Oh American Horror Story, for two years running you were the coolest and most innovative thing to happen to televised horror since Tales from the Crypt. Unpredictable, boundary pushing, and boasting a plethora of legitimately mesmerizing performances, Ryan Murphy’s foray into the macabre was a series that didn’t just draw attention, it demanded it. Yet now that the third season of the popular FX series has concluded, it is safe to say that American Horror Story: Coven is a lot like one of those bad horror sequels that fans would be better served to forget.
Coven had so much potential, especially with the addition of the legendary Kathy Bates to the cast. Yet as the 13-episode season played out, it became more and more evident that what was once a tight and consistent series filled with remarkably three-dimensional characters was now desperately lacking cohesion, direction, and consistent characterization. The most tragic part about all of this, though, is the fact that the quality that viewers became accustomed to in the previous seasons, Murder House and Asylum, seemed to be lurking just below the surface, trying its best to rear its head in the chaotic mess of a story. One need not look any further than last week’s incredibly underwhelming season finale to see the entirety of Coven’s problems summed up in a nutshell: It was only good when Jessica Lange was on-screen.
It’ll take more than one underwhelming season to make me give up on American Horror Story. After all, I’ve made it through the entirety of the Leprechaun film series twice. Willingly. The horror genre has always been a mixed bag of quality, and by no means do I mean to condemn one of its last remaining shining gems. Yet I can only hope that Ryan Murphy will pay attention to the mixed response Coven has elicited from his extremely loyal fanbase and endeavor to correct his mistakes for the much anticipated fourth season that will commence in October 2014. What follows are six of Coven’s biggest missteps.
• Kathy Bates
When news broke that Kathy Bates had joined the cast for the third season of AHS, I was ecstatic. Everyone remembers how terrifying Bates was in Misery. The opportunity to sustain something as magical as Annie Wilkes over the course of 13 episodes sounded wonderful. Bates seemed tailor made for something like Coven, it’d be almost impossible to screw great casting like that up. However, despite the fact that she was cast in the role of Madame Delphine LaLaurie-arguably America’s first serial killer, Bates’ character and performance came off as a racist version of “Mama” Boucher of The Waterboy that only allowed us to glimpse Bates’ more sinister side for all-too-brief moments. While LaLaurie was positively maniacal in flashbacks, she’s nothing more than bumbling comic relief for much of the series. The moment that Bates finally realizes her full potential and embraces her fiendish ways, she’s unremarkably and anticlimactically killed off. What a waste of a great talent. Make no mistake, the entirety of Bates’ performance was a joy to watch. However, when her character is finally freed from the shackles of comic relief and poised to do something interesting, she’s given the axe. What a dreadful, woeful mistake to make when you’ve got a talent like Kathy Bates working for you. Here’s hoping she comes back for another season and Murphy makes amends for the disservice that the role of LaLaurie turned out to be.
• Taissa Farmiga & Evan Peters
Thanks to the popularity of the relationship between Farmiga’s Violet and Peters’ Tate in Murder House, Ryan Murphy now regards these two as the AHS version of Romeo and Juliet. However, if Coven proves one thing, it’s that Murphy really needs to let that idea go. He can lift all the shots he wants from Baz Luhrmann’s post-modern spin on Shakespeare’s tragic love story to project this idea on-screen, and all it will serve to do is make the pairing all the more grating. Shoe-horning these two together for another season not only felt like blatant fan service, but it completely detracted from both individual characters. Farmiga’s short-comings as an actress were very much on display throughout much of Coven, yet her character of Zoe lost any shred of credibility the moment she monotonously revealed the details of being forced to visit the personal Hell that awaits her soul in the afterlife. As Zoe utters the dreadful lines “Kyle and I were breaking up…on a loop,” in her trademarked uniform tone, you could almost hear the entirety of the AHS audience groaning.
• Frances Conroy
Conroy has been American Horror Story’s secret weapon since the series kicked off three years ago. Usually remaining in the background, Conroy’s characters have previously proven to be as pivotal as they were memorable. This is not the case in Coven with Conroy’s turn as Myrtle Snow. While her borderline nonsensical one-liners and gaudy sense of fashion go a long way to ensure that Snow is plenty memorable, the character seems to have no absolutely no function whatsoever beyond being bizarre. Her feud with Lange’s Fiona gets the character burned at the stake early in the season, and it seems like big things are possibly on the way for Myrtle when she’s returns to the living plane, yet she proceeds to do absolutely nothing more than continue to hang around in the background making strange remarks. This continues right up until the finale, when Myrtle returns to the stake at her own request as a symbolic sign of the newly risen regime. So what was the point of bringing her back from the first stake burning, again?
• Lily Rabe
Much like Conroy, Rabe is a series mainstay that has reliably turned in memorable performances. She was at the top of her game last season when her performance as the demonically possessed nun, Sister Mary Eunice, threatened to do the unthinkable and steal the spotlight away from the incomparable Jessica Lange. On the heels of a performance like that, it was only natural to assume that Rabe’s next character, the Stevie Nicks obsessed Misty Day, would see the young actress continue to rise to prominence. Unfortunately, Misty Day becomes the most screwed over character in American Horror Story history. Horribly under-utilized throughout the season, Misty Day is ultimately doomed to the most ridiculous ending that any AHS character has gotten thus far. Rabe deserves far better than what she got in Coven, and Murphy would do well to ensure she gets it next season.
• Completely Inconsistent Characterizations
American Horror Story has an intriguing premise that sees each season as an entirely self-contained story that, by the season’s end, has played out and wrapped up decisively. Since it’s forced to get through the beginning, middle, and end of a horrific tale inside of a season, there’s not a whole lot of room for filler. The plot, after all, needs to get moving, and that means that the audience isn’t afforded very much down time. Crucial events happen often within the first few episodes, and the impact of these events is felt throughout the rest of the series. That wasn’t the case at all with Coven. Nothing seemed to carry over from one episode to the next, not even death. Almost every character in the season dies and is resurrected at least once, some twice.
Coven Supreme Fiona Goode is introduced to the audience as being secretly terrified of growing old and determined to retain her fading youth. As such, she has no interest in passing down her title of Supreme onto a member of the next generation. In fact, Fiona soon reveals that she plans to murder the budding new Supreme and the entire Coven along with her if it proves necessary. When her evil ways are discovered, Lange is pitted against her fellow witches in an all-out struggle for power. Yet, in the next episode, the same witches who had just tried to take her down now look to enlist her help in dispatching a group of witch hunters. Despite the fact that all of Fiona’s “sister witches,” including her own daughter, have tried to murder her, the character doesn’t even feel the need to stop living in the same house as her conspirators. It goes like this all season long, with Fiona helping the Coven one minute, and planning to kill them all the next. Despite the fact that her Coven purposely sets up events that are supposed to lead to Fiona’s murder, they have the audacity to avenge the murder the moment they believe it has happened and declare that “No one messes with our Coven!” while doing so.
Lange isn’t the only victim of inconsistency in Coven, she’s just the only one who manages to be interesting in spite of it. Gabourey Sidibe, who makes her series debut hot on the heels of her breakout film role in Precious, can’t decide whether she supports the Coven of Salem Witches or the Voodoo shack of hair stylists across the street. One moment, she’s pledging her undying support to Marie Laveau, even willing to take a bullet for the Voodoo Queen, and the next moment she’s “got the back” of all her Coven friends that she previously betrayed. Powers come and go without explanation, characters go from hating each other to sleeping with each other and then back to hating each other all within the course of a single episode, and the blatant inconsistency causes one to scratch their heads and shrug their shoulders when it comes to deciphering what’s supposedly motivating the people on-screen.
• Denis O’Hare
Am I the only one who thinks it is a crying shame that only True Blood fans familiar with Russell Edgington know how brilliant Denis O’Hare is? This guy is a goldmine of untapped potential for a series like American Horror Story, yet both his turns in the series have seen him play extremely understated characters. He’s done fabulously in both of his roles, but it is high time that Murphy give the man something of more significance that allows mainstream cable audiences to experience what HBO subscribers already know about. Give this man a leading role next season that allows the full depth of his incredible range to be put on display, and I guarantee you that Ryan Murphy can completely redeem the awful mess he made out of the third season of American Horror Story.