[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?
8 replies on “New Show Recap: American Horror Story: Coven 3.01, “Bitchcraft””
I finally saw it last night and I think I will be watching. I want to see what kind of role Marie Laveau will play. I am excited that it is a strong female cast and about the casting of two woc but like you, am worried about the exploitation that may occur from this.
I was uncomfortable with all the sexual violence and torture, but it is AHS so I wasn’t not expecting it. However, I have read some spoilers and I want to see how they pit Fiona against Madame LaLaurie and I just want to see badasss women. So yea, I’ll keep watching and reading your recaps.
I’m currently finishing up the recap of the second episode, I enjoyed it a lot more than this one. I’m still a little nervous about this and where it will go concerning Marie and Queenie. In so far as the violence and torture, this episode even calmed down on that a bit. Although, I think they were trying to go for an oddly hopeful note in this one. And, as you said, evidently Fiona is going to find out more about what LaLaurie did light her up about that. So, it should be interesting.
I’m late to the game. My sister and I just watched this episode together (but remotely) and chatted throughout the episode. We were both freaking out about all of the rapes in the first episode. I stopped watching the last season because of the rapes, so I hope that doesn’t become prevalent in this season. I am curious to see where the season goes, although I do have a few issues with it thus far.
As I was saying to someone else, I’m feeling less than hopeful in terms of the sexual violence because, in past seasons, it seemed like the violence escalated as the season continued. Also, given that every single episode of AHS thus far has been directed by men and only about 25% of the episodes have featured women on the writing team, I’m…hesitant about how and why the writers choose to portray violence perpetrated against women. I can easily see why anyone would choose not to continue watching for those reasons. Like you, I’m also curious to see where the season goes, but I’m having my issues.
I’m glad I read this before tuning-in, because tbh I’m not sure how I feel about it. I love the base concept – witches, voodoo, the history and current timeline meshing, the fact that they bring the true horrors of slavery into it, etc. I also like the idea of some witches having to “pay” for their powers by hurting themselves (or others).
But it sounds pretty rape-filled for the first episode alone. I couldn’t watch the second season because a friend told me it would be too triggery, but I know rape was a common problem in the first season, so I sort of expect it from AHS. Still, that much right off the bat is frustrating.
I’ll probably watch it, and if I can make it through it I’ll continue the series as a weekly thing. Otherwise I’ll read the recaps and then decide at the end if I should marathon it or skip it. :)
I’m very dubious on the premise of the season to be honest, and I wasn’t pleased with how they addressed the cruelties of slavery so far. So, you’ll probably hear a lot about that from me in these recaps. ;) But, I’ll be sure to try and give the most thorough warnings I can about each episode in my recaps if that helps decide on whether to watch an episode or not. :) This episode contained a very large amount of sexual violence, unfortunately. And, I know that AHS tends to escalate the violence each season, so I’m not feeling particularly hopeful in that regard. :/
“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. ”
I’m largely guessing that the themes of beauty, aging, and how women’s power is usually concentrated in their sexual desirability will be overriding issues for the season. But the show has a way of switching the script up as the show goes along, so that what seems obvious is just a red herring.
I also enjoyed the subtle equation of feminism to the dwindling witch population. Because who else choose to strategically stop reproducing? Radical (and some not so radical) feminists.
I wasn’t surprised at all about the attic and slavery scenes. I gather that a lot of people didn’t know about the LaLaurie house. But I think it’s early to determine if these scenes are exploitative or not — the show may be over the top, but it’s smart, and I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for a little while.
Between LaLaurie, Zoe’s and Fiona’s various storylines I believe your right about that. These are powerful women who derive no small amount of self-worth from their sexual desireability (stemming from living in a society that demands youth and normative beauty from women), and Zoe’s power as it’s manifested so far ain’t even a kind of subtle nod to that.
Can you unpack your thoughts on feminists choosing not to reproduce?
I don’t trust the writers as much as you do, but I’m interested to see where it goes. I’ve known of Madame LaLaurie’s legend beforehand and that’s how I know that many of the”interpretations” used in AHS come from her legend than her actuality. I believe where it became exploitative was using the legend rather than the actuality and ascribing the violence to a particularly sadistic and vain woman rather than the structural and systematic racism and dehumanization Black peoples faced at that time. Many slave states actually had laws protecting slaves from “undue” mistreatment, and many slaveowners did not want to damage their property very much. But, still, many slaves all over the country were subjected to torture, abuse, sexual violence, and death just as at Madame LaLaurie’s house. What I see here, so far, is a repudiation of LaLaurie herself and imagery built around her legend rather than a repudiation of slavery and honest imagery. Also, again, I have more than a little side eye for all of that given that, up until now, the show has featured very few Black people and the most I’ve seen onscreen so far at one time have been as slaves. So, I’m not in a prime position to give the writers the benefit of the doubt. But, we’ll see what they so with what they’ve established here. They do love to pull out surprises.