The first hour of American Horror Story: Coven featured two escalating instances of homicidal telekinetic vengeance, a shot of the flayed skinless face of an enslaved human being, the apparently quite painful transformation of a man into a minotaur, the deflowering of a virgin teenager, various forms of sexual assault (including two instances of brain-imploding vagina dentata), the apparent deaths of three main characters (one already resurrected), Jessica Lange sucking the life out of the dude from The Event until he looked like the dude who chose poorly in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the tantalizing possibility that witchcraft will be a metaphor for Hurricane Katrina and the terrifying possibility that Hurricane Katrina will be a metaphor for witchcraft. All of this horror, and I haven't even mentioned the Mary Todd Lincoln joke.
So it might sound weird to say that -- compared to the previous iterations of American Horror Story -- the first episode of Coven was a relatively (relatively) light affair, introducing a host of new characters played by familiar faces in circumstances that explicitly suggest a weirder Harry Potter with an all-woman cast set in Anne Rice's New Orleans. The premiere episode of season one's Murder House established the depressing marital miasma of Mrs. Coach Taylor and Naked Dylan McDermott; the opening hour of last year's Asylum thrust us into the terrifying titular crazy den, with the creeping shadows and gibbering idiots and -- dear god -- the nuns. (Take it from this Catholic-educated schoolboy: Few species on this earth are scarier than nuns with New England accents.)
In both cases, the dominant mood was of entrapment, of characters imprisoned by doomed relationships or scary houses or Society. And despite the parade of horrors above, the dominant mood of Coven's first hour was the opposite of entrapment. Co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk were in world-building mode, sketching out the sub-strata of Coven's witchy shadow civilization and crafting a set of narrative/thematic rules for their vision of witchcraft. This being a Ryan Murphy show, I expect all those rules will be broken by next week. Boy, I'm glad this show is back.
Let's run down what we saw last night:
Prologue: Madame and the Minotaur
The premiere opened with Kathy Bates hosting a lovely dinner party in her lovely house in lovely New Orleans in the year 1834, an era when New Orleans was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the United States, with a near-majority of French speakers and a large population of free African Americans alongside a large population of slaves. Bates is playing Madame LaLaurie, an actual historical figure. On Coven, we met the Madame at a telling moment: Introducing her daughters to some wealthy society men. (She assured them that her daughters could make up for "what they lack in outer beauty.")
Soon enough, LaLaurie is upstairs, applying some restorative bloood to her face in a vain attempt to maintain her youth. "Just look at this waddle," she complained to her servant, "This blood's not fresh!" She had bigger problems. One of her daughters -- the smirking one, the one who doesn't mind saying words like boudoir in mixed company -- was caught in flagrante delicto with a houseboy. For a moment, you might have thought this was forbidden passion. But no: The man explained that he hadn't wanted anything to do with the daughter, that he was promised to another. (A recurring theme in all variations of American Horror Story is how objectification begets objectification: LaLaurie turns her daughter into a sex object for rich men, so the daughter uses a slave as her personal sex object.)
LaLaurie took the man up to her attic, where we saw several slaves imprisoned, with evidence of inconceivable torture covering their scarred and gore-splattered faces. For the poor soul who had the misfortune of being in the same room as her daughter, she had a special punishment ready. She explained how much she loved the Greek myths, filled with "wonderful miraculous creatures." She had a bull's head put atop the man. (I couldn't quite figure out if, in the process, she somehow magically fused the bull's head on top of his body -- a la The Haunted Mask.) When the first cast teaser for Coven debuted last month, I mistakenly assumed that the minotaur on the porch was a metaphor, presumably for something sexy and transgressive. (Think: The "white nun" from last year's Asylum posters.) But no, it turns out that Coven actually has a minotaur.
The episode returned to the 1830s later on, when the Minotaur-man's lady love (played by Angela Bassett with a mysterious regal bearing that practically screamed "I'm not in this episode very much, but I'm going to be very important") brought a love potion to the Madame that wound up being poison. Bassett regarded her lover with sadness and pity. Presumably, Bassett's character has survived into the modern era. Did her lover? Free-floating Season Premiere Theory Question Alert: If there is a Minotaur, should we assume that there will also at some point be a Maze?
NEXT: Be Gentle