American Horror Story Coven episode 1 review: Bitchcraft

American Horror Story returns with a witchcraft-focused season. Here's Ron's review of the promising opening episode...

This review contains spoilers.

3.1 Bitchcraft

In the first episode I saw of Game of Thrones, there was one character that immediately hooked me. That was Tyrion Lannister. I knew watching Peter Dinklage live in that role that he would be my gateway into the rest of the programme, and that’s been true throughout the many seasons of Game of Thrones. I’ve gained an appreciation for the many other characters and performances, but the most indelible memory is of Peter Dinklage. 

When it comes to American Horror Story, the gateway character for me, and I assume for most viewers, was Constance Langdon. When I saw Jessica Lange chewing scenery and chain-smoking, I knew I was going to be hooked right away. There are many other awesome moments of craziness from the first episode – Dylan McDermott’s crysturbation scene, for one – but Constance was the character that did it for me right off the bat. While she was the most impressive initial performance, she wasn’t the only one. The show’s strongest characters, by and large, have been the women. 

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From Lange and Frances Conroy tearing into one another in Murder House to plucky Sarah Paulson and the brilliant Lily Rabe in Asylum, American Horror Story has been full of great female performances. From Kate Mara to Lizzie Brochere, Taissa Farmiga to Naomi Grossman, Connie Britton to Chloe Sevigny, American Horror Story has been a showcase for actresses, and the promising trailers for Coven seem to emphasize that this season is all about the ladies, in the best possible way. 

After all, the setting is a school for girls. Specifically, it’s Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Women. Call it a cross between Hogwarts, Charles Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters, and Anne Rice’s house, and it’s a school for the training and upbringing of witches. Hence the colourful cast of characters, including Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), Nan (Jamie Brewer), Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), and our newcomer into the witch world, Zoe (Taissa Farmiga). 

One of the best things about American Horror Story‘s style of self-contained seasons is that the show never gets stale. There are so many returning cast members, from Denis O’Hare as a hybrid of Lurch, Argus Filch, and Riffraff from Rocky Horror to the consistently brilliant Jessica Lange (who gets another juicy role here), yet they all still feel fresh and they all still have a high energy level, probably because they get to play different characters and they all have different relationships with one another. Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson did great work together last year; this year, they’re still doing great work because they have new roles, a new relationship between their characters, but the familiarity that comes with having worked with someone before. There’s a comfort level there, and the addition of strong actresses to the assembled ensemble cast can only improve a show with a solid foundation. 

Of the many newcomers, Kathy Bates as real-life figure Madame LaLaurie seems to be the one most able to hold her nose and dive right into the crazy pool filled by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s script. It definitely is crazy, no doubt about that. Murphy and Falchuk definitely have a way with interesting dialogue and interesting characters. Even as the show shifts tones from horror to camp or from hilarity to brutality with the grace of a cat fleeing an overturned cauldron, it never fails to be entertaining. It can be tonally inconsistent, but you know what you’re getting with American Horror Story at this point, and if you’ve never seen the show before, after one episode you’ll be able to tell if it’s something you’ll like or something you’ll hate. 

In the case of this week’s episode, one of the things I ended up liking the most is the direction of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. He does some very clever things with the camera this week, making good use of the awesome new school set in the process. He does use quite a bit of Dutch angle, but it’s effective when he trots it out and it doesn’t seem gratuitous. There are some very impressive visuals, and the special effects sequences in this week’s episode are really handled well. At some points, it’s almost a little too intense, but that’s a good quality to have in a show when you want the campy to be campy and the horrifying to actually be horrifying. 

That’s the thing about American Horror Story‘s various iterations. There’s no attempt to balance the scale between the cheesy and the brutal. If anything, the show deliberately tries to blur the line by combining both elements in the same scene, then challenging the audience to laugh or cringe or feel something. American Horror Story, at its best, is an hour-long version of that bubble of laughter that comes after a jump scare in a horror movie. Your heart is racing, you’re unsettled, you’re a bit disturbed, but you’re grinning and chuckling just the same.

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Read Ron’s review of the Asylum, Madness Ends, here.

US Correspondent Ron Hogan is glad to see that a summer off has not dulled the crazy edges from American Horror Story, merely sharpened them. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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