Alice Rush reviews the first episode of American Horror Story: Coven…
The return of FX’s anthology series American Horror Story has been a feverishly awaited for months now. With achingly short teaser trailers and deliciously horrific promotional posters whetting the appetite it comes as no surprise that the third instalment Coven gained the highest series premiere ratings the show has ever had. Creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have never been ones to shy away from any radical or distressing topics and the first episode ‘Bitchcraft’ throws us right in the deep end of what appears to be the thematic narrative of the series, that being the persecution and empowerment of women and witchcraft.
Flitting between the 1800s and present day, the series focuses on the outfall of the Salem witch trials, tracking the last of the witching kind to New Orleans. We touch down first in 1834 with the story of Madame LaLaurie, played by American Horror Story newcomer Kathy Bates. A woman of high society, LaLaurie harbours an intense racial prejudice against her black servants, torturing them in her attic whilst using their blood to stay young. In the opening sequence we see her character mutilate a servant who had a dalliance with her daughter, only for the servant’s lover to exact revenge, as is revealed later on in the episode. The casting of Bates caused quite the fervour as American Horror Story is celebrated for its strong female characters and the promise of seeing Bates and series matriarch Jessica Lange going up against each other is certainly something worth tuning in for.
Fast forward to present day and young witch Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) discovers her powers after an intimate encounter with her boyfriend goes very, very wrong and she is shipped off to New Orleans to enrol in Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies where she meets young witches Madison (Emma Roberts), Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), and Nan (Jamie Brewer). The girls are taught by school headmistress Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) to control their powers rather than make their gifts known, a teaching technique despised by her Supreme witch mother Fiona (Lange). The introduction of each of these characters did at times feel ever so slightly rushed during the episode, however with a huge ensemble cast to familiarise the audience with and character relationships to set up it’s understandably going to be a little messy to begin with. If the past two seasons have shown us anything it’s that the shows writers are experts in interweaving stories and characters, so I’ll hold off my criticisms for now.
One of the joys of this series is the dedication to production quality in each episode, and ‘Bitchcraft’ was no exception. Disorientating and angular camera shots, affective and startling imagery and the underlay of the creepy music we’ve come to love so much all contribute to the immersion of the audience, grabbing them by the hand and leading them through a maze of symbolism and rich cinematography. One scene in particular stands out aesthetics wise, in which Zoe meets Kyle (Evan Peters) at a frat party, their eyes locking across the room and either side of an ice sculpture, as the camera lingers on their warped, melting faces. It’s a beautiful moment juxtaposed perfectly by the sordid antics of the party goers around them and no doubt is a nod to Baz Luhrmann’s similar scene in Romeo + Juliet, setting up their relationship for the rest of the series.
Whilst I have minor issues with pace of this episode, Coven looks set to be one of the most interesting series of American Horror Story yet. Employing an almost entirely female cast and tackling the representation of powerful women is something I can completely get on board with and applaud Murphy and Falchuk for undertaking. Mix this in with its intense witchcraft mythology, biting dialogue from fantastic actors and great scoops of horror and gore, ‘Bitchcraft’ completely sets the scene for what is to come.
And I cannot wait.