This review contains spoilers
3.3 The Replacements
You could very fairly say that the best episodes of American Horror Story are a matter of style over substance. That isn’t to denigrate the content of the script, or the big ideas that the show fearlessly launches itself at like some sort of deranged, frothing animal. Indeed, American Horror Story is a show that spits into the eye of big issues no matter what season we’re dealing with; the opening credits for Coven alone deal with more of America’s shameful history of slavery and racism than a goofy cable show really ought to.
With a character like Kathy Bates’ Delphine LaLaurie around, racism and its vileness is going to be something the show returns to time and again (kind of like Stevie Nicks songs). After all, she’s both a woman of her time and a violent sociopath, so it’s only natural that her response to the idea of a black President of the United States (and various other black officials, both elected and appointed) is about the same as the one she has to the fact that she has to play maid to the only black person at Miss Robichaux’s School for Girls. She’s not a fan, and she stands out in great contrast to the more liberal, yet still strangely intolerant, folks around her, particularly Fiona. The strain and historical animosity between black and white isn’t all that different from the conflict between witches and voodoo priestesses, or rich and poor, or any two ethnic groups.
The fact that the show does things like have Kathy Bates hiss at the idea of black people in public office is funny, but for all the humour in this season, there’s really not a show that does exposition dialogue quite like American Horror Story has managed it over two plus seasons. What should be clunky – voice over, for one – comes off as pretty elegant when delivered by Jessica Lange or one of the many other talented women on the show. Lange, in particular, has a great scene in the opening of the episode where she delivers a very solid voice-over set to the strains of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in a rowdy Bourbon Street bar. Lange herself keeps her facial expressions muted, letting the words do the heavy lifting. It’s something that could be very easy to overplay, but Lange walks that line between camp and restraint like no one else on television.
That remarkable control gives the more flamboyant scenes more punch. This is definitely a show that loves to get uncomfortable, both visually and in the subject matter. The weirder things seem to get down in New Orleans, the more the show seems to blossom. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has a good handle on how to make things look weird on television, and he digs into his bag of tricks throughout this episode. From a crazed voodoo ritual told with smash cuts and wild dancers filmed around a bonfire to Dutch angle, fish eye lens, filming scenes with a sideways camera, and even orchestrating a great crane shot that descends onto the scene from far overhead, he’s more than a match for the strangest material the show can hand him.
While Gomez-Rejon’s impressive mastery of in-camera effects can occasionally be overbearing without a counterweight, it matches up perfectly with the weirdness going on in James Wong’s script. American Horror Story is obsessed with sex and power, and this week’s episode is chock full of content relating to both those issues. (In fact, there are multiple scenes this week that are so strange and off-putting that I’m surprised Zachary Quinto isn’t there to talk about colostrum or Dylan McDermott isn’t there to weep and wank.) Coven may not be as dark and damaged as Asylum, or as unrelentingly strange as Murder House, but it’s definitely got its own brand of distinctive baroque strangeness fully on display here. Coven flies a permanent freak flag.
Jessica Lange gets (and deserves) all the credit in the world for making American Horror Story successful, and while I hope she doesn’t leave after the fourth season like she’s hinted at, I feel like the show could actually be okay without her. It wouldn’t be as good, but it could definitely function if you bring in another grand dame of a certain age like Angela Bassett or Kathy Bates, provided with a little additional time for the excellent Lily Rabe (whose character Misty Day really shows some spark of life this week with her amazing Stevie Nicks twirl and her general swamp hippie mystic vibe) and continued support from Evan Peters (doing some amazing physical work), Jamie Brewer (who had some of my favorite lines of the night), and Sarah Paulson.
The returning actors have proven themselves, and the show’s new additions continue to stand right alongside Jessica Lange as worth watching. No matter how crazy the scripts get, or how odd the scene is, these actors (and the ones the show brings in every year) are up to the challenge. Long may the crazy reign.
Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Boy Parts, here.
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