From the onset, there was a lot to love about American Horror Story: Coven, from the gorgeous visuals to the high levels of camp to the powerhouse performances by Ryan Murphy’s regular players. As with Asylum, the last season of American Horror Story, Coven, found acclaim among critics and viewers alike (earning its biggest ratings yet).
The Coven finale, however, was a clear low point, a messy and head-scratching conclusion to the series’ most hyped season. While it’s tempting to say Coven was a strong showing that simply fell apart at the end, the truth is that it was never really what its most vocal fans proclaimed it to be. And the final few episodes just underlined the problems that were rampant throughout the season.
Treatment of Women
There’s something admirable about a series where seven of the nine leads are women, but Coven was not nearly as feminist as it appeared to be on the surface. The themes of female power were explored on occasion, but the writers didn’t delve much deeper than the Spice Girls did in the ’90s. The season began with a retread of the rape-revenge convention, as young witch Madison (Emma Roberts) was drugged and gang raped by a group of frat boys, whom she then murdered with the power of magic. Beyond that, however, the women of Coven mostly fought each other — note how much precious screen time was devoted to the “catfight” between Madison and Misty (Lily Rabe) in the season’s penultimate episode.
And while the women did have moments of triumph over their male oppressors, they were far more successful fighting each other than the men in their lives. In the finale, Madison, who proved to be a seriously powerful witch, was strangled to death by Kyle (Evan Peters), and later, Fiona (Jessica Lange) was doomed to an eternity of being smacked around by the Axeman (Danny Huston) in the afterlife. Earlier in the season, Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) stood helpless in the face of witch-hunter Hank (Josh Hamilton). It’s not only that these women’s powers were inconsistent — and more on that in a bit — but they seemed thoroughly ineffective in the face of male violence.
Though violence against women is a common trope in horror, it’s not inherently misogynistic. But there is something unsettling about a series that prides itself on complex female characters concluding its season with two of the strongest female characters left as playthings for men. (Fiona essentially became the Axeman’s prisoner, and Madison’s corpse ended up in the arms of Denis O’Hare’s Spalding, who treats her as a doll.) Beyond that, the speech Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) gave about witches being “born this way” and subject to ignorance and hate crimes was an obvious allegory for LGBT identity — a sloppy way of addressing the real-life misogyny women endure. Without discounting what either group faces, the “witches are gay people” coda reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the specific concerns of feminism versus those of the LGBT community.
Treatment of Race
Surely there was a reason Coven included so many stereotypes, from the fried chicken joint where Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) worked to Cornrow City, the barbershop where Marie Laveau hid out for centuries. If the women of color on Coven served as a commentary on racism, what exactly was the show trying to say? And why was the character of sadistic homicidal racist Madame Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) afforded more development and motivation than either Queenie or Marie Laveau? Delphine even got the beginnings of a redemptive arc, though that was abandoned halfway through.
It’s worth noting that Queenie and Marie Laveau were billed as supporting characters, despite the fact that they appeared in more episodes than five of the leads, including Bates’ Delphine. For a season that took place in New Orleans and owed much of its magic to voodoo mythology and Haitian culture, it’s frankly perplexing that the black characters weren’t more prominent — and that when they were featured, it was often in the context of a well-trod stereotype. If it were clear Coven was using this to make a point, that would be one thing. But again, there was no distinct message as to what the writers were trying to articulate, so the show’s treatment of race didn’t amount to anything.
Instead, black identity and pride became something the show could lean on, much like female empowerment and independence, without actually offering any substance. The scene where Madame LaLaurie’s decapitated head watched footage from civil rights protests through tears — complete with “Oh, Freedom” playing in the background — provoked emotion, but it was nothing more than a cheap ploy. Even Delphine’s seemingly sincere response was later reversed: She wasn’t crying because her eyes were opened to the horrors of what she had done, but because she was just really, really racist.
While we’re on the subject of Delphine LaLaurie, her character arc was one of Coven’s most confounding, and a sure sign this season wasn’t expertly plotted. (Of course, the sudden introduction of Stevie Nicks once she was willing to do the show said as much.) Delphine began as a brutal monster, was forced to confront her racism in the present day, came to understand the civil rights struggle and black identity, and then reverted back to the same brutal monster she was in the beginning.
Once again, it would be one thing if this was intentional, but instead, it read as sloppy, as though the writers couldn’t figure out what to do with Delphine and her moral ambiguity, and suddenly decided the easiest course of action was to return her to her torture-loving roots. If that had always been the intention, why was there so much focus on her “come to Jesus” moment? The writers could claim that she was never crying for the right reason while watching the civil rights footage, but that was exactly how the scene read. Having her explain it away in the penultimate episode amounted to an obvious retcon.
And it wasn’t just Madame LaLaurie. Much of the character development was simply half-assed and confusing. Constantly shifting allegiances and motivation can be a good thing, adding surprise and dramatic conflict to a show. But it has to be earned. Coven — much like Ryan Murphy’s other series, Glee and Nip/Tuck — too often put plot before character development. Fiona largely got a pass because Jessica Lange was so incredible in the role, but her character was impossible to pin down, and not in a good way. Her final hug-it-out moment with Cordelia was absurd. Even that close to death, it was too out-of-character to be believed.
The “making this up as we go along” quality extended not just to the characters’ arcs, but to their abilities as well. Part of the joy of a fantasy series is that it can establish its own rules: There are no real witches in the world, so Coven was able to decide what its witches would look like, and what their powers and limitations would be. That’s all well and good, but Coven — in its infinite ambition — never stuck to the game plan, and that meant bending the rules to fit the plot, not the logic set forth in the premiere.
Coven opened with the witches each demonstrating unique powers, X-Men-style: Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) killed any man she had sex with, Queenie was a “human voodoo doll,” and Nan (Jamie Brewer) could read minds. It was suggested that few witches would ever gain a multitude of powers, and when Madison showed an ability in two more of the Seven Wonders, Fiona instantly identified her as the next Supreme and decided to kill her. And yet, by the end of the season, all of the remaining witches could perform most of the Seven Wonders — and with relative ease! It added tension to the mystery of who would be the next Supreme, but it didn’t mesh with what we’d been told about how witches develop earlier in the season. (As an aside, Zoe’s unfortunate power was barely mentioned after the first few episodes of the season, despite the fact that she was one of the only young witches with a serious love interest.)
And apart from the unsettling thematic implications of the witches’ inability to defend themselves against men, on a simpler level, the inconsistencies in the witchcraft Coven established strained the show’s credulity. Why couldn’t Madison use her mind control in the finale to stop Kyle from strangling her, or teleport elsewhere, or telekinetically throw him across the room? Why was Marie Laveau so helpless in the face of Hank’s gun, when she’d already proven powerful enough (her deal with Papa Legba notwithstanding) to live long past her expiration date? All-powerful beings aren’t interesting, and so each character needed his or her kryptonite. But it was lazy to arbitrarily make witches who had repeatedly demonstrated incredible powers suddenly helpless because the plot called for it.
Extraneous Characters and Plot Lines
Perhaps more than any other Ryan Murphy show, American Horror Story throws a lot at the audience, often just for shock value. Sometimes it works, as was the case with Asylum, but Coven’s lack of focus greatly detracted from the season as a whole. Because it was never clear what story it was telling, the show jumped all over the place, rarely offering anything resembling a satisfying conclusion.
Kyle was perhaps the most unnecessary central character, which is a pity given how much Peters added to Asylum and American Horror Story’s first installment, Murder House. The character had potential, but what purpose did he ultimately serve aside from occasionally raging out and murdering people? There could have been an entirely different trajectory for him — about the consequences of raising someone from the dead, and the long-term effects of sexual abuse — but instead, he was reduced to a mostly mute sidekick. And in the finale, he became a butler.
Of course a TV show can and should go off on tangents — there are plot lines to be explored outside of the main story. But Coven’s tangents were so weak and superfluous. Besides the return of FrakenKyle, there was the family drama of neighbor Joan Ramsey (Patti LuPone) and her hunky son Luke (Alexander Dreymon), Spalding’s creepy predilection for dead girls, Marie Laveau’s zombie army, Bastien’s (Ameer Baraka) reawakening as the Minotaur, and Cordelia’s attempts at getting pregnant. Need I mention Stevie Nicks?
But the real problem with all of the extra bits the Coven writers shoved into an already overstuffed season was that they took away from the plot at hand, leading to a conclusion that felt rushed, even by American Horror Story standards. The finale had an uncomfortably frantic quality: Misty’s sudden death and Zoe’s impalement both were blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments. But the truly mind-boggling jump was Cordelia’s sudden ascension to Supreme. After a season of doing nothing of note except gouging her own eyes out, she was quickly able to perform all of the Seven Wonders with little difficulty.
Coven had to reach a conclusion, but with so many balls in the air, it was nearly impossible for it to do so in an organic and satisfying way. What we got instead was something laughably random. Suddenly, Cordelia was the Supreme, now publicly a witch after outing her kind to the world, and everyone (who was on the surface “good,” for the most part) lived happily ever after. Cordelia even got to reconcile with her mother before her death, a moment that — however well acted by Paulson and Lange — just didn’t make any sense.
With more planning, Coven’s story could have been stretched out perfectly over the course of its 13 episodes. But because it was such a hodgepodge of ill-formed ideas, the pacing fell by the wayside. The show spun its wheels for much of its middle section, and then decided at the last minute to focus on the Seven Wonders without the necessary build-up for the test to carry any weight. (Did anyone really care who the next Supreme was by the time the finale rolled around?) No show can rest entirely on its performances, however great they might be. It needs structure to hold it up and without that, Coven’s embarrassment of riches sadly ended up squandered.