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.
But that’s about all they were written for. I devoured the first few episodes with glee, but the enjoyment came with bigger and bigger doses of confusion and frustration—more so than previous seasons, which, while inconsistent, did give the satisfying impression of a puzzle being assembled as time went on. For Coven, Murphy and his writers seemed almost willful about refusing to let plots or characters develop. A storyline in which LuPone’s character gave her son an enema went basically nowhere. Same went for one in which Sarah Paulson's underwent a bloody impregnation ceremony featuring bottled ejaculate. And on and on.
Last night’s finale served mainly to remind of how much awesomeness the show had squandered. The ostensible climax of Coven came with the young witches’ performance of the Seven Wonders, basically a talent competition to determine who their new leader might be. This was cool to watch—but it reinforced how little we’d seen these girls doing neat things with their powers (not one magic-lesson montage in the entire season!), and how little we knew about the girls themselves.
When Lily Rabe’s Misty Day met her end, it felt cruel, arbitrary, and totally fitting. Like so many other things in Coven, her character—a swamp-dwelling, resurrecting sweetheart obsessed with Stevie Nicks—seemed destined to play some interesting role in the season’s storyline. But then she was mostly forgotten about. The scene of her hell, biology-class frog dissection on loop, was the most we'd learned about her psychology in 13 episodes. (Plus, it showed that of all the characters, she’s the one who least deserves to spend eternity in damnation.)
Similarly, when Fiona repented to her daughter and finally accepted death, it was one last unexplained about-face for her character. Just a few episodes earlier, she’d told the voodoo god Papa Legba that she’d kill her own child in the name of immortality, and he diagnosed her as having no soul.
As for the final tally on the show’s initial, weighty-seeming ambitions: I suppose there's something to the idea that persecuted women gain power from speaking up and banding together, as Cordelia does when she outs witchdom on national TV. But why did we have to sit through all the torture of black people this season? To what end did frat-boy-Frankenstein Kyle stick around this whole time? And is anyone concerned about the African-American baby that the perverted butler Spalding stole?
Where the episode shined, as always with Coven, was in the details. I laughed a lot at learning Madison Montgomery’s version of hell was being in a live NBC production of The Sound of Music. The girls reenacting the Final Supper was certainly striking. But the overwhelming feeling of the closing hour, even as it offered what appeared to be a happy ending, was disappointment. These were great characters in a great setting—if only we’d gotten to know them better.