For a few crazed moments after the end of last night's finale for American Horror Story: Coven, I started thinking about spinoff potential. With Zoe, Queenie, and newly Supreme Cordelia looking down at a room of new teenage witches, you can imagine an entertaining future for these characters—a future that might look like a supernatural high-school comedy, Glee at Hogwarts.
But then I remembered—that was what Coven was supposed to be in the first place.
The third edition of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s nutso miniseries project started off so promisingly. After juxtaposing real-life horrors and slasher-film clichés for the previous seasons, American Horror Story traveled to a New Orleans secret school where modern-day witches hone their powers and defend against persecution from wider society. Serious themes and sick happenings were still in the mix, but the overriding pop-culture reference wasn’t scary movies—it was school-set film and TV, from John Hughes’s oeuvre to Mean Girls.
Which, at first, seemed brilliant. One of the best, most daring parts of Season One was the plot line about the ghost of a school shooter, who himself was haunted by the ghosts of his victims—essentially, the Breakfast Club in zombie makeup. The lunchroom cruelty we’d laughed at in countless on-screen depictions of campus hijinks was suddenly connected to the lunchroom cruelty we’d recoiled from countless times in on-screen news coverage of campus tragedies. It was the definition of disturbing.
Coven offered up a similar situation in its debut episode. An Old School-style frat party led, as the real ones sometimes do, to the rape of a young woman (Lindsay Lohan sendup Madison Montgomery, played with verve by Emma Roberts) who’d been drugged. The victim's violent, magical revenge was shocking, but not as shocking as her lack at surprise about what had happened. “When witches don’t fight, we burn,” said Jessica Lange’s fabulously vain Fiona Goode (the “Supreme,” or leader, of the coven), and judging from FX's promotional materials, this was to be the season big, feminist thesis statement.
But the first moments of the premiere introduced another major theme: the horrors of racism. Kathy Bates played Madame LaLaurie, a 19th-century dame who delighted in the torture of her slaves until the voodoo queen Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) cursed her with eternal life and buried her alive. Her emergence in the present day would lead to a race war between Laveau’s clan and Goode’s. This all seemed like a trickier proposition than the teenage-witch stuff, but one that might have a greater payoff: connecting historical oppression to modern-day strife, fleshing out the awfulness of slavery, and making a comparison between sexism and racism.
Of course, on American Horror Story as with many Ryan Murphy projects, big ideas and plot coherency come second to individual gonzo moments—gross-out images, taboo violations, fabulous quips, stunt casting. As the season wore on, it became clear that that was more the case than ever. A man-made minotaur and multiple wounds to eyeballs; incest and bestiality and sadism; "I get it bitch, you're clairvoyant!"; Patti LuPone and Stevie Nicks as bit players—these were episodes written for live-tweeted WTFs.