American Horror Story Coven episode 5 review: Burn, Witch, Burn!

American Horror Story: Coven just goes from strength to strength. Here's Ron's review of Burn, Witch, Burn!

This review contains spoilers.

3.5 Burn, Witch, Burn!

American Horror Story is a show that deals in violence as a routine, but rarely does the programme approach violence in this manner. There’s been a lot of stabbings and gunshots and whatnot, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the show’s cast and crew dedicate themselves to something quite as awesome and horrifying and B-movie hilarious as what happened in tonight’s episode. Doe-eyed little Taissa Farmiga, upon noticing Nan and the cute neighbour boy trapped in a car thanks to the hordes of ravenous zombies surrounding Madame Robichaux’s, takes it upon herself to channel her inner Lionel Cosgrove/Ashley J. Williams and absolutely slaughter a dozen or so zombies with a chainsaw. Heads roll, arms roll, legs roll, a zombie gets bisected from scalp to groin, and corn syrup blood gets everywhere.

It’s a beautiful, hilarious, clap-worthy moment handled in spectacular fashion, and it’s one of several gore-based gags that happens in this week’s episode. Having Delphine in the cold opening is usually a clue that something terrible is about to happen—in this case she invents the classic Halloween funhouse gag with peeled grapes as eyeballs, except she just uses eyeballs because peeling grapes is hard—but even Madame LaLaurie’s cruelty is secondary to the impressive amount of splatter in the climactic moments of the A story. American Horror Story is known for its willingness to be graphic and weird, but that’s mostly just during Dylan McDermott’s self-love scenes.

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However, this week revelled in crazy moments of violence, and even the more serious B plot contained some pretty graphic stuff by cable television standards, particularly the aftermath of Cordelia’s acid attack and the burning of the witch that gives the episode its title. Yet when they’re not levetating Angela Bassett or showing off a bowl full of eyeballs, American Horror Story is somehow, improbably, able to bring in real pathos when it wants to touch hearts, not cook and eat them.

The bulk of this credit has to go to the actresses involved. I know I enthuse about how great Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates are on this show every week, but that’s not changing. Pretty much no matter what scene you give them, they’re going to perform it with every bit of skill they have. When you have Jessica Lange and Frances Conroy having a face-off in which they go after one another hammer and tongs, it’s even better. Even those with smaller roles or less to do this season, like Taissa Farmiga (who has some great expressions this week), Jamie Brewer, and Denis O’Hare are able to interesting things when given a chance, or at least be funny/interesting.

Jessica Lange absolutely dominated this week’s episode. Given her vital role in the A story concerning Cordelia’s blinding, she got to spend a lot of screen time getting in conflicts with others, particularly Conroy’s Myrtle Snow and her own son-in-law Hank (Josh Hamilton). Lange gets to do all the classic scene-chewing stuff, from a big emotional breakdown to eating a bunch of random pills and washing them down with booze, but in her expert hands what could be cheesy ends up being very, very touching. The scene with Fiona comforting a grieving mother starts out disturbing as she makes the girl cradle her stillborn baby, then becomes sweet as Fiona’s words to the sobbing girl are a mere stand-in for the things she wishes she could say to her own daughter, then becomes incredibly touching when Fiona gives the sobbing girl the greatest gift possible: a chance to be a mother to a healthy baby. Madame LaLaure gets a few similar moments, and while Kathy Bates is great at milking every drop of goofy fun out of every line she gets, and veers between villain and fool to great effect, she also gets a few really wonderful emotional moments of her own this week. It was as touching as someone could possibly be when stroking the heavily made-up face of a long-dead zombie.

In an episode fulled with some impressive visual craziness from director Jeremy Podeswa, who makes the entire hospital sequence in Fiona’s section look like a German Expressionist film, the touching nature of the honest emotional moments secreted into Jessica Sharzer’s great script land like a left hook to the liver. The show emphasizes its graphic special effects, brilliant zombie design, and impressively stylish violence using some really cool camera work and some top-notch editing (especially everything involving Myrtle this week), and somehow it’s still capable of making me feel bad for a power-mad drug abuser, an immortal racist serial murderer, a shambling abomination of fratboy rapists known as FrankenKyle, and even the tongueless love child of Jame Gumb and Lurch who just wants to be loved and/or dress up dead bodies for tea parties.

I can’t think of another show that can so successfully combine Emmy bait for its lead actress with a trick-or-treater getting ripped apart like the wrapping on a birthday present, yet here we are. By not focusing too much on one particular genre, American Horror Story is able to blemd them all together to create a delicious television jambalaya of laughs, chills, and feels. The end result can vary wildly from week to week, but American Horror Story remains one of the most entertaining things on television.

Sometimes getting what you don’t expect can be more fun than getting what you’ve been hoping for.

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Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Fearful Pranks Ensue, here.

US Correspondent Ron Hogan would gladly watch a cross-over between American Horror Story and The Walking Dead in which Zoe, Michonne, Carol, and Fiona team up to form a zombie-fighting magical Avengers-style megateam. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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