In the spirit of October and all things spooky, I turned back to American Horror Story, the show which an FX preview constantly reminds me is the show that “redefined a genre,” and maybe that’s true—its anthology horror structure makes for a new and terrifying start every season as it attempts to forge new ground.
Its third season, subtitled Coven, is one of its strongest though, because it veered away from jump scares and downright bone-chilling antics, and instead turned in a rather campy installment focused more on character, family politics, and legacy. It was so campy in comparison to its first two seasons, I even convinced my mother to watch it with me when it came out seven years ago, but alas, her memories of it are not as fond as mine.
Upon rewatching it, the season is perhaps not as enthralling as I found it at the time, but the performances and overall world-building hold up a sometimes jumpy plot. Coven turns in its strongest episode in its eighth installment, “The Sacred Taking,” penned by Ryan Murphy himself, and directed by frequent collaborator Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.
“War Is Coming and You’re Going To Lose”
From the frantic beginning of Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) running down the stairs of a highway underpass, this episode is about forward momentum. A lot has been set up to get to this pace: Queenie has left the coven to join Marie Laveau’s (Angela Bassett) house, Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) finds out that her mother Fiona (Jessica Lange) killed Madison (Emma Roberts) in fear that she would take her power from her as the next supreme, and Misty Day (Lily Rabe) brought back Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy) from the dead.
There’s also the threat of the witch hunters, the ongoing mystery of who will be revealed to be the next supreme, the love story between Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) and Kyle (Evan Peters), and a separate love story between Fiona and the Axeman (Danny Huston). Not all subplots further the narrative, but they are all at least somewhat entertaining.
Back by the highway, Queenie has a confrontation with a serial rapist, whom she kills, and moments later she takes out his beating heart. Zoe and Madison have followed her and then beg her (okay, tell her) to come back, but she says her allegiance now lies with Marie Laveau who is furthering her powers in ways Fiona never did.
“My Body Doesn’t Belong To Me Anymore”
Meanwhile, Fiona has figured out that maybe Madison wasn’t actually the supreme, as her power is still being drained from her, resulting in her health deteriorating. But she has found love with the Axeman and something worth living for, which has made her more of a narcissist than she already was.
Other terrible mother (and next door neighbour) Joan (Patti LuPone), gives her son Luke (Alexander Dreymon) something of a bleach enema for being unclean from the inside out after cavorting with the witches.
It’s an odd and disturbing side plot, but it adds to the way this episode starts to question power, legacy, the hereditary nature of things, motherhood, and reparations/punishment.
“She’s Dead To Me”
After an acid attack blinds Cordelia, she’s now able to see the truths people are hiding, which includes her mother’s murder of Madison and defamation of Myrtle, and her husband Hank’s (Josh Hamilton) infidelity. Done with being naive about the future, she’s called a meeting to discuss the orchestration of her mother’s death in order to invoke the sacred taking—a ceremony which involves the current supreme dying in order for the new supreme to rise and for the coven to continue to function.
This plan includes the now-viral “surprise, bitch. I bet you thought you’d seen the last of me” moment where Madison reveals to Fiona that she’s still alive, which is set to “Season of the Witch” playing in the background.
It’s a fun moment that also attempts to bestow some consequences on Fiona, who has gotten away with far too much at this point. Cordelia also shows a certain amount of leadership capability and a level of grittiness we haven’t seen before.
“It’s Not a Gift, It’s a Burden”
The plan for Fiona to overdose and to begin the sacred taking falls apart when Spalding (Denis O’Hare) wakes Fiona and explains that she has been manipulated and lied to, and hands her ipecac. She has her own “surprise, bitch” moment when she reappears downstairs while Myrtle plays Schubert.
Meanwhile Queenie visits Delphine (Kathy Bates) who she turned in as the price of admission to live at Marie Laveau’s. She greets Queenie from her cage with an earnest “what did I do to deserve this betrayal?”
These moments are placed close together and hold similar themes surrounding the use of power, and the punishment visited upon those in power. Delphine has been stripped of her power and status and, as such, punishment is easily visited upon her in response to wrongdoing. But for Fiona as the supreme, punishment does not visit her. She has people that work for her, that worship her, and protect her. Sounds familiar, like a certain politician’s group of supporters, no?
“What You Showed Was Real Grit”
So what does it mean to go back to an episode of Coven seven years later during the year of a presidential election and global pandemic? Well, for a show about witches and magic, it’s not exactly escapism.
Like Trump’s impeachment, Cordelia’s attempt at the sacred taking also finds no change in power at the coven. And like government officials avoided warnings of the severity of a possible pandemic, Fiona (and even Cordelia) avoided the signs that Hank (and the witch hunters) presented imminent danger to their lives.
Maybe Episode 8 feels the most true to our current moment because it’s in the middle of a season, holds the uncertainty of a power transfer between Fiona and the next supreme, and the danger of the witch hunters reveals its threat level by hitting close to home (e.g. next door). Yet somehow some characters are still finding moments of happiness—Zoe and Kyle find love in each other, and Misty finds a new family and a deeper connection to herself.
“We Need You Now, Fiona”
Perhaps what I took most from this episode of Coven is comfort in the uncertainty presented. A reminder that we too, at this moment, are in the middle of a time of crisis. That the ending is not particularly clear for the witches at this point, and neither is it currently for us. Perhaps deeper than jump scares and dark lighting is Season 3’s horror of uncertainty, power dynamics, and government.
It starts to question punishment for those who do wrong (even in positions of power) but this episode can’t quite answer that due to its placement in the season. Consequences do come for the characters in this season who have committed wrongdoing, but not in the traditional way perhaps expected. Endings also do come to the current supreme of the coven, but again not as expected. And even the imminent danger fades in an unexpected way. Perhaps like this episode, we’re too far away from the ending to see any plausible path, but that’s part of it all unfortunately. Stay strong, my Coven friends.