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by Alison Willmore
January 30, 2014 1:15 PM
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Five Theories For What 'American Horror Story: Coven' Was Actually About

Taissa Farmiga and Sarah Paulson in 'American Horror Story: Coven' Michele K. Short/FX

The article below contains spoilers through the "American Horror Story: Coven" season.

"Asylum," the last season of Ryan Murphy's anthology series "American Horror Story," was some kind of schlock masterpiece. A patchwork of violence, gleeful camp and every trope and monster the genre had to offer, from alien abductions to demonic possession to legendary serial killers, the 13-episode formed a startling larger portrait of institutionalized oppression, beginning with scenes of sex and dismemberment and ending with a moving exploration of forgiveness and trauma. It brought out the best of Murphy's talents for crafting provocative, viscerally memorable scenes while minimizing his maddening tendencies to care nothing about character consistency or continuity from episode to episode.

"Coven," the latest season of the show that came to a close last night, has been less magical (heh) a combination of the high and the low. It did have Jessica Lange, Murphy's vamping muse, once again divinely devouring the scenery as Fiona Goode, the powerful, narcissistic Supreme witch of a dwindling New Orleans coven, and with her were the fantastic Angela Bassett as voodoo queen Marie Laveau and Kathy Bates as Madame Delphine LaLaurie, a real life socialite infamous for torturing and killing her slaves. "Coven" boldly staked out territory of race by establishing the historical enmity between its two factions of magic-wielding women and opening with a credits sequence rife with imagery recalling lynching and the Klan, only to back away from the topic after one genuinely crazy sequence involving an immortal, racist severed head and a beauty shop massacre. Mostly, "Coven" has been felt like a messy, witchcraft fueled-version of "The Real World," with endless backstabbings, murders and resurrections going on daily in the halls of Miss Robichaux's Academy. With the finale over and the new Supreme named, here's a look back at some possible themes for the season.

1. Bitches be crazy.

Murphy's had accusations of misogyny lobbed his way before for "AHS" and its cartoonish portrayals of its female characters, though his male characters have usually been just as heightened. But "Coven" has been explicitly about women, women who are literally empowered, and its focus on their continual alliances with and subsequent betrayals of one another suggests an unpleasant underlying belief that strong females in close quarters can't help but tear each other to bits, with the title of Supreme there as a stand-in for queen bee. Fiona was the ultimate self-interested tyrant, and poised to inherit her throne was Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), the starlet with substance abuse problems who settled on the meeker Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga) as the sidekick who wasn't meant to ever outshine her, a relationship that echoed the one between grownups Fiona and her daughter Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson). Robichaux's was a place of constant competition, in which the witches were always taking each out -- Fiona killed Madison, Madison was brought back and murdered Misty (Lily Rabe), Queenie befriended and then turned on Delphine, Marie and Fiona sacrificed Nan, and there were countless catfights in between. This series has always loved its formidable women, but this season it became a near-parodic, frequently off-putting series of diva cage matches.

2. Bitches be a result of a toxic environment.

"Coven" spent 12 episodes in turmoil, thanks to the presence of Fiona, who swept in to overwhelm Cordelia and fulfill her cannibalistic desire to find and murder the next Supreme before her own powers could diminish. Fiona wasn't entirely a monster -- she just placed her own needs high above those of everyone else, and had no problem using people (like former ghost lover the Axeman of New Orleans, played by Danny Huston). It was Fiona's influence -- along with the seeming lack of permanent consequences even for killing one's compatriots -- that upped the house shenanigans to such dire levels. It took Cordelia embracing her own powers and potential and becoming a kinder, gentler Supreme to change the toxic environment in the coven. The finale, "The Seven Wonders," essentially pulled a "Mean Girls," with Cordelia diffusing a last attempt at taking back power by Fiona and outing witches to the world, welcoming everyone with powers to the Academy and lifting Zoe and Queenie to her side as her council -- no more Plastics! Everyone is happier now! Madison, however, just had to go -- some people are just too awful to save, especially when they use TMZ as a threat.

3. Fear of aging and mortality.

When "Coven" began, it was with witchcraft at an all-time low. There was almost no one left at the once-bustling Academy, and the girls who were there were essentially in hiding after having manifested their powers in ways that hurt people. In addition to witches having been hunted and driven to secrecy, there was a suggestion that Fiona's negligence as a Supreme and egoism have hurt the ecosystem -- her shirking of responsibility in pursuit of her own whims had gone against how things should and have worked, and her hunger to remain the Supreme after her time has passed, like her less than maternal treatment of her daughter, was unnatural. Fiona's wish to somehow step outside the process of aging and death were the main throughline of the series -- an example of how she chose herself over the larger group -- and she admitted to Cordelia that she could only see reminders of the eventual end of her own life in the face of her child. Fiona was not alone in this willingness to destroy others to prolong her own life. Marie also offered up her own daughter (and centuries of other infant sacrifices) along with her soul in exchange for immortality from Papa Legba -- and Delphine harvested the organs of her slaves to craft a gruesome facial moisturizer, the most literal and repulsive image of being willing to do anything for self-preservation. In contrast, the reanimated Myrtle (Frances Conroy) willingly offered herself up on the pyre after helping out Cordelia in a sort of cleansing gesture, in doing so proving herself to be the mother figure Fiona never was. "Coven" had some very harsh ideas about overstaying one's welcome.

4. Power as a corrupting force.

Few of the characters in "Coven" wore power well -- Fiona was the worst example, but Marie also never managed to balance the good she did for her community with the babies she stole over the years to maintain her immortality, and wasn't above turning to the witch hunters to hurt her enemies in a time of supposed truce. And given power of life or death over her slaves, Delphine discovered her psychopath side, indulging in impulses toward horrific torture and murder that she'd always been harboring inside. Madison, used to getting her way already as an actress, only became more awful with the ability to move things with her mind, set fires and bring people back to life. In the primary echo of the themes of "Asylum," "Coven" in the end looked at how the characters who weren't accustomed to being in charge handled power -- and with Cordelia in charge, it provided an argument for them as the better leaders.

5. It was all just Stevie Nicks fan fiction.

The most likely explanation for the season.


11 Comments

  • Alex | February 2, 2014 4:57 PMReply

    I love the American Horror series, and leaving Glee aside, I do think Ryan Murphy is a genius. But, when I started watching Coven, I was fascinated to see Jessica Lange again, edgier, sexier, better than ever. Emma Roberts was playing perhaps the best role in her career, but then... it all went downfall, terribly. The show became so boring, leaving great actors and characters stuck, like the ones I mentioned, and Evan Peters'. It became a total waste of talent and creativity. It is not terrible, but the two previous seasons were much better, no doubt about that. I am not talking about misogyny or racism at all. I am actually tired to see how 'sensitive' people became all of a sudden. Now everybody has to be 'politically correct' or the entire world (or people on the internet) want his/her head on a stick. No, I am talking purely about the plot, about how unfortunate it turned out to be, because the premise was brilliant, no question. And like I mentioned, the cast was perfect, and Murphy is a visionaire. Not everything can be perfect all the time, and AHS wasn't the exception.

  • Sean H. | January 31, 2014 3:32 PMReply

    Did no one think of King Lear, what with good Cordelia emerging as the victor?

  • Jess | January 31, 2014 5:12 AMReply

    Definitely misogyny and of course racism in this show.

  • Joe H. | January 30, 2014 3:31 PMReply

    So many characters were killed and brought back to life that it became almost impossible to give a sh*t by the end.

  • Joe H. | January 30, 2014 3:27 PMReply

    Self-congratulatory bland tasteless soapy ludicrous hogwash. I was a huge fan of Asylum, but this was one of the worst things on TV I've ever seen.

  • viki reed | January 30, 2014 2:30 PMReply

    You're so unfair to say it was less magical than Asylum or even the first installment! Coven was wild and an arrow through the skull for sure! It was fast, gorey, over the top and the characters were crock pots of graphic novel perfection. Kathy Bates, Lange and Danny Huston gave me internal goosebumps. I liked Huston's kill em all boardroom scene way more than DeNiro's Untouchables bloody bat tirade. By FAR.

    Didn't see enough Lily Rabe but then killing off great characters so early in the story is a sign of confidence in the series. I kind of wish Stevie Nicks was tossed in the casket because her music video/song which opens the season finale is pretty lame and Nicks looks puffy. There wasn't one hotbed chick issue left untouched and so what? It wasn't a soap opera. It sure didn't end like one with Lange's ex Supremo Supremo being bitch slapped by Huston after he tells her he's got a stiff one and she spends eternity surrounded by KNOTTY PINE staring at a voodoo king with front row seats.

  • CR | January 30, 2014 2:28 PMReply

    I think this show gets WAY more credit and critical analysis than it deserves - sure, it 'addresses' issues of race and gender, but in the most heavy handed, schlocky ways; a mess of wacky camera angles and camp - and self-destructs by the end of each story. Each season I'm sad to think how clever and how scary the show could be if the writing and execution matched the talent of the actors involved. A waste.

  • Ian | January 30, 2014 1:54 PMReply

    Is anyone not accused of being a misoginist by feminists?

  • Alex | February 2, 2014 4:47 PM

    EXACTLY Ian!

  • CinemaPsycho | February 2, 2014 12:28 AM

    Oprah Winfrey...

  • Joe H. | January 30, 2014 3:28 PM

    Lol good point