Friday, October 11, 2013

American Horror Story: Coven. Season 3, Episode 1: Bitchcraft

American Horror Story: Coven. Same cast, same horror – a whole new story.

New Orleans, 1834 with lots of high society people including a not very pleasant matriarch, Madame LaLaurie and her 3 daughters, the youngest of which has some snark.

After the party, Madame LaLaurie prepares her beauty treatment of brushing her face with blood to tighten the skin – but, alas, there’s no time for macabre primping because there’s been an “incident.” She thunders through the halls to find her youngest daughter, Pauline, and starts smacking her around. It seems Pauline has slept with the house man – a Black slave. Her mother considers this on par with sleeping with an animal and, further, when her daughter defies her she tells the younger woman that they will claim it was rape.

The man is dragged upstairs in chains – to a dungeon where several Black people are kept chained or in cages. Some of them mutilated and horrendously tortured. The man, Bastien, is added to the prisoners and Madame LaLaurie has a bull’s severed head put over his own to turn him into her minotaur.

Credits and to the modern day where a girl sneaks a boy into the house while her mum is out so they can have sex. He worries about hurting her, it being her first time but she reassures him and they get down to business – and he has a nosebleed. And eyebleed. And earbleed. In fact, there’s a whole lot of bleeding everywhere, backed up with some pretty violent, completely mood-killing, seizing.

Cut again to the girl on a train – the boy’s death was put down to a very unusual brain aneurysm. Her mother, rather belatedly, reassured her that it wasn’t her fault – it runs in the family, her great-grandmother had the same problem (causing cute boys to die of agonising ebola-death? That’s one hell of a genetic disease there. The last time I saw something that nasty coming from losing your virginity it came from a religious sex education pamphlet). It seems she’s a witch, it runs in the women in the family but skips the odd generation (like her cousin Amanda who is bulimic and why that’s relevant I have no idea). We have a brief flashback to the Salem witch trials because all witches everywhere have to have links to Salem, it is known; she acknowledges that the women who died there were not witches, real witches being rather more cunning. And, being cunning, when all the hanging started they fled Salem as far south as they possibly could. To New Orleans.

Which is where the girl (Zoe – yes I looked it up, I’m not calling her “the girl” for the entire episode) is now heading to Boarding School. And by “heading,” I mean being physically dragged their by menacing people in scary sunglasses. An older, quite quite eccentric woman assures Zoe’s mother that everything will be fine.

Zoe arrives at Miss Robichaux’s Academy. She enters the building alone and the huge white mansion appears to be deserted – except for a shadowy, odd figure moving out of the corner of her eye, down distant corridors – until she comes face to face with a masked figure. She screams and runs only to be cornered by 3 of them. They pin her to a table and one chants a blessing to a dark father while raising a knife over her – all the candles flare to life as Zoe panics.

The masked figures back off and take off their masks – Nan, Queenie and Madison (who claims to be a movie star, which Queenie doubts) who were playing a prank on Zoe. The four of them make up the student body of Miss. Robichaux’s Academy – led by the newly arrived Cordelia Fox, the headmistress.

Do you really need a headmistress in a school of 4 students? Surely it’s more “one and only mistress”?

leading Zoe to her room, Cordelia fills in Zoe on the history of the Academy, it entered their hands in 1868 Mary Ann Morton, Supreme witch and famous person, bought the Academy to train new witches –unfortunately since then generations of families carrying the witchy genes decided not to breed (possibly due to the whole giving-hot-guys-ebola-when-losing-virginity is likely to give people some really bad issues when it comes to sex) so there’s very few witches left. And the “supreme” isn’t just a pretentious title – one witch per generation has super-duper-awesome powers, rather than a few “gifts,” she has a gazillion or so.

And no Cordelia isn’t Supreme, she’s just a witch, like Zoe (Hah! I lay odds now that Zoe is the next Supreme!). She’s there to teach them to control their gifts – which Queenie pipes up to say “suppress them”, and Madison seems to agree  that Cordelia is too cautious. Cordelia has an example of why – there are several witches out there who don’t realise they’re witches, including a Cajun girl called Misty who could bring the dead back to life. Unfortunately for her, being part of a rather extreme religious group, that ended very badly for her, complete with old-timey bonfire.

Next scene – Fiona, powerful, rich woman is lead into a sterile, expensive building where a scientist, David, shows her his breakthrough: a formula that has restored an elderly monkey to youth. Fiona is impressed, she wants it. Now. Within the hour, she has a dinner appointment. David points out it will take 2 years before they’re ready for human trials, she points out that it’s her vast sums of money that is paying for this research (she will also smoke in this room that she paid for, thank you very much). Despite this awesomeness, David is adamant, he can’t give her it, science takes longer than that, it isn’t magic.

5 days later and Fiona is partying alone, on drugs and getting very sad and angry while the TV reports the news of Misty’s body being found. David arrives and we learn Fiona got her own way – she’s been taking his youth drug for 5 days, but nothing has changed. She demands more and he says he’ll resign rather than give it to her.

He turns to leave and she closes all the doors and turns off all the lights – with her mind and then slams him against a wall with a casual flick of her hand. She kisses him and he ages rapidly, growing old and grey, then withering, then dying. Fiona is visibly young again; she admires herself in the mirror but it only lasts seconds before she returns to her true age. She smashes the mirror.

Back to the Academy, it’s lunch time and Mean Girl Madison torments the butler, Spalding who apparently can’t talk (Queenie disapproves of her cruelty). Nan spills about Zoe and her dead boyfriend and Queenie tells her to shut up too, if she doesn’t want to get in trouble. Madison claims she has been wrongly put in the Academy but Nan speaks up – Madison did kill the man. And Nan knows everyone’s secrets because she’s clairvoyant (and pretty irritating with it). We get a flashback of Madison dropping a light on a director who tried to, well direct her and Queenie lets loose both barrels on Madison’s acting skills and pettiness. Madison responds by telekinetically throwing Queenie’s soup at her and Queenie stabs her own hand with a fork – she feels nothing, but Madison’s hand bleeds and she screams. Queenie’s a human voodoo doll. Nan calms her down and takes Queenie for a walk (Madison still throws a fat joke after her). Since Madison has pretty much alienated everyone else, she decides that Zoe is her new best friend – and coming to a frat party with her.

In an elaborate greenhouse/chemistry lab, headmistress Cordelia mixes various concoctions before being surprised by Fiona. Fiona is her mother and the Supreme, and not happy with Cordelia for not making herself super powerful or a queen and just playing with her potions. Cordelia, for her part, tries to feed Fiona a potion that would have knocked her unconscious for a few weeks. Well, that’s a close mother/daughter relationship. Cordelia tries to get rid of Fiona but she’s staying after seeing what happened to Misty on the news. She decides the girls need to be ready for some coming storm and calls Cordelia’s teaching an “abject failure.” Well, don’t sugar the pill at all there!

Fiona points out that in the modern world of social media and technology, witches just can’t hide in the shadows any more, there are no shadows. Cordelia threatens her with the Council and Fiona just sneers “sure, explain to them why you think it’s a bad idea for the Supreme to teach them”. Ok, so far I am totally team!Fiona. Cordelia looks forward to Fiona dying – ouch, that one’s gotta hurt.

To the frat party that Madison was talking about in the Tau, Omega, Alpha frat house. Outside, in a different frat’s bus, Kyle establishes that this frat (kappa lambda gamma) is under probation for multiple shenanigans in the past and they’re trying to be more… restrained, the party starts .. Madison and Zoe arrive – Madison quickly attracting attention but Kyle focuses straight on the very self-conscious Zoe. They talk, while Kyle’s obnoxious friend and frat brother spikes Madison’s drink – he and several other guys take her to a room and rape her.

Zoe tells Kyle she can’t really see anyone at the moment, what with the ebola-contraception thing, and looks for Madison and can’t find her. Kyle goes looking and finds his fellow frat members raping Madison. Kyle pulls them off her, shouting at them and they run – Kyle chasing them and Zoe running to Madison. She covers her in a blanket before charging off herself to get the frat guys.

On the frat bus, Kyle catches up with his fellows – who punch him and knock him to the floor when he tells them he’s going to the police, then kick the driver out of the bus. Chief rapist on the bus tells everyone to delete the videos from their phones and be ready to stick together

As the bus drives off, Zoe stops, unable to catch it and Madison catches up to her. Using her telekinesis, Madison flips the bus over onto its roof while it’s driving. The bus then explodes in flames.

The next day at the Academy over breakfast, the crash is on the news; 7 of the men in the bus are dead, 2 are in critical condition in the hospital. Zoe talks to Madison about telling someone, especially since Kyle was on the bus but then Fiona joins them; she already knows what Madison did and while she doesn’t mourn the frat men, she calls Madison a “sloppy little witch bitch.” Madison tells her to go to hell, Fiona slams her into a wall.

It’s kind of Fiona’s answer to conflict – slam person into a hard surface.

She follows up by disparaging her daughter’s teaching, the school (which she derides as “Hogwarts”) and announcing she’s taking them all on a field trip. They’re going to a fountain that was a sacred space to a witch coven in the 70s, but walled off since Katrina. They’re going to tear the wall down under Fiona’s philosophy “when witches don’t fight, they burn.”  Madison snarks again, but Nan quietens them all by telling them Fiona is the Supreme – tricksy clairvoyant.

But she also separates herself from the group and joins a tour of Madam LaLaurie’s house. The others follow her and Fiona mind-whammies the tour leader who continues to describe the tortures Madame LaLaurie inflicted on her slaves – and the hauntings it lead to. She also mentions Madam LaLaurie’s vanity and her using human pancreas as an anti-aging cream (this seems to strike a chord with Fiona). Flashback to Madame LaLaurie having slaves cut open and their pancreases extracted while they were still alive. The tour guide leads them to a Madame LaLaurie’s torture chamber and describes it as where she met her end as well

Another flashback; a Black woman, Marie Laveau  approaches Madame LaLaurie’s house with a love potion that will ensure her husband remains faithful. Madame LaLaurie drinks the potion – and is poisoned. One of LaLaurie’s victims, the minotaur Bastien, was Laveau’s lover. Back to the present where the tour guide tells us Madam LaLaurie’s body was never found.

Fiona goes to Nan who is alone in the garden and asks her what she hears – Nan can hear the Lady of the House and looks down to the concrete, the implication being that she is under there.

Later, Zoe goes to the hospital to check who the survivors of the bus crash are – neither is Kyle and one of them is Chief Rapist. She tells him it should have been him and I heartily agree. She closes the room door.

At the Academy, Cordelia and Fiona continue to snark – and Fiona has the excellent line “don’t make me drop a house on you.”

Zoe has a voice over about community and vulnerability and talking about community and needing to trust people in order to be vulnerable and how we really need each other but no-one has that kind of trust any more – and while that happens we see Madison curled up in the shower, crying and Queenie sneaking into the kitchen for food, while Nan plays happily with paper chains of people holding hands. In the hospital, Zoe decides to put her curse to some use (adding that she can’t experience real love) she manually stimulates the rapist to an erection, then gets on top of him and rapes him. He bleeds and has a seizure and dies.

Fiona digs up Madame LaLaurie’s chained coffin – she’s still alive, though restrained.

And that’s the first episode of American Horror Story: Coven, and it’s both disappointing and pretty much what I expected.

Firstly, what the hell is with this show’s obsession with rape? Seriously, this is the third season with gratuitously unnecessary rape scenes and themes. Three seasons of rape, three. Stop, stop stop!

Secondly – the characterisation is so shallow it makes a kiddie paddling pool look like the Pacific.

We have Zoe – ingénue becoming hardened. She’ll probably be more developed as the apparent protagonist. But the other girls?

Madison – a cookie cutter characterless Mean Girl with an added vileness of being both sexual and raped – implications of rape as a punishment abound.

Queenie – an angry Black girl. And she’s fat because she emotionally over-eats (fat people have to be tortured and sad, y’know). Her magical power is to be a human voodoo-doll… which is dehumanising, gives her Hollywood’s most stereotypical “Black people magic”, and gives her the most stereotypical form of that magic – the voodoo doll while at the same time stripping it of all the tradition, practices and faith of that tradition.

Then there’s Nan, seemingly somewhat powerful in that her magic is respected, even by the Supreme (alone among just about everyone). But the disabled person with extra-sensory woo-woo has been so DONE. Blind seers, schizophrenics who are REALLY hearing voices, incomprehensible mentally ill people babbling prophecies of the future. I want to see a disabled person throw fire or something for once.

It’s just a box load of stereotypes. And as much as Jessica Lang is awesome in the role, she’s effectively played the same or variations of the same role for 3 American Horror Stories now.

Then there’s Madame LaLaurie. We’ve written before about appropriation and how using real life atrocities as fodder for fiction can be highly problematic. If you’re going to use specific events and figures from history you have to damn careful – especially when dealing with atrocities. Madame LaLaurie was a real person and her brutal, horrific crimes were also real (Marie Laveau was also a real person). So why use her? What is the purpose to infer supernatural elements to her crimes? What is being done here? Because it looks like horror movie titillation and shock value which is a gross reason to use this terrible atrocity.

The one thing going for it? American Horror Story always has some beautiful, artistic camera work and settings (albeit, sometimes I think they go over the top) and, despite the material they’re working with, it draws in some truly stellar actors.

Oh added mini-gripe. I'm not sure I even buy the premise. Ok, since Misty is part of a pretty extreme religious group, yes I can see her facing all kinds of problems. But in general? In the 21st century in many places and for many people, actual witches with actual magic is going to be hailed more as "oooh that's so cool!" rather than "BURN THE WITCH". Perhaps most threatening will be governments wanting to poke around and see why they can do what they do