The article below contains spoilers for "Head," the December 11th, 2013 episode of "American Horror Story: Coven."
"American Horror Story" has never been a show to let good taste get in the way of a bold, crazy tangent into sensitive territory. The first season had ghost rape and school shootings, while the second had an adult Anne Frank and gay aversion therapy. And the third, "Coven," showed no signs of slowing down with an opening episode in which Kathy Bates, playing infamous historical figure Delphine LaLaurie, dabbed her face with a night cream made from the harvested organs of her slaves. Walking through the attic torture chamber in which she'd had other unfortunates she owned mutilated in gruesome ways, she had the severed head of a bull attached to a slave she discovered sleeping with her daughter -- and "Coven" seemingly announced its intentions to trample all over America's troubled history of race relations with its typical lack of restraint.
Except that, for the most part, "Coven" has been too consumed with deaths, resurrections and vamping to really dig into the territory it seemed to stake out in the beginning. This has been, even for a show defined by nutty plot twists and mood swings, an incredibly scattered season full of mother issues and a definite lack of focus, its small, threatened New Orleans mansion full of witches tearing itself up from the inside without really needing the help of a rival voodoo collective or incorporated witch hunters. The apparently historical animosity between Supreme witch Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange) and voodoo priestess Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) has seemed more about two queen bees sniping at each other than a representation of decades of resentment about the origins of power, and the discontent in the coven has come from issues of class and social standing more than skin color. For a foolishly brazen show, "Coven" has seemed a little hesitant to tackle the material it promises in an opening sequence that, among other things, evokes Klan imagery.
It's been left to Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) and the now immortal Delphine to shoulder these tensions, not always comfortably. Delphine first reacted to the present with insults and disgust, horrified to learn the U.S. President is African American and enraged to be designated Queenie's personal servant as punishment for hurling out racist epithets. Delphine was forced to make a whiplash turn from monster to comic relief, but her relationship with Queenie has nevertheless had its moments, as the two have developed a rapport after Queenie stepped in to save Delphine's life (never mind that Delphine's seemingly indestructible). Queenie's been tasked with helping humanize a bogeywoman of the slavery era, and despite their odd couple bonding over a fondness for fast food and Delphine's attempts to reform in the name of their budding friendship, it's been slow going, mainly because Delphine's irredeemable, relic from a different time or not.
But in last night's episode, "Head," "Coven" finally presented the flagrantly nutso engagement on the topic of race it's been hinting at all along by having Delphine's head turn up, still animated and talking, in a box, a present from Marie to Fiona that the latter is quick to return to sender. Queenie had betrayed Delphine and forsaken the coven in favor of Marie's entreaties that she belongs with her own kind in the voodoo hair salon, exchanging the woman for a place at Marie's side despite some qualms of conscience, and Delphine's severed noggin became the latest salvo in the magical mean girls war. But, told to dispose of the head, Queenie decided instead to take it home with her and use it to reeducate the old school racist via the power of film and television: "You are ignorant, and you are not leaving this earth until I educate you about those people you tortured -- my people."
Yes (I can't believe I'm writing this), Kathy Bates' animated severed head was plunked on a table like something out of "Futurama" and made to watch "Roots," "Roots: The Next Generations," "Mandigo," "The Color Purple" and Queenie's personal favorite "B*A*P*S" in order to instill her reluctant (partial) guest with some empathy toward her fellow man. And after Delphine kept her eyes closed all night in stubborn resistance to the personal film festival, Queenie returned to point out that her captive audience might choose not to watch, but she couldn't cover her ears, having no arms, and popped some Civil Rights era footage into the DVD player next. Naturally, this did the trick, and "Head" went on to juxtapose Delphine's weeping over what she saw on the screen with a hunter storming into the hair salon and shooting the voodoo crew as "Oh, Freedom" played on the soundtrack. It was the most unabashedly ridiculous and wild thing to have happened in a season full of dismemberment, mutilation with acid and a sexual assault scene reminiscent of the Steubenville and Maryville cases, and it felt like a return to the unpredictable daring that made the series worth watching in the first place.
Nothing about what's happened in the season of "Coven" so far has accrued much thematic heft. At its best, particularly in its second season, "American Horror Story" can seem like a funhouse mirror reflection of the dark parts of our society, but despite the shocking imagery in that opening episode, "Coven" hasn't gotten any similar traction with its warped take on New Orleans, making Delphine too silly and harmless for the idea of her coming around before to accrue much power or to seem like anything other than a palliative. The show's been filled with plenty of gore and dismemberment, sure, but it's easy to grow numb to that, especially when consistent characterization has never been Ryan Murphy's strong point.
No one expects "Coven" to rival "12 Years a Slave," but it wasn't until "Head" that the series managed to do what it should have this whole time, which is to treat its setting and history as the kind of provocative fuel for outrageousness it has in the past. After so many circular installments of Jessica Lange bitching it up, then softening, then coming back in full force again, "Head" finally managed the kind of jaw-dropping, I-can't-believe-this moment the show has proven capable of like no other -- any series can be extreme, but few attempt this kind of ill-advised fearlessness, nothing sacred under the sun.