Thursday, October 10, 2013

Review: American Horror Story: Coven "Bitchcraft"

Non Spoiler Review:
American Horror Story: Coven kicks off a witch-focused season with a jam-packed episode full of all kinds of the awesome we've come to expect from Ryan Murphy. Coming off the success of a surprisingly satisfying Asylum last year, and continuing the anthology format, this one promises to be the best one yet.

Salem's true witches fled to New Orleans to escape persecution, and in the present are recruited to a special school to protect and hone their talents. The supreme (Jessica Lange) makes a surprise return to visit her headmaster daughter Delia (Sarah Paulson), but has her own agenda. Meanwhile, newly discovered witch Zoe must deal with her new found abilities and finds her world turned upside-down as she joins the school.

While I initially balked at the notion of single-season storylines, I'm finding it quite interesting to see these actors play new characters each year—Lange, Paulson, Rabe and Evans are back, as well as Tarma Farmiga from season one. Plus, the ever-charming Jamie Brewer returns, as well. There's some new faces, including the formidable talents of Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett. With its customary frenetic pace and frequent flashbacks, I'm looking forward to another wild ride with a batch of scene-stealing actors.

Spoilers Now!
New Orleans, 1834. Madam LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) introduces her daughters to some gentlemen callers at a dinner party. Later in her room, she paints her face in blood to tighten her skin, but the butler warns her something happened during the dinner party—her daughter was caught with the house man, Bastian. LaLaurie declares they'll say he took her by force, and has the slave taken to her private torture room in the attic where several others are suffering. She puts a bull's head on him, given she loved Greek mythology. The minotaur was always her favorite.

In the present, Zoe leads her boyfriend home to have sex with him in her empty house. He abruptly gets a nosebleed and has a fatal seizure. The official word is an aneurysm, but her mother confesses that she should have told her daughter the truth—her great-grandmother had the same genetic affliction—she's a witch. It doesn't show up in every generation. The real witches of Salem escaped and went to New Orleans, where they started a school. Her mother has her taken away sends her off there with escort Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy). 

At Miss Robichaux's Academy, Zoe enters alone and is confronted by hooded figures who throw her on a table and make like they're about to sacrifice her. Laughing, they confess they're just messing with her. They're Madison Montgomery (famous actress), Nan and Queenie. Headmistress Cordelia Fox arrives and takes her in hand to explain the school was established in 1790. Marion Warton took it over in 1868, the reigning supreme of the time, establishing a safe haven for young witches. Their numbers have dwindled, she confesses. Many of the families who carried the bloodline chose not to have children. As for the supreme, she is the witch who bears countless gifts, unlike the rest who usually just have some ability. Cordelia plans to teach her how to control her gifts, and as a cautionary tale explains a recent news story of a girl, Misty Day, who displayed the power of resurgence and could resurrect the dead. She was taken and burned as a necromancer by her religious community. Their lives are always at risk, she warns.

A woman, Fiona Goode, visits a laboratory where a dying test monkey is given a serum and is healed. She wants it. Scientist David assures her they will be ready for human trials in two years, but she wants it now and reminds him his research is funded by her late husband's money. She needs an infusion of youth, but he reiterates that he can't give it to her.

Back at home Fiona proceeds to do lines of coke and have a breakdown while noticing the news report about the missing Misty Day. David arrives. He had conceded and has been injecting her with the serum for five days. She wants more as it doesn't appear to be working. He stands his ground and won't risk his career any further, offering his resignation. The doors close and the lights go out and Fiona proceeds to chase him through the house, throwing him across the room with a gesture. She kisses him and draws out his life energy until he dies a husk.

At dinner, the girls ask why Zoe got sent to the school, so she explains the accident. Nan, a clairvoyant, tells her she will find love in an unexpected place. Madison reveals her own story—she caused the death of the director of a play by dropping a light on him. That prompts some bitchiness between her and Queenie, who is a human voodoo doll and can inflict pain on others. Nan breaks up the heated argument and Queenie storms off.

Fiona shows up to see her daughter—Cordelia. Delia wants her mother to go away, resenting her for leaving her at the school. Fiona reveals she is going to stay and help her, believing Misty Day's death is the beginning of a storm and her girls are unprepared for it. Her teaching philosophy has been a failure as there are no shadows to cower behind in the modern world. Cordelia threatens to call the council and asks when her mother will finally die and stop ruining her life. Fiona dismisses her concerns and maintains she's staying, and thinks they should make the best of it.

At a frat party, Kyle (Evan Peters) lays eyes on Zoe and seems smitten, while his friend puts something in Madison's drink and proceeds to gang rape her with the other frat boys. Zoe gets worried for her and goes searching. Kyle goes upstairs and finds his frat brothers, pushing them off Madison. As they run off, Zoe comes in and comforts her promising they won't get away with it.

Kyle chases the others back to the bus but is knocked out as it drives off. Zoe runs after. Madison follows and casually flips the bus over at the end of the block. She walks away as it bursts into flames.

The girls watch the newscast of the previous night's events. Seven of the nine boys died, with the remaining two in critical condition. Zoe insists they have to tell someone and that Kyle tried to help. Fiona walks in and berates Madison for being sloppy. Madison tells her to go to hell, so Fiona throws her against the wall. She's read all their files and they won't become great women of their clan without her tutelage. So she's taking them on a field trip.

They go on the haunted home tour of Madame LaLaurie. Fiona glamors the tour leader while Nan senses something in the house. The girls learn Delphine forced her daughter to get blood from the slaves so she could use it to stay young. The secret ingredient was human pancreas. They're shown the attic where she kept her chamber of horrors...and the place she met her own demise.

Flashback to old New Orleans, where Marie Laveau visits Delphine, saying she's in need of her services. She has the cure for her husband's affliction, his compulsion for young ladies, she explains. A love potion to ensure fidelity. Delphine can't resist the prospect and takes it, then writhes in pain. The slave she mutilated was Laveau's lover, and she came to exact her revenge. Marie then goes up to the attic to find Bastian bound and wearing the bull's head. Delphine's body was never found, the tour guide adds.

Fiona finds Nan alone in the garden asking what she hears. The lady of the house, she explains, and looks at the bricks of the courtyard.

Zoe goes to the hospital and finds Kyle isn't among the survivors, but the rapist himself survived. She has sex with him in his bed until he dies like her boyfriend of a massive aneurysm. Then she lays flowers at Kyle's memorial.

Cordelia berates her mother for taking the girls on a field trip and why is Zoe suddenly missing? Fiona isn't concerned and goes out—back to LaLaurie's home where she enchants some workers to dig up the courtyard. They find a chained up coffin, and inside...Delphine is bound and gagged, and still alive. Fiona frees her and tells her to come along. She'll buy her a drink.

The Verdict:
Bitchcraft kicked things off quite nicely, providing a lot of compelling back story to the witches and introducing interesting characters, with some twists and surprises along the way.

The setting of New Orleans, and an era of slavery and persecution of women sets up some great themes to explore this year and I imagine Murphy won't disappoint. And there is certain to be plenty of disturbing elements. I'd thought the initial promos showing the minotaur were a metaphor, but we get a full blown one served up in the first episode.

I think I'm going to like the direction Murphy is taking the magic—nothing too crazy or flashy (ie lightning bolts from fingers), but focused more on mental abilities, voodoo and ritual. The more grounded approach is certainly appreciated.

It's great to see Jamie Brewer back in the cast, as well as the brief reunion of Evan Peters and Tarma Farmiga. The other girls at the school are a nice mix of personalities with interesting backgrounds. I highly doubt the likes of Misty Day and Kyle are out of the picture at all, and there's a host of talented characters to mine as the season progresses—including Francis Conroy's brief appearance. Now that Kathy Bates has been brought into the present, can Angela Bassett be far behind? I'm definitely anticipating watching those two actors play off Jessica Lange.

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