In its past two seasons, American Horror Story managed to garner attention by adding a surprising or trope-y element to a familiar and equally trope-y setting and use that as a means to deliver some disturbing and debauched imagery (all in the name of horror). The show excelled at gleefully presenting disquieting images, but despite an everything-under-the-sun approach to the horror and the inclusion of Ian McShane as a murderous Santa Claus, the show occasionally fell victim to uneven storytelling.
Right off the bat, American Horror Story: Coven suggests a marked improvement in terms of having a cohesive narrative and a more significant throughline tying together the different character arcs and various story elements that are laid out in the season premiere. For one thing, Coven utilizes a narrator – or at least it does early on in the present day portion of the story – to help set the table more quickly. This kind of rapid-delivery exposition pushes the storyline past the introduction stage, so that by the time the credits role we have a fairly good idea of the characters and the setting, and some kind of inkling as to what will bring these elements together as the plot unfolds.
Like the previous two seasons, Coven features a bevy of flashbacks to another time period. This time the season begins in 1834 at the New Orleans home of Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), a wealthy woman with a penchant for imprisoning slaves and using their blood in an attempt to maintain (or restore) her looks. The violent pre-credits sequence allows the show to indulge in its brand of seemingly impulsive gruesomeness, as Madame LaLaurie admires her collection of imprisoned men, who have had their eyes and mouths sewn shut, and one individual appears to have had the skin of his face peeled back. The brief glimpse of this man's lidless gaze staring at the viewer immediately feels like American Horror Story settling in for another 13 episodes of craziness and disturbing imagery.
But then, surprisingly, after Madame LaLaurie briefly admires her new Minotaur, and the muffled screams of her victim bleed into the season's new title sequence, Coven actually sets out to tell a reasonably straightforward story, without indulging too quickly or too frequently in the kinds of things the show has been known to enjoy playing with in the past. There's still plenty of that American Horror Story style in 'Bitchcraft,' but narratively speaking, it feels far more measured and sure of its direction than either of the previous two efforts. The episode also develops a throughline very early on that connects Bates' Madame LaLaurie to Jessica Lange's "supreme" witch Fiona Goode – and, to a lesser extent, her daughter Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson) – in a mutual search to reclaim their youthful essence and vitality.
While the story appears to be developing, the characters feel like they're lagging behind. Perhaps it's the lack of a thick, borderline preposterous New England accent, but here Lange is in some way more humorless than when she was playing the ruthless Sister Jude in Asylum. Maybe it's the YA sensibilities of the central setting, or the lack of scenery chewing requested of her in this first hour (though she does get a moment to drunkenly writhe about while 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' plays), but Lange's performance early on feels a little restrained – not unlike the rest of the story, actually.
For one thing, the setting may as well have been ripped from the pages of Marvel Comics – with Miss Robichaux's school acting as a kind of amalgam of Hogwarts and Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. Furthering the comparison to the latter, it's revealed early on that witches gain their abilities through a particular genetic mutation, and Coven even goes so far as to have the introduction of Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) mirror Rogue's introduction from the first X-Men film. And although the presentation of the various "gifted youngsters" comprised of Emma Roberts, Gabourey Sidibe, and Jamie Brewer (who played Adelaide in season 1) and their respective abilities results in a somewhat clumsy dinner scene filled with overturned bowls of soup and "human voodoo dolls," the rest of the episode makes an effort in defining the young women (well, Farmiga and Roberts, mostly) beyond things like telekinesis, clairvoyance and being a human voodoo doll.
Whether as a result of the specifics of this new storyline or Murphy and Falchuk continuing to learn as they go along, Coven exudes a completely different vibe than what's come before – and a slightly familiar, sedate one at that. Had the story of a coven of young witches learning to use their abilities under the rough tutelage of a cranky, youth-obsessed mother hen not also included a chained man having his pancreas cut out, or another wretchedly familiar depiction of sexual assault, the whole thing might come off looking kind of quaint in comparison to what's come before.
But even if the overall spectacle has begun to feel more commonplace, American Horror Story still exhibits some cult sensibilities, and as long as Murphy and Falchuk continue to have an outlet for the loopiest of their ideas, the show will never have to worry about feeling completely pedestrian.
American Horror Story: Coven continues next Wednesday with 'Boy Parts' @10pm on FX.