[This is a review of American Horror Story: Coven Episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]
Because of its unique nature as an anthology, when discussing American Horror Story: Coven, it's natural to try and compare it to the seasons that have come before – not in terms of setting or thematic elements necessarily, but in terms of how each season accomplished what it set out to.
For example, last season benefited greatly from the addition of director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, as his creative touch gave several episodes of Asylum a visual and stylistic component that augmented or elevated the more convoluted aspects of the storyline and frequently turned the demented and disturbing images into something interesting (for more than shock value).
In that regard, it's no surprise that Gomez-Rejon would be on board to handle directing duties for episodes of Coven, and while the premiere felt as though it lacked the kind of fantastic imagery of, say, last season's 'Madness Ends,' the composition of shots in 'The Replacements' suggested the director was officially back in the saddle again.
Here, his fluid, dynamic shots took an episode that was essentially Murphy and Falchuk examining the ramifications of bad parenting (in this case, a string of bad mothers) and gave some of the clumsiness in the ancillary plotlines an extra dimension. One instance in particular helped make Cordelia's desperation to have a child feel a little more palpable and effective to the degree that when the shot slipped into Marie Laveau's description of an incredibly spicy fertility ceremony and then back again, we understood not only Cordelia's desperation, but also her belief that it would work.
Now, for whatever reason, all the visual feats of derring-do seem to make watching the wildly campy and usually shocking material of the series a little easier to digest. If there's one thing American Horror Story has learned between season 1 and now, it's that the manner in which the show presents what is onscreen is as important as what's actually being presented.
The composition tends to move along with the show's brutal tonal shifts, making transitions from Zoe naively delivering Franken-Kyle back to his incestuous mother Alicia (Mare Winningham) to Queenie propositioning a minotaur to the brief mentor-protégé relationship between Fiona and Madison feel like they're all visually a part of the same show – even if the plotlines have yet to really coalesce around one another.
Additionally, it's pretty clear that most of those storylines were intended to make the audience cringe and perhaps even promote a little (or a lot of) nervous laughter, repulsion or what have you, but whatever was else was going on, the Fiona/Madison stuff managed to play out in about as elegant a way as you could possibly hope from a show like this.
The way Fiona's gaze latched on to her would be usurper, only to briefly reflect a younger version of the reigning supreme back at herself, was a rather nifty way of not only demonstrating her fear of being replaced, but also underlining the season's only consistent throughline of the cruelty of aging and accepting that life (unless you're Madame LaLaurie) is tragically finite.
American Horror Story: Coven continues next Wednesday with 'Fearful Pranks Ensue' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Michele K. Short/FX
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