American Horror Story: Coven episode 6 review: The Axeman Cometh

This week's American Horror Story boasts enough weirdness to power an entire season of most supernatural TV shows...

This review contains spoilers.

3.6 The Axeman Cometh

I love the way American Horror Story mines history for inspiration. Murder House tied back to the tale of old Hollywood’s depravity, the dirty little secrets spawned by all that illicit sex and heavy drinking in the squeaky-clean golden days, the Black Dahlia, Sal Mineo’s murder, and all kinds of fun stuff. Asylum brought in a lot of the real-life abuses wrought by mental health facilities, aversion therapy, Nazi war criminals being secreted away in American and given cushy government jobs, and the like. Now, in a history-rich city like New Orleans, American Horror Story‘s cast and crew are making great hay with the collection of strange urban legends, pseudo-mythical figures, and actual terrifying events that took place on the streets and in the swamps of the Big Easy. 

In this case, joining the voodoo queen Marie Laveau, the serial killer Delphine LaLaurie, and the fact that Nicolas Cage used to own the bulk of the city’s real-estate, AHS digs into the brief period between World War I and the Roaring Twenties to uncover the legend of New Orleans’ most famous modern serial killer, the Axeman. He roamed the city killing folks with an axe (hence the catchy name), and on March 13, 1919, he wrote a letter to the newspaper detailing his motivation, with this letter being read either via voice-over or via the witches/suffragettes in the 1919 class of Miss Robichaux’s Academy. In the letter, he tells the good people of New Orleans that he’s a demon sent up from Hell that the police will never catch, and that if they’re not playing jazz music on a certain date at a certain time, they will run the risk of becoming his next victims. 

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As it turns out, no one died that night, though not for lack of trying. The Axeman killed eight people total (and a few after the date of the letter in question, though these are disputed), but the fictional Axeman (played by the brilliant Danny Huston) found his plans thrown into disarray by the talents of the Salem descendents at Miss Robichaux’s. Well, not their talents so much as a Julius Caesar-style knife circle. However, as we’ve learned throughout this show, the dead are never really dead, they just find creative ways to reassert themselves. 

When it comes to needing a good villain of the week, or any sort of stunt character, American Horror Story makes some great casting choices. The second season’s Ian McShane turned what was a good character into a spectacular one thanks to simply being the craziest possible actor you could find for the role. This season, rather than invite McShane back—which would have been AMAZING—they went for a different sort of designated villain in the form of Danny Huston, who has never met a smooth-talking bad guy role that he couldn’t knock out of the park. He’s a little like an evil Anthony Bourdain, and while he’s not as gleefully evil as McShane would have been, there’s a more subtle, charming evil at work.

Of course, he can be very crazy when he wants to, spouting amusing one-liners from Buffy The Vampire Slayer writer Douglas Petrie. He makes great use of the real and the imaginary in this episode, and while the episode itself is pretty short on abject craziness, there’s still a lot of great moments. Queenie using her voodoo doll powers on Spalding, for one, and the way she’s the one who keeps making the pop culture references (Army of Darkness last week, Riff-Raff this week). Even with the lack of Delphine this week, things keep moving and the three witch students make a great team, with Nan getting some great lines again this week. The focus on the A plot involving the Axeman and the return of FrankenKyle were greatly appreciated, even if it still seems like Zoe should have been more concerned about her dead zombie boyfriend this entire time. The similarities between Zoe’s rallying speech and that of 1919’s rabble-rousing witch were amusing; it was a nice nod to the leadership role Zoe is taking since we’ve all assumed she’s going to be the true Supreme by now.

Michael Uppendahl has put together another great-looking episode. This time, he borrows a lot of fun little references to horror films in the past. It’s not the overt shot-stealing from the first season, just references. For example, the Axeman coming up the stairs looks a bit like The Shining, Cordelia stumbling around blind while Axeman is in her room is a bit like Wait Until Dark, Myrtle’s hand emerging from her swampy resting chamber recalls Return of the Living Dead and a million other movies… there are no direct references, just references to specific feelings. There’s also an absolutely spectacular shot in which the camera rotates completely to follow a character into a scene that was just sheer brilliance, and continued good use of Dutch angles and fish eye lenses to make things appropriately disoriented. 

It feels like so much has happened already this season, and we’re not even at the halfway point for this madness. Even a comparatively slower episode like this one is still stuffed full of crazy content, and while it’s not as dizzyingly entertaining as previous weeks, it was still a solid, entertaining hour of television with enough weirdness to power an entire season of most supernatural television programs. Sometimes it’s nice to just hang back and breathe, as best you can on a show like this. It’ll only get crazier from here, and it will be fun to see just how all the dangling plot threads knit together in the weeks to come.

Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Burn, Witch, Burn!, here.

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US Correspondent Ron Hogan is glad to see that the Axeman was able to find a club that still plays jazz at the end of the episode, and he definitely loves to hate the cliffhanger ending. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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