American Horror Story season premiere recap: A Strange and Unexpected Love

A bewitching new season of the horror anthology introduces a new world of mystery and terror
Ep. 01 | Aired Oct 9, 2013

STARLET UNBOUND Madison Montgomery is named after the capitol cities of Wisconsin and Alabama, respectively. She shares alliterative initials with Marilyn Monroe and shares a Marilyn Monroe fixation with Lindsay Lohan. Unlike either of those ladies, Madison has killed a lot of people.

Michele K. Short/FX

You're a Witch, 'Arry
After a new opening title sequence, which you can watch here, we flashed forward to the modern day, and to Taissa Farmiga, returning to the AHS-verse after sitting out Asylum. She's playing a girl named Zoe Benson, and we met her in the midst of losing her virginity. She led a boy up to her bed, promising that her parents weren't home. The boy whispered sweet teenaged nothings in her ear: "Sucks being someone's first." Ah, romance! He promised not to hurt her. Within a few minutes, he was bleeding out of every facial orifice. The doctors called it a brain aneurysm. Zoe's mom knew that it was something more.

Zoe, you see, is a witch. In the world of Coven, witches as a race have been around for centuries at least. Witch-power seems to be passed along in roughly the same genetic manner as magic in Harry Potter or the mutant gene in X-Men. Some people have it, and some people don't. (Deadpanned Zoe: "My cousin Amanda is just bulimic.") A flashback to the Salem trials established that witches have been persecuted since the dawn of the American idea; in Zoe's telling, the actual witches were too smart for the Salem goons. So, while innocent women were executed, the witches fled south to New Orleans.

The Salem witches appear to have some kind of omnipresent law-enforcement organization, represented here by Frances Conroy as a mysterious red-haired lady with an elaborate cigarette. Her name is Myrtle Snow, but we didn't see very much of her: She shepherded Zoe to Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies (flanked by a brigade of bald men in black), before disappearing into the wind.

Although the Academy has an impressive history of teaching/protecting young witches, it appears to have fallen on lean times. There are only three other students at the school, besides Zoe, who introduced themselves by terrorizing her with Eyes Wide Shut masks. They are:

Madison Montgomery: A fictionalized version of your least favorite hard-partying starlet, beamed in from the February 12 2007 issue of Newsweek. She likes to party and hates directors. In a brief flashback, we saw how she wound up at Miss Robichaux's: Madison was doing some kind of film/photo shoot based around Marilyn Monroe;  the director mouthed off; she used her emergent telekinetic abilities to crush his head with a light. Basically Carrie White combined with Miley Cyrus at the Video Music Awards.

Queenie: Played by Precious Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe, Queenie has by far the most interesting power on the show. if she inflicts pain on herself -- like, say stabbing herself with a fork -- she can target that pain at someone else. (We saw her perform this trick on Madison.) If I watched correctly, she herself does not feel that pain, which calls up all kinds of intriguing possibilities. Does her power only work if she causes the pain? Or, say, if you were to punch her, could she make you feel it? And clearly doesn't this mean that one episode of Coven will end with her pointing a gun at her head as a threat to someone else?

Nan: Returning from AHS's first season, Jamie Brewer once again plays a mysterious gal whose apparent mental handicap belies the fact that she is smarter and wiser than every other character on this show. Literally, this time: Nan has the power of clairvoyance and dropped all kinds of foreshadowing on the characters, most especially that Zoe is going to meet "a strange and unexpected love."

Zoe got a quick tutorial in the Academy's history from the headmistress, a character played by Sarah Paulson. Her name is Cordelia Foxx, which sounds like the name of the heroine of a popular series of '70s sci-fi porn spoofs and/or the name of the evil stepmother tyrant from the Hunger Games YA trilogy ripoff that someone is writing right now. According to Cordelia, the school was founded by a suffragette in 1868 -- information that explicitly ties Miss Robichaux's to the history of feminism, while also tying the school's rise to the antebellum period. Witches, apparently, are a dying breed: Many families have chosen to simply stop procreating, which could be a very fantasy-genre way of saying "More women are choosing not to have children." Another important point: Although each witch has their own special power, every generation also gives rise to a single super-powerful witch "who embodies countless gifts." That uber-witch is known as a Supreme, giving hope to those of us who are praying that Coven features a dream sequence where Jessica Lange leads the cast in a rendition of "Stop! In the Name of Love."

One last key point brought up by Cordelia: She believes that the stated goal of Miss Robichaux's is "Not Suppression. Control." One imagines that the ambiguous relationship between those two ideas will be central to this series. The necessity for control was expressed by the fable of a Cajun girl named Misty Day, played by returning AHS player and Ryan Murphy's preferred Anthropomorphic Madonna-Whore Complex Lily Rabe. Misty discovered that she had the power of Resurgence, the ability to bring a creature back from the edge of death. She was burned at the stake, although she promised her tormentors that they would end in flames. (ASIDE: Since Lily Rabe is credited as a regular, presumably she will somehow use the power of Resurgence on herself -- which could also explain how another dead regular will return from the grave. Will she find her way to Miss Robichaux's? Will she return to life with visions from beyond? Since there is now a character who basically has resurrection powers, does this mean that Coven could potentially kill off all of its characters multiple times? END OF ASIDE.)

"Our lives are always at risk," concluded Cordelia. She represents a path of quiet fortitude, of hiding her gifts behind a veneer of normalcy. This is not the only path available to the young women of Miss Robichaux's.

NEXT: At Lange Last Love

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