luther King Jr. to Fiona’s Malcolm X. As she was writhing in agony on the not-too-hygienic bathroom floor, we couldn’t help but wonder how this event will fundamentally reshape her. Might she become a wicked spirit of vengeance now? Boy we hope so.
Then the very final sequence (the “kicker,” if you will): Delphine handing out Halloween candy. Now, if this wasn’t enough, we get a visit from the girls’ hunky neighbor Luke (Alexander Dreymon) who has come to see Nan and, oh yeah, a trio of Marie’s zombies. As Delphine opens the door there’s this great flourish where it goes to black-and-white and irises in on one of the zombies, then flashes back to Delphine’s time and does the same. It’s her daughter! Holy shit, Marie. That is low. End episode.
What was so wonderful about this episode of “American Horror Story: Coven,” so gleefully spine-tingling, is that it wasn’t specifically built around Halloween, as some of the episodes from the past have been. Instead, it was used as a backdrop to eloquently drape the events of this episode, and these events will undoubtedly pay off and ripple through several of the upcoming episodes. It’s also worth noting Michael Uppendahl‘s genuinely amazing direction, which managed to emphasize both the emotion of the episode and, of course, the scariness. This was even more impressive considering much of the episode is somewhat structured like a courtroom drama (“Law & Order” this is not). Alfonso Gomez-Rejon might be responsible for setting the visual precedence for the series, complete with fish-eye lenses and wacky, period-specific processing, but it’s directors like Uppendahl that carry that kind of oversized embroidery through on episodes where Gomez-Rejon isn’t present. There’s an odd kind of visual cohesiveness to “American Horror Story” that adds even more punch to its outlandish storytelling. It’s all of a really creepy whole. Trick or treat! [A]