January 30, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “American Horror Story: Coven”


This year’s COVEN season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY was as cohesive as the proudly bizarre  series is ever likely to get.  That entailed a slight shortage of the WTF variety moments that have made the two previous seasons memorable–no aliens, no fiendish medical experiments, no appearances by Anne Frank–but there was something to be said for having a story that was actually possible to follow, and characters who (mostly) made sense week to week.  Also, Stevie Nicks!

Even the curveballs thrown in the season finale, written by Co-Executive Producer Douglas Petrie and directed by series veteran Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, were straightforward.  If there was going to be a dark horse Supreme to surpass the official contenders for the post, it was clearly going to be blind/not-blind goodhearted Cordelia (Sarah Paulson), who finally came into the powers she inherited from evil mom Fiona (Jessica Lange).  And did anyone really think Fiona wasn’t going to show up in the final hour, despite her supposed death in last week’s episode?  (If anything, the surprise was that it turned out Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates really were disposed of in Papa Legba’s hell, not to be seen again.)

Justice was mostly done in the season’s final installment, and not merely because Cordelia was named Supreme and the coven was clearly going to thrive under her rule.  Rotten Madison (Emma Roberts, a hoot all season) got what was coming to her via strangulation by Frankenstein-ian Kyle (Evan Peters), and Fiona was sent to her own personal hell, which meant a mundane fishing town life with loving serial killer Axeman (Danny Huston).  Actually, Fiona’s hell was somewhat disappointing compared to the more imaginative afterlives conjured up for Gabourey Sidibe’s Queenie (working at a perpetual fast food fried chicken stand) and Lily Rabe’s Misty Day (the sensitive Stevie Nicks clone was sentenced to eternity dissecting a live frog, bringing it back from the dead, and dissecting it again–probably the most disturbing part of the entire finale).

Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) was killed and then brought back, and that spoke to one of the problems with this season’s plotting:  once it became clear that just about anyone could be returned from the dead, watching main characters supposedly die lost a lot of its impact.  Another flaw this season was the set of very weak male characters.  The show never seemed to figure out what to do with Kyle once he was resurrected, other than make him a sex-doll for Madison and Zoe, and while Danny Huston and Michael Cristofer (as head of a vicious witch-hunting organization) ate up an enjoyable amount of scenery, they never moved near the center of the action.  (Let’s not even talk about Cordelia’s pathetic secret witch-hunter husband.)

The only really thrilling, transgressive parts of this season were the portions that delved into disturbing issues of race, through Queenie, the horrific Delphine LaLaurie (Bates) and voodoo queen Marie Laveau (Bassett).  Making Delphine funny and sometimes even likable was a daring choice, and the dance between the two black women and the one-time sadistic torturer of their race made for the right kind of dramatic discomfort.  Also, Bates and Bassett proved themselves perfectly suited for AHS, their particularly stylized brand of acting a fit for Ryan Murphy’s exaggerated universe.  Lange, as always, was over the top in exactly the right way, able to find some sad humanity even as she was slaughtering whoever got in her way, and the season’s unappreciated all-star may be Paulson, whose character had the longest journey to take and who carried Cordelia through every step.

American Horror Story is a robust hit for FX, enough so that not only has it been renewed for next season, but there’s already been discussion about who in the repertory cast will be back for future years.  (Lange currently claims she’s close to the end of the line.)  The one-season-and-out structure has worked extremely well for the show, allowing it to reboot and not face the monotony and repetition that often sets in for long-running hits.  The show is also blessed by the quality of the cast that Murphy and his team tempt back each year (apart from those named, Frances Conroy and Denis O’Hare made strong returns for Coven), and by one of the most distinctive technical packages on all TV, from the cinematography and production design to costumes and music choices.  The show, by its nature (and in line with Murphy’s other work) will likely always be uneven, but overall more a blessing than a supernatural curse.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."