[Content warning: discussions of blood, gore, misogyny, murder, racism, sexual violence]
American Horror Story began this week, as it does each season, with a brand new plotline and set of characters. This time we’re taken to New Orleans where we learn that witches and Voodoo queens exist and have existed for many years. This season, while mostly set in the modern-day, moves between the past and the present to tell us the story of these witches.
In the 1800s, we met Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), more commonly known as Madame LaLaurie, an aging New Orleans high society belle and slave owner who tries to exert control over her three daughters, has been spurned by her first two husbands, and copes with infidelity from her third and current husband. Madame LaLaurie is incensed when she catches her youngest daughter in a tryst with a slave and servant. She punishes him by having him strung up, a bull’s head mounted over his own (her very own Minotaur, she gushes), and brutally removing his organs while he’s conscious to use in a facial poultice she applies to bring her youth and vitality. As she does this, we see that she keeps many slaves caged and bound in her attic of horrors, and many of those people are visibly mutilated. Unfortunately for LaLaurie, she made a mistake with this one. This man is Marie Laveau’s lover, the Voodoo queen of New Orleans. Laveau tricks LaLaurie into drinking a potion that takes care of her for the time being.
In the present, we join Zoe Benson (season one fans will remember her as Violet), who brings home a young man from school for some, uh, amorous activity. But, as they begin, the boy begins bleeding from his eyes and convulsing. We’re later told that he suffered a brain aneurysm, evidently caused by Zoe’s magic, for Zoe is a witch whose powers are newly manifested. We learn that witches have existed for hundreds of years and many fled south after the Salem witch trials. Since then, their numbers have dwindled due to violence or a choice not to reproduce and pass on their bloodline. Zoe’s mother sends her to a school that, to the outside world, is a finishing school for “exceptional young ladies,” but really houses young witches being taught to control their powers.
There Zoe meets Nan, a clairvoyant, Queenie, a “human voodoo doll,” and Madison, who has also killed people with her powers. While their teacher Cordelia and her mother Fiona, the Supreme (i.e., the most powerful witch of her generation) argue over how best to teach the girls, Madison decides that Zoe will be her new best friend and invites her to a frat party. While there, Zoe immediately hits it off with Kyle (long time viewers will remember him as Tate), but Kyle’s frat brother drugs and initiates a gang rape of Madison. Kyle and Zoe discover what’s happening, and Kyle is knocked out in the ensuing melee when all of the brothers flee to their charter bus. Zoe and Madison come outside in time to see the bus take off, but Madison casually flips the bus with her powers, and the accident kills all but two inside. Zoe is angry to find out that one of the survivors in the boy who initiated Madison’s rape and, herself, rapes and murders him.
The episode ends with Nan sensing LaLaurie’s presence at her old home. Fiona, the Supreme, digs up the spot where Nan sensed her and, lo and behold, LaLaurie lies in a grave, bound, gagged, and very much alive for the last nearly 200 years.
I am still unsure how I feel about this first installment of “Coven.” Much of the violence felt gratuitous, punishing, racist and misogynistic. Early on, we see LaLaurie torturing her slaves and some of her handiwork on other slaves that do not speak much, but do moan, beg and cower away from her. Certainly, the real LaLaurie tortured and abused her slaves, and I am a strong believer in not sugar-coating the suffering of oppressed peoples. But, I also believe that oppression can be exploited by people who did not suffer that oppression or suffer the legacy of it. In this case, it may have been exploited for shock value, for plot reasons, and certainly for capitalist reasons (e.g., getting people to watch the show). Indeed, evidence suggests that the types of mutilations we saw on the show were heavily exaggerated after Madame LaLaurie’s death as her legend as a serial killer grew. To see so many Black faces being brutalized in such a sort span of time and especially on a television show that had, up until now, featured only three Black characters with speaking lines, unsettled me as a viewer.
Moreover, there was a sexist overtone to the violence inflicted by LaLaurie. Both the real and fictional LaLaurie’s crimes are absolutely indefensible. But, explanation for those crimes, that she was a vain old woman trying to hold onto her husband and even the conceit that she masterminded the crimes or committed them largely alone rely on sexist and ageist tropes about middle aged women. In fact, the entire episode reeked of sexism and misogyny. I was disturbed by Zoe’s power manifesting from her having sex with people (or, in fact, raping people) in order to punish them for their crimes. I was disturbed that Queenie is a “human voodoo doll” who must inflict injury to herself in order to injure or protect herself from others. Certainly, I was disturbed by Madison’s rape.
Still, I saw some things that pleased. Angela Bassett, Jessica Lange, and Kathy Bates absolutely slayed in their roles. Jessica has demonstrated, yet again, a wonderful knack for portraying characters that can be and often are absolutely awful and despicable and yet making some small part of me root for her in certain contexts. I quite enjoyed that each of the women do not have identical powers but that their powers manifest in ways unique to them. I definitely enjoyed that this season is the most woman centered season of them all, and all of the seasons have been increasingly so. One of the things that hit close to home with Asylum, in spite of its many problems, was that the season touched upon many of my own fears as a mentally ill individual. Having grown up with many people and known many people who whose identities as mentally ill people intersected with other marginalized identities, it seemed all too real how easily such people were disposed of in Asylum. This season seems to be trying (however well so far) to touch on the various kinds of issues that women disproportionately face while simultaneously giving those women tangible power to help confront those issues. We’ll see what happens.
Did you catch the season premiere? What did you think?