One of the greatest, gore-soaked magic tricks of “American Horror Story” is the way that creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have so many balls in the air, that even when some mysteries or scenarios are put to bed, ten more spring up. It’s like the nighttime soap opera horror equivalent of a hydra; cut one head off and three appear. This was certainly the case with the fifth fiery episode of “American Horror Story: Coven,” “Burn, Witch. Burn!,” in which mysteries were seemingly laid to rest while others gleefully popped up in their place. To quote the great American poet Nelly: it’s getting hot in here.
At the end of last week’s exemplary “Fearful Pranks Ensue,” voodoo queen Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) had unleashed an army of zombies to attack the witches, while Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) had just been burned by scalding acid, thrown by an unseen assailant. This week’s episode opens with a brief flashback to “All Hallow’s Even, 1833,” once again in the opulent home of Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), who beckons a young suitor into her “chamber of horrors.” The young man, who has eyes on one of LaLaurie’s comely daughters, is asked to stick his hand into a pot and tell her what he feels. “Ah, it must have taken you all afternoon to peel these grapes,” he guesses. When she lifts back the top of the pot, it’s revealed to be real human eyeballs (we are then show her ripping said eyeballs out of her tortured slaves); the same goes for the “sausages” that are actual intestines. The young man runs screaming.
Her three daughters then plot to off the old monster. In turn, Delphine has two of her slaves drag them into her real chamber of horrors. She ties one up and imprisons the other two. “It’s for my love of your plain faces that you still draw breath,” she hisses. Then she promises to lock them up for a year, just in time for next Halloween.
When the show violently cuts back to the present, we see that the three decomposing ghouls on the front steps of Hogwart’s are, in fact, her daughters. More zombies growl and rustle on the front lawn. It should be noted, too, that these zombies are way more creative and scary than the creatures seen on AMC‘s increasingly dreary (but unstoppably popular) “The Walking Dead.” Like the rest of “American Horror Story,” these zombies are both more fantastical and self-referential (there’s one that looks right out of George A. Romero‘s classic “Night of the Living Dead“), but they also work better. Their exaggeration registers on a more profoundly chilling level.
Back at the bar, Cordelia is screaming in pain. Her mother, Fiona (Jessica Lange), demands that she let her see the burn. When she does, Fiona shrieks in terror. That shriek says it all: there are many things that can be undone by her powerful magic, but having your eyes burned away by a powerful acid sure as shit isn’t one of them.
Meanwhile, in what we assume is one of the bigger supply closets at Cornrow City, Laveau has begun her spell to command the army. At Hogwart’s, various theories are being bandied about. To the theory where the mummies in the front yard are just pretend, Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) shoots back: “Tell that to the Army of Darkness.” It’s a winky reference and one that will pay off later in the episode, and it served as a cathartic giggle for an episode largely filled with straightforward scariness. Laveau starts to levitate, then says one word: “Begin.” A couple of neighborhood dweebs, who have been poking around the assembled undead are promptly dismembered and eaten, and handsome neighbor Luke (Alexander Dreymon) is stabbed in the back with some kind of very pointy object, leading Nan (Jamie Brewer) to flee the house in an attempt to save him.
As Cordelia recuperates, Fiona takes a weird, possibly drug-assisted trip through a nightmarish nether realm. It’s surreal and haunting, like something out of last season’s searing “American Horror Story: Asylum.” The best moment is when an elderly man crawls up to Fiona and says, “You didn’t throw that acid but you might as well have.” Fiona wanders into the hospital room of a young woman who has just given birth to a stillborn girl. Fiona cradles the baby’s corpse, telling the mother to hold the baby and her how beautiful she is. As it played out, it was one of the more quietly affecting sequences in the entire series, and when Fiona gives the baby the “kiss of life” (one of her powers, that we’ve seen before on the show), it’s a pretty amazing moment. And just like that, Fiona creeps back into the shadows, leaving the mother and her new child alone.
While the girls play Witches vs. Zombies back at the house, Delphine tries to apologize to one of her dead daughters. “Come back to me child, I will make amends,” she says, reaching out to touch the ghoul’s withered face. The ghoul promptly strangles her. Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) has taken refuge in a crypt (or something) adjacent to the main house, because witches probably look for crypt-adjacent property, which is pretty hard to come by these days. Queenie, when faced with another one of Delphine’s daughters, tries her human voodoo doll shtick, to no avail. (The coolest moment is when she slices her own throat and the zombie lets out an exasperated sigh of dust from a similar wound.) Finally Delphine comes to the aid of Queenie, strengthening this relationship, which is already paying off from when they began as a bickering, hateful duo. Assessing the situation, Delphine contemplatively states, “She had a monster for a mother.”
Outside, Zoe has found a chainsaw in the crypt (okay, so maybe it’s an overtly production-designed tool shed), and she starts slicing the zombies into goopy little cubes. It’s a wonderful moment; a shout out to “Evil Dead” and “Army of Darkness” (and callback to Queenie’s earlier comment) and an effervescent moment all its own. It contained the kind of giddy-gory fun that was so missing in this year’s joyless “Evil Dead” remake, reminding us that, unlike on “The Walking Dead,” killing zombies should be a blast. Of course, when Zoe’s chainsaw sputters and stops, she casts a spell, that doesn’t just disable her attacker but stops all of the zombies in the yard and even brings Marie Laveau crashing down to earth. Collecting herself, she breathily coos, “They got some real power in that witch house now.” Ladies and gentlemen, we present to you the next Supreme: her name is Zoe and she wears goofy hats.
After some amazingly bitchy back-and-forth between Fiona and Cordelia’s serial killer husband Hank (Josh Hamilton), he goes over to touch Cordelia. Upon touching her, Cordelia “sees” everything that Hank did with the young woman in the hotel room (including, presumably, that part where he put a bullet through her temple). The message is clear: she might have lost her sight, but home girl can now really see.
Out in the front lawn of Hogwart’s, they’re barbequing all the zombie parts. “Fire purges and purifies,” Fiona intones. She turns to Zoe: “I like a witch who can fight.” We’re all thinking: you’d like her a lot less if you knew she was the next Supreme. And right on cue, always ruining a good zombie body part barbeque, is the council, led by Myrtle Snow (Francis Conroy). They’ve shown up to follow through on last week’s investigation and have sentenced Fiona to be burned at the stake. Only, hold up, Fiona has some knowledge to drop on the Council: it seems that Myrtle Snow happens to have a hidden agenda. Or, in Fiona’s words, “Our enemy has a face.” It seems that Snow has been living in New Orleans under a false name (Jennifer Wooly, a reference to the recently Criterion-ized “I Married A Witch“) and was responsible for Cordelia’s blinding and, according to Fiona, Madison’s disappearance. It’s pretty convincing, too. The Council upends its ruling. “The decision of this Council is unanimous … and violent,” another member gravely reads. Myrtle is sentenced to the flame.
In one of this season’s most striking images, the witches all march out to an abandoned quarry, to the funky, jaunty tune of New Orleans legend Dr. John‘s “Right Place Wrong Time.” Myrtle claims that the rest of the witches are frogs in Fiona’s pot of water, slowly, unknowingly boiling. “I’d rather burn than boil,” she screeches. And then she turns all ashy. One of the more striking shots in the episode is the witch’s immolation, reflected in young Zoe’s eye. Justice, or at least some variation of it, was seemingly served.
Back at the house, Queenie comes to Fiona and asks her if she helped frame an innocent woman. The acid scars on Myrtle’s hand, one of the more incriminating pieces of evidence against her, was staged by Queenie (who is now wracked with guilt). Fiona doesn’t kill her, instead appealing to her ego. “It’s about time we had a Supreme … of color,” she says, touching Queenie’s face. This means that the mystery of who blinded Cordelia is still under wraps, and will hopefully play out in future episodes (our money is on creepy butler Spalding, seen at the end of this episode carrying on with Madison’s corpse, until her arm flies off). And as things close off, the white witch Misty Day (Lily Rabe) walks out and sees Myrtle’s crispy corpse. She leads down and cradles it and, right before the credits roll … Myrtle opens her eyes. Another Fiona adversary is back in play.
This week’s episode was intensely plot-driven, which maybe made it a little less fun than the episodes that are bonkers for bonkers sake. Not that it didn’t have some profoundly wonderful moments, but it was churning through so many narrative beats that it hardly had time to pause and smell the roses (or luxuriate in the female performers’ oversized effectiveness). Also, there are a number of dangling plot threads that beg for a follow-up, like where the hell Kyle (Evan Peters) has run off to (although, given his Frankensteinian tendencies and the amount of fire in this episode, we can understand why he’s far away). Next week should see a return to proper outrageousness, when Danny Huston‘s character, a mythological serial killer (and Fiona’s on-again/off-again boyfriend), finally shows up. Oh yes, there will be blood. [B]