With Halloween just around the corner it is only fitting that American Horror Story returns to our TV screens. After the dark and twisted events of Asylum, season creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have decided to focus on witchcraft this time around.
After watching "Bitchcraft" you get the distinct impression that Murphy and Falchuk wanted to head in a different direction. One that is a little lighter than the previous season. Although there are horror elements presented in this opening episode, it seems more concerned with its more melodramatic moments. This is a great decision as AHS has always flirted, proudly, with its melodrama and it is nice to see it embraced more here. Coven is over the top, funny, hyper-stylized and a little camp.
These elements of Coven allow it to tackle subject matters in a way that no other show can. The gruesome opening moments that position oppression as a key theme to the show are dealt with in such a way that it makes it seem absurd. However this exaggerated and brutal opening segment highlights America's most well known horror story: slavery. It is an ambitious opening that is followed by a title sequence that's imagery is dominated by parallels with the Klan. This proves that a TV show doesn't need to be gravely serious or realistic to be intelligent.
Another clever decision that Murphy and Falchuk realised early on was to give the actors room to breathe. Coven keeps up this tradition as Jessica Lange returns to chew up even more scenery. Lange's Fiona Goode is similar in some respects to her previous characters, but it is hard not to admire her. She is the "Supreme," the most powerful witch of her generation, but she is on the quest to recapture her youth. Her performance is playful as she cuts people apart with some excellent one-liners. She is easily the best element of this episode. But that isn't to say that the rest of the cast do nothing.
Sarah Paulson, Frances Conroy, Evan Peters, Lily Rabe, Denis O'Hare, Jamie Brewer and Taissa Farmiga all return in this season and are on fine form. Farmiga, who was missing from Asylum, is this episodes main focus. She plays Zoe Benson a witch that causes the death of men after they sleep with her. She is our eyes into this world and we discover everything we need to know through her interactions with the people at Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies. We find out that witches moved from Salem to New Orleans and we get the history of the school. We meet her classmates that consist of telekinetic film star Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts who embodies the bitchy teenager role), Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) the human Voodoo doll and Nan (Brewer) the clairvoyant. We are also introduced to Paulson's Cordelia Foxx, who wants to keep witches secret from the public and blend in with society.
If this set up sounds a little familiar then you've also read or seen the X-Men. There are clear similarities between the two concepts even down to the ideological differences between Paulson and Lange's characters. Even Zoe Benson's power is a more sexually extreme version of Rogue's "death-by-touch" power. But these similarities don't really damage the episode as AHS has always been a mish-mash of ideas and influences.
This time around the show introduces a real life monster into the mix. Madame LaLaurie is brought to life in all her vicious glory by a scene stealing Kathy Bates. Bates is excellent, channelling a little bit of Annie Wilkes into her performance. As she meets with Lange in the final moments you can tell that we are all in for a treat once these two are unleashed together.
Narratively "Bitchcraft" is mainly set up that is supported by strong performances. There are clunky moments of exposition, but for the most part the dialogue is slick and polished. The brutality of the flashback sequences are juxtaposed with the lighter tone of the present. Although the events at a party and the subsequent revenge Zoe takes on a hospitalized fratboy rapist are shocking, uncomfortable and violent. But they are not without purpose as they help develop her character further. There is also one major surprise death that keeps things interesting.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon also keeps things interesting with his choice to include a lot of fisheye lens shots and floating camera movements. There is an almost whimsical dreamlike quality to some of the scenes and this only heightens the new lighter tone of the series. Even the soundtrack has changed to fit these new stylistic choices.
So, with only one episode down Coven instantly distances itself from Asylum. Gone are the grimy, dark corridors of Briarcliff. Replaced by the pristine white of a school for witches."Bitchcraft" is an effective opening episode that leaves you wanting more.