[This is a review of American Horror Story: Coven episode 4. There will be SPOILERS.]
With a series like American Horror Story: Coven, there is a certain expectation that when Halloween rolls around, things will get turned up a notch. Of course, as we've seen, this can sometimes make the story feel a little too broad. The last two seasons of American Horror Story have seen this happen with varying degrees of success.
At times, season 1 felt as though it lost its focus as the singular story of the doomed Harmon family gradually expanded to include a gaggle of other ghosts and, eventually, Jessica Lange becoming grandmother to the Antichrist. As the lines of focus blurred, so, too, did the emotional currency of the storyline. In a sense, Asylum was guilty of that, too, but unlike season 1, the disjointed aspect of the narrative was actually more in keeping with the point of Asylum's storyline. That story wound up attempting to connect most of the disparate threads by collapsing them down into two primary story arcs, where there was still a great deal of disconnect going on, but thematically, there seemed to be a more cohesive throughline.
For its part, Coven seems to be working toward finding a greater balance between character and the season's crazy plot elements. As of 'Fearful Pranks Ensue,' the show is still on its way to equalizing Fiona's pursuit of youth and vitality, and the other threads that have so far been introduced. As with AHS seasons in the past, Coven is ambitious in its dedication to maintaining a constant sense of forward momentum; however, it occasionally does so at the expense of the development of smaller, more ancillary characters.
This season has been unable to get much going in terms of the narratives around Queenie and Nan, but now it seems to have found a bit of a lag in Zoe's arc after Franken-Kyle and Misty Day came into her life. That's all well and good, but so far, there hasn't been much in terms of Zoe developing into an actual full-blown character as a result of her involvement with the two. With the death of Madison in last week's episode, we can likely surmise that Zoe's arc will become more meaningful later on, but with each passing episode, there is less and less time to for the show to demonstrate actual character growth and the reasons for such progression.
To its credit, 'Fearful Pranks Ensue' combats this issue with Fiona by filling in the blanks on the backstory she shares with characters like Spalding. This works in terms of revealing to the audience why Spalding hasn't spoken a word and illustrating why his devotion to Fiona appears to be absolute. Like so much that we've been offered this season, the Spalding reveal just boils down to an observation, rather than any real understanding of the character.
Generally, this can be a problem with ensemble shows like this: Sometimes characters like Spalding stand out due to the curveball the expansion of their character generates. But this series is often times so focused on the plot – or just throwing more craziness at the audience (e.g., Cordelia getting acid thrown on her face and Hank being a murderous adulterer) – that characters like Spalding, who suddenly show a great deal of potential, get shuffled to the background.
Luckily, this is only episode 4 of Coven, so there's still plenty of time to make these characters more defined before the plot really takes off and leaves them choking on its dust.
American Horror Story: Coven continues next Wednesday with 'Burn, Witch. Burn!' @10pm on FX.