American Horror Story: Burn, Witch, Burn

Posted on November 07, 2013

AHS+S3E5+1Jamie Brewer, Gabourey Sidibe, and Taissa Farmiga in FX’s American Horror Story: Coven

Well, so much for our theorizing of last week. While the mystery of who threw the acid in Cordelia’s face is still wide open, it doesn’t seem that Nan is masterminding anything right now and besides, the question of who the next Supreme is going to be has been answered, to our disappointment. Then again, this is kind of a thing with American Horror Story; with all the shocks and jump cuts, it fools you into thinking the main plot is going to be a zany ride with an unpredictable outcome, but it tends to be fairly straightforward. A troubled family moves into a house infested with ghosts. They all go a little crazy. Then they all die. The devil possesses a nun in a mental institution full of murders and sociopaths. Havoc and death ensue. Almost everyone suffers tremendously and then dies. All the insanity and “what the fuck did I just watch” moments the show does so well (and so often) are just window-dressing. The main plot tends to move in a straight line. It teases you more with the possibility of wild twists than actually providing the twists.

So Zoe is the likely Supreme. This, of course, does not mean there won’t be other claimants to the title, nor does it mean that she’ll be triumphant in the end. It just means that the one the story was pointing to turned out to be the important one. It remains to be seen what Misty Day means in the whole Supreme story, as well as what purposes Queenie and Nan serve, but we’re betting that the question of who’s next in line to lead the coven has been effectively answered.

Perhaps we’re burnt out on zombies at the moment, but we thought this episode was the least interesting of the season so far. There really wasn’t a whole lot of tension to the hour, nor did the undead provide any new shocks or surprises. They were merely a tool to show us how powerful Zoe is and what a monster Delphine was. And Ryan Murphy loves to make you love his characters while at the same time showing you what horrible people they are, but he may be stretching himself a little thin on Madam LaLaurie. We realize spending 170 years buried alive might change a person, but we’re not entirely sure how Delphine became so repentant over her past deeds. She’s all but hugging Queenie while lamenting how cruel she was. Okay, fine. But why? What changed?

Don’t get us wrong; if we were the types to give letter grades to an episode, we’d rate this one a solid B. Very little plot movement (which is funny, because in a different story, the death of a leading character would normally be considered important, but here it’s just a temporary state), somewhat light on the horror (with a little bit of tame-by-AHS-standards gore), and one or two “wow” moments. The most obvious and crowd-pleasing of the two was Zoe with the chainsaw; AHS’ version of a “FUCK YEAH” shot, and another in a long line of overt horror movie homages. The second was the scene in the hospital with Fiona resurrecting a dead baby; not so much because of what the character did, but because Lange is once again working on another level entirely. That was her Emmy-nom scene and she knocked it the hell out of the park.

But Jessica’s gorgeous acting couldn’t hide one flaw that leapt out at us. In fact, it was her acting in this scene that illuminated it for us: Fiona’s hugely undefined as a character, and watching her drunkenly stumble through badly lit hospital hallways, consumed with grief and mental anguish, we realized we couldn’t detect a hair’s difference between this performance/character and that of Sister Jude last season. They’re both destructive, even evil women, who teeter on the edge of sanity, have addiction issues and occasionally reveal a deeply wounded, insecure side to themselves. That’s not her fault. She’s a good enough actress that she can find nuances in her characters, even when they’re as broad as this. But we said a couple weeks ago that Murphy was playing with his diva dolls this season and since he hasn’t provided Fiona with any clear motivations outside of a quest for youth and power, she’s coming off like a standard (if such a term can be applied) Lange/Murphy character.

As an aside, we find our ourselves nerdily wishing the powers would get defined here a little better. Fiona can resurrect the dead but she can’t cure her daughter’s blindness or heal her disfiguration?

At the end of the episode, while a pile of corpses burned, the writing attempted to tie Delphine and Fiona together as monstrous mothers with deep regrets, but all it did for us was shine a light on how flimsy the motivations and abrupt character changes are here. Sure, you accept that kind of sloppy or vague writing as a feature of American Horror Story – high style and off-the-hook acting are the main (and probably the only)  draws – but we can’t not make note of the kinds of story and writing issues that pop up in each season.

Lest we end this review on a too-negative note, we’ll assure you that we still love the show, flaws and all. And a somewhat mediocre hour of American Horror Story still has us far more engaged than just about anything else on TV right now. If high style and ridiculously good acting are the only things keeping us here, that’s still enough.

But we think this show will plummet in quality the second Lange leaves.






[Photo Credit: FX]

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